In one of those "I never thought that would happen" deals, CBS yesterday announced that it will carry a NASCAR Winston Cup race in prime time next summer, marking the first time that an auto race of any type will be shown on an over-the-air network in that time slot.
In what CBS Sports President Sean McManus called a "real breakthrough," one of the few times that a network executive's words aren't a piece of hyperbole, CBS will telecast the Pepsi 400 race on Saturday, July 4, at 8 p.m., with a plan to make this an annual event.
"CBS is not looking at this as a one-time event. We think this will be a fixture in prime-time on CBS for decades to come. Hopefully, for as long as we're around, this will be a part of the CBS landscape," McManus said.
It's not as if auto racing, and, in particular, the stock car series, haven't become more popular in recent years, both in terms of attendance and television ratings.
Indeed, this year's Daytona 500 -- whose Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway will play host to next July's race -- did an 8.6 rating last February, making it the second-highest daytime event on CBS this year, trailing only the final round of the Masters. The four Winston Cup races that aired on CBS this year averaged a 6.2 rating, 2 percent higher than last year.
But the sport's seeming regional appeal made it a very unlikely candidate for prime-time exposure, outside cable channels like ESPN or The Nashville Network, where nighttime racing is a staple.
"The success of NASCAR has really blown us away," McManus said on a conference call yesterday. "The only racing that would be successful in prime-time on the network would be Winston Cup. What goes in prime-time has a direct relationship between ratings and ad sales. No other sport demonstrated that like Winston Cup."
Of course, racing fans will have to temper their exuberance. For instance, it's highly unlikely, bordering on just about impossible that you'll see the Daytona 500, the most popular race of the year which takes place in February, airing in prime-time, for a couple of reasons.
The first is that February is a sweeps month, where networks present their most provocative programming in an attempt to spike the ratings so that their affiliates can charge higher advertising rates. An 8.6 rating is solid for a Sunday afternoon, but not for a prime-time sweeps night.
Also, viewership on Sunday nights is the highest of the week across the board, and the Daytona rating this year would be about half of what the usual CBS Sunday night lineup gets.
Still, occasional prime-time races in the summer, when the landscape is filled with reruns, could be interesting.
"After the Pepsi [race], we'll see how successful it's going to be. I think it's going to be very, very successful," McManus said.
CBS and ESPN have effectively swapped college basketball analysts, with former Indiana Pacer Clark Kellogg coming aboard full time with CBS to work both in the studio and on the court.
Meanwhile, ESPN has welcomed Quinn Buckner, who was there from 1986 to 1989, back into the fold. Buckner, who had a brief stint as coach of the Dallas Mavericks and was a member of the 1976 undefeated Indiana Hoosiers team, will work tonight's Alabama-Birmingham vs. Indiana game on ESPN2, as well as make weekly appearances in the ESPN studios. Buckner also will be the studio analyst on ESPN2's "College Hoops 2Night," which debuts in January.
Also, ESPN announced that former Dallas guard Rolando Blackman has joined the analyst ranks and that it has pried former NBC director Brian Sherriffe to become the coordinating producer for men's and women's college basketball, as well as the WNBA.
Clearing the record
In Tuesday's "Media Watch," the item on Channel 2's telecast of next year's "Battle of Baltimore" college basketball tournament should have made mention of the fact that the station has aired daylong coverage of the Preakness for the past three years.
Also, one of ESPN's CableAce winners was omitted. The channel's coverage of last April's Jackie Robinson tribute game between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers was honored as the outstanding special events program.
Milton Kent can be via E-mail at MDKENT2ol.com.
Here's a list of the 10 most watched sporting events in Baltimore last weekend:
Event, Day, Ch., R/S
Ravens-Eagles, Sun., 45, 12.4/25
Bills-Dolphins, Mon., 2, 8.1/14
Figure skating, Sat., 11, 5.7/14
Jets-Bears, Sun., 11, 5.5/9
Figure skating, Sun., 2, 5.1/9
N. Dame-LSU, Sat., 13, 2.4/6
Mich.-Wisc., Sat., 2, 2.0/5
Ravens Report, Sat., 45, 1.5/3
Soccer, Sun., 2, 1.2/2
Golf, Sun., 13, 1.1/2
Pub Date: 11/20/97