NBC has decided that the Los Angeles...


NBC has decided that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls are now the ready-for-prime-time players as it has moved the start of Sunday's third game of the best-of-seven NBA finals to 7 p.m., causing yet another round of last-minute schedule juggling.

Why NBC didn't figure this out a year ago when it signed the standard zillion dollar contract to get the NBA is a mystery. But then all of the basketball playoff scheduling by NBC and the NBA has been playing somewhere between farce and tragedy.

As Baltimore basketball fans are painfully aware, the games are seen here on Channel 2 (WMAR). This is also the station that carries the Orioles, which means that several times during the playoffs sports fans had to watch a diamond instead of a court, a fastball instead of a dribble.

The WMAR people recite a dirge every time such conflicts are brought up. "The baseball schedule is made up far in advance . . . blah, blah, blah." Funny, though, how they can adjust for rain-outs.

Actually this is something of a rock and a hard place situation. Seeking as much revenue as possible -- the name of the game in corporate sports America -- the Orioles have sold virtually every game to either WMAR or Home Team Sports.

If WMAR drops a game for any reason, even rain, there are hardly any left to pick up later in the season, except maybe in late September when WMAR wants to carry NBC's new fall schedule.

(All of which is just one more argument for why the Orioles should be on an independent station, preferably Channel 54 (WNUV) because Channel 45 (WBFF) would run into problems with Fox programming. But that's a subject for another day.)

The basketball scheduling problem reached its zenith last Sunday when Channel 2 did not carry the first game of the dream matchup Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson Bulls-Lakers final. Not because of an Orioles game, but because it was committed to the Children's Miracle Network telethon.

The station has been deluged with phone calls over that decision. Its general manager, Arnie Kleiner, even made it the subject of his on-air editorial last night.

Listen, as someone who used to watch the warm-up dunk contests between Gus Johnson and Fred Carter back when the Arena was the Civic Center and the Bullets were in Baltimore; indeed, as someone who saw Julius Erving play for the Virginia Squires, I claim a pretty low number membership card in the pro basketball fan club.

But to the blinders-on, "I want my NBA" types who have been crying and screaming over the phone to Channel 2, I say tough bananas. It would be one thing if WMAR had failed to carry the game so it could pick up a little revenue from a Charles Bronson film festival, or even if it was some junky telethon that called for almost no commitment from the station, a cheap attempt to keep the FCC at bay at license renewal time.

But this Children's Network Telethon is one of the good ones. The money raised stays in the community, going to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Moreover, when Channel 2 committed to it for this year, NBC assured the station that the NBA finals would start on Wednesday night. Channel 2 kept clear of a lucrative Orioles series at Toronto to avoid conflict with the NBA. When preliminary rounds ran short, the series start moved earlier, leading to the conflict with the telethon.

Hey, sticking with the telethon was a no-brainer, the same decision made, by the way, in a couple of other top-25 markets. Who would you rather serve, the sick kids at Hopkins or the spoiled NBA fans who think the world owes them access to every game?

Some argue that Channel 2 should have showed the game, dropped the pre-, post- and halftime shows and run the telethon number during the broadcast. But Channel 2 gets the bulk of its money -- it raised $1.5 million in pledges this year -- when its local personalities are on asking for donations. It's hard to see NBA fans picking up the phone and pledging during a break in the action. Indeed, as one WMAR executive noted, "They'd probably just call up and tell us to take the number off the screen because it was blocking the score."

If there is a villain in this, it's the independent stations in town who didn't have the gumption to tear up their own schedules and carry the game. Even with little time to promote it, the NBA fans would have found it. And it would have been a perfect platform for Channel 45 to promote its news, which debuted the next night.

Bottom line is this -- if the money raised by the telethon extends one kid's life one day, it was worth missing that game. If you can't understand that, then you're the one with the problem, not Channel 2.

Sorry, but the telethon was more important

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