CBS defends 4-minute gap of live coverage


For the sake of argument, let's say Connecticut, the nation's top-ranked men's basketball team, and second-ranked Duke do battle in a January, made-for-television scrum. And to move the discussion a bit further, let's say that Elton Brand scores 10 of the Blue Devils' first 14 points on a variety of off-balance jumpers to give Duke a three-point lead in the first four minutes.

Sounds like the start of a great game, right? It was, only from a women's perspective, as then-No. 1 Connecticut played host to second-ranked Tennessee in a distaff clash of the titans. And the best player on the Lady Vols, Chamique Holdsclaw, did, in fact, connect on her first five jumpers, some from difficult angles.

But a goodly number of viewers who tuned into CBS on Sunday at 4 p.m. for the Tennessee-UConn game never saw Holdsclaw's early exploits because the network joined the contest 15 minutes late in real time, with 4: 18 gone from the game clock.

Instead, CBS continued to air post-game reaction from the New York Jets-Jacksonville divisional playoff game, despite the fact that that game had ended at 3: 45, 20 minutes before the scheduled 4: 05 tip-off.

A CBS spokesman strongly defended the network's decision yesterday, saying that the football game's importance, a divisional playoff, demanded that it provide interviews and reaction.

The spokesman also said the network would have acted similarly if the basketball game that followed the playoff had involved men and not women, and noted that CBS sent viewers from the two home markets, Knoxville, Tenn., and Hartford, Conn., to basketball right at 4: 01.

A note of disclosure: I am a voter on the writers and broadcasters women's basketball poll and have been for the past five years. I've covered the sport, including Sunday's game, for 16 years, going back to college, and if you accuse me of being too close to this issue to have perspective, I would probably have to plead guilty as charged.

From a business perspective, it's not hard to understand CBS' logic. The audience level from the football game, particularly as it involved a New York team, was huge, and there were probably many more viewers who would rather have heard people talking about a football game that was over than watch women play basketball. It's a sad concept, and it speaks volumes about what we value in this culture, but it's true.

But, with all that said and acknowledged, the network should have gone to a live event right as it began, no matter what that event was, unless the event preceding it was still in progress, and that wasn't the case.

And the Lady Vols-Huskies game, not only matching the top-rated teams in the land, but the two schools that have won the past four national championships, certainly warranted big-time exposure. With more than 210 members of the media credentialed from organizations like the Los Angeles Times and the "CBS Evening News" and "60 Minutes II," the game got it.

And somebody must have been watching it, because the game did a 3.1 in the national overnights, which was nearly double last year's 1.6 rating, but up significantly from the 1.8 average for the six men's basketball games CBS is airing this year.

Maybe the solution was to keep New York and Jacksonville with football and send the rest of the nation to the basketball game. Or maybe some other outlet, probably ESPN, should take the game in the future, though with a 3.1 rating, CBS will be very reluctant to give the game up next year.

It just shouldn't be so reluctant to show the whole game.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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