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Running the counter play; Television: Defense is the name of the game and non-football fans are the goal.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A lone warrior, Ben Clark plows his way through the pack of towering behemoths. His arms pump like pistons. His legs are a blur. Rumbling, bumbling, stumbling, recovering, he blasts forward. Finally, triumph is his.

The television cameras catch it all -- the beads of sweat, the tortured brow, the glory. Clark's image is beamed to living rooms across the country, to devoted fans cheering from couches.

The sandy-haired dynamo from Richmond, Ind., is, after all, U.S. Grand Master National Champion.

Of jump-rope jumping.

Five million people watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" nationally on PBS every weekend -- 1 p.m. Sunday on Maryland Public Television -- according to Margaret Heron, syndication manager for The Welk Group in Santa Monica, Calif. "We're the most popular show on public television with people over 55," she says gaily.

There hasn't been a new episode of Welk's show since ABC canceled it in 1971. Welk died in 1992. "Lawrence had a wonderful band, wonderful dancers," Heron says. "It's good, wholesome family entertainment.

If you thought football owned the weekend, consider: A food infomercial. A women's movie. The U.S. Amateur Jump Roping Competition. Lawrence Welk.

There are real, live Americans who are not football fans. Television networks are trying to make sure they broadcast shows these non-fans will find appealing.

ABC's "Monday Night Football" often ranks in the top five prime-time shows of the week. On Sept. 27, 18.3 million people watched the San Francisco 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals, 24-10. In comparison, on a recent Sunday afternoon, as 10.7 million people watched NFL football on CBS, 3.3 million watched a NASCAR Winston Cup race on TNN, and 318,000 watched the 1999 Fitness Universe Pageant on ESPN.

Click. Two women and a man dressed in black and glittery gold Lycra spring about a stage doing a routine to techno music that is part aerobics, part gymnastics and part Vegas showgirl. They bounce. They throw their ankles behind their ears. They smile through gritted teeth.

Click. A bride-to-be slides a lacy white garter up her thigh as a young woman narrates: "Mom was practically a virgin. Dad was the only man she ever made love to."

The size of the audience is not as important as its composition, says Stephen A. Greyser, a professor of consumer marketing at Harvard. "The idea is that when there is major programming of a definable type -- e.g. sports -- on several stations, one competes with it by having something very different that would attract a different kind of demographics. Even if the size of the audience is moderate, there would be advertisers who would find that desirable."

"These programs are for the audience who is not going to be inclined to watch the NFL," agrees Ed Markey, a spokesman for NBC, which broadcast pro football for 33 years until last year. NBC now airs "The Gravity Games," which features such events as skateboarding, wakeboarding and street luge, on Sunday afternoons opposite the NFL. "We are not trying to take on football," he says. "We are just trying to appeal to young viewers who are not interested in the NFL."

The networks have been counterprogramming since the 1940s -- airing nature shows opposite police shows, variety shows opposite dramas and boxing during the Academy Awards. Longtime NBC programming executive Paul Klein believed that people look at a TV schedule and decide to watch the "least objectionable" program on the air.

Good, bad, ugly

If one has to watch something, sometimes anything will do.

Which makes for some really good bad television on a Sunday afternoon.

Click. Olga Stonehoker, 78, grows teary as she testifies about her love for frying pork chops on the George Foreman Grill. "I don't think I could find a grill that works like that anywhere else."

Click. Two NASCAR announcers scream to be heard above the roar of cars grinding out 3,100 rpm in second gear. They fail.

What makes counterprogramming different from regular programming is that it causes the networks to air shows they might never put on otherwise. This isn't about Lifetime airing "Working Girl" and "Baby Boom." This is about ESPN, that bastion of bats, pucks and balls, showing cheerleading and junior high dance-team championships and aerobic/bodybuilding/beauty pageants. The cable sports network does counterprogramming during the Big Game better than just about anyone else.

"It makes no sense for ESPN to air arena football opposite 'Monday Night Football,' " says Ron Semia, ESPN's vice president of programming. "Nobody would watch it. We know there are a lot of people who don't want to watch 'Monday Night Football,' and we want to serve them on a Monday night."

Much of ESPN's counterprogramming -- like the Miss Fitness America Pageant -- is taped. The jump-rope championship, aired for the first time on the last Sunday of September, was taped in June. Last year's championship aired five times.

"People are entertained by watching these shows anytime," Semia says. "It doesn't matter if you know the outcome."

As quick as ESPN is to admit to counterprogramming, MPT is quick to distance itself from the practice. "I'd love to say I'm counterprogramming football, but I'm not," said Zev Shoubin, MPT's vice president of programming. "Our programming on Sunday afternoon is geared to an audience who is 50 and older and very heavily female-oriented -- cooking shows, Lawrence Welk, 'Antiques Roadshow.' We don't change our programming quarterly depending on sports programming."

Click. A Hollywood hanger-on dishes about Oprah's new Asian-style house on the Jersey shore, while another drops the bombshell that Ricky Martin wants to move into a $2.5 million home that once belonged to -- gasp -- Kevin Bacon.

Click. A woman screams at her husband as they hurtle down a rain-slicked road in the dark. "If you don't like the way I drive, why don't you drive?" he yells just before pushing her out of the racing car.

Sports fans aren't like other TV viewers. They're more faithful, more passionate. When the drama runs high, so too does their anxiety, says Daniel Wann, associate professor of psychology at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

"There's an amazing similarity between the fans and the players," says Wann, who is writing a textbook on sports fans. "As the players are getting more anxious, so too are the fans. The team's losses are felt as their losses."

Wann isn't just an impartial observer; he's a die-hard fan. "I get this stuff when I look in the mirror," he jokes.

Why bother?

It's this fierce love of the game that leads some networks to recognize that sometimes there is no use fighting with the big guys.

During football season, ESPN airs a two-hour pre-game show called "Monday Night Countdown." One night, host Chris Berman signed off by telling viewers to switch the channel, saying, "Bye. Enjoy the game."

The next thing you knew, ESPN was airing billiards.

True, ABC and ESPN are both owned by the Walt Disney Co., but it did seem as though ESPN wasn't even trying to hold on to its Monday night viewers.

Not that it matters to NFL fans. In general, they have no idea what airs opposite football.

"I think golf is on," Mark Goetz, of Wilmington, Del., guessed as he sat at Baltimore's ESPN Zone bar with two friends one Sunday waiting for the Ravens-Falcons game.

"Probably soccer, too," Goetz's friend, Vince Fiorelli, added. His voice oozed distaste.

"Is anything else on during football?" Kevin Murray asked his two friends. He was serious.

Ben Clark knows there is. And after 10 years of jumping rope, of inventing and perfecting such moves as the Double Frog Double Under, the Roundoff Back Twist and the Double Full Twist, not to mention playing a little football here and there, he knows which sport is harder.

"When you play football you have to have incredible balance, a low center of gravity and a lot of strength," says Clark, 22, a graduate student in fine arts at Wichita State University. "Now take that and add flips and things."

Click.

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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