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Stern blocks shots at NBA; Commissioner finds positives in TV ratings, denies pro-Carter bias


NEW YORK -- The public and the media may be chattering over the downward trend of the NBA's television ratings, the absence of a dominant figure a la Michael Jordan and about placing microphones on coaches, but the league's commissioner is inclined to take a more "What, me worry?" view of things.

Speaking following a seminar on the perspective of sports commissioners on radio and television Monday night, NBA commissioner David J. Stern said the drop in television ratings -- a fall of more than 20 percent on cable -- was expected, but as part of an extended fallout from last year's lockout.

"The reality is we knew we were going to take a pretty big hit this year," Stern said at the Museum of Television and Radio. "We actually thought the first part of that hit was going to come last year during the regular season. But it didn't, because, I think, the fans were starved for games, and they came out in the shortened season [in numbers] higher than we thought they would.

"Now, we've had two years of hits in the regular season, but the playoffs are going to be fine."

Indeed, the returns on the first weekend of the playoffs gave Stern hope. Nielsen overnight ratings for Sunday's NBC tripleheader were up 7 percent from the first weekend of the 1999 playoffs, a feat that is even more interesting when one considers that Easter Sunday is traditionally one of the poorer viewing days of the year.

Ratings for the Saturday tripleheader were down 4 percent from the corresponding Saturday last year, a fact NBC attributed in part to news coverage of the Elian Gonzalez story. Overall, however, the ratings stayed even with last year's first weekend of the playoffs.

"It's never as bad as it seems or as good as it seems. It's better to be up than to be down, and obviously, we're pleased," said Stern. "Do we listen for them [ratings] on Monday morning? Sure, and is it better when someone tells you that all three games are up over last year as opposed to down 20 percent? Of course. It makes life more enjoyable."

Stern said some of the NBA ratings' shortfall was self-inflicted, as the league and NBC, in the second year of a four-year pact, scheduled a number of games in prime time on Saturdays, a time, the commissioner said, that was unfamiliar to many of its fans.

Recently, a Saturday game between Utah and San Antonio received a 2.4 overnight national rating, a number that would normally spell cancellation for an entertainment program airing at that time.

However, the two parties have agreed to "dramatically" reduce the number of Saturday night telecasts next season, Stern said, in large part because NBC will carry games from the new Extreme Football League at that time.

Stern, who shared the dais Monday with his counterparts from baseball (Bud Selig), football (Paul Tagliabue) and hockey (Gary Bettman), scoffed at the notion that the NBA needs a singular figure, a la Toronto forward Vince Carter, to boost its TV ratings.

There has been supposition in some media corners that the league engineered its first-round series to try to get maximum exposures for Carter, who scored 51 in his first NBC-televised game earlier this year, an idea Stern flatly rejected.

"That's a figment of the media's imagination," said Stern. "The only person who can lead, in that respect, is the person whose team wins. The notion that we're scheduling one particular thing so that Vince Carter can be on, or that the series was anything other than the schedule we made three years ago when we made the deal, is bizarre, but nobody checks.

"The reality is that it's Vince, it's Kobe [Bryant], it's Kevin Garnett, it's Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal], it's Allen Iverson, it's Tim Duncan, it's anyone who is going to step up and lead their team to the championship or at least to good runs. Michael wasn't Michael when Isiah [Thomas] and [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] were winning championships. But when Michael began winning championships, he was the Michael we came to know and revere because he made all the players around him better."

Stern took blame for the considerable criticism the NBA received for a policy it attempted to enact earlier this season where its coaches would wear wireless microphones in order for television viewers and Internet users to hear edited, tape-delayed comments.

The league threatened a $100,000 fine to teams if their coaches declined to wear the microphones. When Seattle coach Paul Westphal and Toronto coach Butch Carter refused to wear the mikes, the resulting uproar forced the league to rescind the fines.

"To me, we're going to look back in five years and laugh at the issue," said Stern. "You're basically going to think that it was quite quaint that in the year 2000 we had an argument over whether a tape-delayed, five-second sound bite from a boom [microphone] in a huddle was a major threat to democracy as we know it.

"This one will go into the primer of how not to deal with something and under chapter one will be my picture."

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