I was probably the last to know; I usually am. I'd never heard of Channel 56 until last week when the stylistic Michael Wilbon casually mentioned to me that his plans for the evening were to go home and watch approximately 19,000 college basketball games on TV. Knowing he lived in the city and did not have cable, I wondered how he was going to do that, and he told me about 56.
Channel 56 is the Baskin-Robbins of college basketball. If it's not on the menu, just ask.
You: What games are you showing?
Them: Who do you want to see?
You: What time does it start?
Them: When can you be there?
I have heard a lot of 56 in the last few days. I haven't actually seen 56 yet. I've tried, but my reception hasn't been as sharp as I might have liked. You've heard of snow? On my set 56 looks like it's coming from K-2. I always thought basketball was five-on-five, but I counted 22 bodies on my screen in a recent game; when a foul was called, I assumed it was for roughing the kicker.
But if you can get it clearly, then whatever else you thought of doing this Saturday, forget it. Whatever plans you made, cancel them. It's imperative that you stay home and watch 56. As Crazy Eddie would say, "Our schedule is INSANE!" Starting at 7 in the morning, 56 is planning on televising the following games: the SEC semifinals and a WAC semifinal on tape, the Metro semifinals live, the WAC final live, Notre Dame-Dayton on tape, a Big Ten or a Pac-10 game (or maybe both) live, the MAC final live, AND!!!, on tape, the Mid-Continent final, but only if Cleveland State gets to the final. (I certainly agree with that, don't you? Cleveland State is, after all, Cleveland State, but if some other teams in the Mid-Continent, like Valparaiso, Wisconsin-Green Bay, or Southwest Missouri State get there, who cares, right?) This TV schedule is subject to change, of course. They might add more games.
The person responsible for this is 37-year-old Mike Baker, who can be seen during timeouts asking for money. (Yes, money. "The Big 56," as Baker likes to call it, is a public TV station. No commercials allowed. This season 56 should show more than 125 college games. The cost in acquisition and transmission will be about $150,000. Where do you think it gets the pledge money for these games, from Miller Lite?) Three years ago, in his continuing effort to raise funds for the station, Baker dared to go into sports more deeply than any public station had gone before. "This is the nation's first public superstation," he declared. Where else, as Norman Chad has pointed out, can you see "More Magic Methods of Oil Painting," a Korean language show, and Davidson vs. UT-Chattanooga without changing channels?
In order to better serve the community, 56 solicits viewer responses as to which teams to show (the Big East and ACC are largely unavailable), sort of like all-request radio. The most popular teams are Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Michigan and Kansas. The wide geographic disparity is partially explained by recognizing that Washington is a magnet attracting people from all over the country. It may be the only city in the East where a Cal-Oregon game would reach an audience other than Dick Vitale and the Brothers Narcoleptic.
There is, unfortunately, a downside to all this college basketball. For the dangerously addicted there is the threat of what physicians call The Ignatowski Syndrome, a condition caused by visual overload resulting in a kind of stream-of-consciousness babble. Baker defends his 125-game schedule, saying that it "may be overwhelming, but it's not insane." He is optimistic that "people are adult enough to know when enough is enough." (Baker himself is in the studio for each game, drinking enough coffee to float a battleship; if they ever go to decaf at 56, he's in serious trouble.) Not only has 56 eliminated sleep for a percentage of its audience, it also has eliminated the concept of sleepers. If you can see Cleveland State on 56, who can't you see, Faber College? (Isn't Faber still on double secret probation?)
You should be advised, though, that watching games on 56 is not like watching games on commercial stations. Because 56 can't show any commercials, every time there's a break in the game, 56 is back on the air. During the last two minutes when coaches often call time after every basket, Baker can be on the air asking for money more often than a preppie with a Ralph Lauren habit. So much space to fill, so little to fill with. Baker and Bob Rodwell, a usual guest commentator, sometimes can do little but repeat the pitch over and over. (Yes, that's a nice shirt they give away with a $56 pledge, but watching a knit shirt isn't my idea of compelling television.)
Still, they have seen a lot of basketball this season, certainly more than I. (Rodwell can name the teams in the MAC; all I know about the MAC wouldn't fill a sesame seed bun.) So, to see how much they've learned after all these games, here are their Final Fours. Baker: Kansas, Memphis State, North Carolina and Michigan. Rodwell: Kansas, Memphis State, Georgia Tech and Duke. Both pick Kansas to win the championship. I pledge $56 if it does.