Few clear-cut super powers have either survived or emerged from the college football season about to end, and that goes for the networks, too.
That doesn't mean nice things haven't happened on Saturday afternoon television this autumn, the first autumn in 16 years that college games could be found somewhere other than on ABC -- namely CBS and (to a greatly lesser extent) on WTBS, Ted Turner's cable superstation.
For one thing, we saw more games (this year's network total will be 28, compared to last year's 23). Before and during those games, we saw more highlights from the rest of the country. After those games, for eight Sundays, we saw our families.
Surprisingly, however, the NFL players' strike did little to improve the ratings of televised college football. On Nov. 13, to take a typical recent week, CBS' noon coverage of Clemson at Maryland drew a 10.4 rating, and ABC scored a 12.5 with its Penn State-Notre Dame game at 3:30 p.m. Ratings for the ABC doubleheader (Alabama-Penn State and Arkansas-Texas A & M) a year earlier were 11.9 and 12.0, respectively. Strike or no strike, that's pretty much the way it's gone this year on Saturday afternoons.
The ratings weren't helped by a season that saw traditional powerhouses collapse left and right, leading the networks to inglorious Saturdays like this one coming up, when 6-3-1 Notre Dame meets 7-3 Southern Cal, and Alabama meets Auburn primarily to determine which team can lose four games first. Better to tune in this afternoon, when CBS will carry Oklahoma-Nebraska, and ABC brings us Pittsburgh-Penn State.
On to the trophies.
Game coverage. ABC, recognized around the world as a leader in sports self-promotion, doesn't need any self-promotion here. The literate, semicornpone presence of Keith Jackson, ABC's No. 1 college football play-by-play announcer, speaks for itself -- and gives ABC a definite edge.
Jackson announces a game colorfully and sparingly, despite his occasional excursions into chumminess (he unfailingly follows highlight reports from Jim Lampley with "Thank you, Jimmy," sideline reports from the incongrously low-key Anne Simon with "Thank you, Annie," etc.). His expert analyst, Frank Broyles, is equally consistent, even if he occasionally directs your attention "to th' rot of your screen," where Penn State can be seen "disgahzin' (disguising, I think) their defense."
CBS' Lindsey Nelson, who returned this season to college coverage after more than a decade away from it, is less forgiving of bad play than either Jackson or Coach Frank, but has an annoying voice and a penchant for replacing play-by-play announcing with shouted nicknames and/or buzzwords. ("The Boomer!" he said during a recent game, about a hundred times, possibly referring to Maryland quarterback Esiason.)
Gary Bender, who shares the No. 1 CBS announcing spot with Nelson, is much easier to listen to, but every game Bender describes is potentially the game of the century. CBS color commentator Pat Haden, more relaxed with Bender than with Nelson, is the nicest surprise of CBS' coverage, and could be the best of the lot if he would just a) slow down and b) stop shouting.
Pregame shows. CBS gets the edge this season -- its first since the early '60s, mind you--for pregame and halftime programming. The best thing CBS has going for it is Brent Musburger, the sports anchor/managing editor who lives comfortably in Connecticut during the week and just as comfortably in your living room on weekends.
With "NCAA Today," Executive Producer Ted Shaker took swift and effective advantage of the Musburger machine already operating on Sunday afternoons as "NFL Today," pacing its around-the-country highlights and scores with frequent features by reporter Pat O'Brien and others, and with corny (also honest and relevant) comment from cohost Ara Parsegian.
Despite the addition of Beano Cook to its beige-on-beige team of Jack Whitaker and Jim Lampley, ABC's "NCAA Football" studio show has looked incomplete in comparison. After Lampley spews scores and Whitaker attempts with varying success to hit it off with Cook, an ordinarily outspoken guy who comes across as if he's wearing an ABC straitjacket instead of an ABC blazer, "NCAA Football" still goes right back to the game you're seeing (or about to see) to hear the band. Dum di dum dum.
Some might criticize CBS for taking a comparatively cold, "pro" tone to good old warm, well-meaning college football. Before you call New York to complain, though, you ought to remember the cold, pro tone college football itself has been taking recently, as evidenced by ever-increasing NCAA recruiting sanctions and ever-ambitious plans by athletic directors to make Big Television Money, with or without the NCAA.