During the golden age, viewers perceived of an event as being major simply because it appeared on a network. Not anymore. Quick now, when was the last time you cleared time to watch the Mercedes Horse Jumping Championships (CBS)? Or the Pizza Hut All-Star Softball Classic (NBC)? Or the McDonald's High School All-American Basketball Game (ABC)? "We used to be governed by our feelings of what people would be interested in watching," says CBS sports programming vice-president Peter Tortorici. "Now you put aside your instincts if the choice is between an event that's sponsored and one that isn't."
Item: NBC jettisoned the Pepsi Invitational track meet in 1985 when Pepsi refused to buy airtime. NBC also canceled the Bruce Jenner track meet in '85 because it wasn't sponsor-funded. Another NBC event that went dark is the World Bobsled Championships, a staple on Sports World from 1983 through 1985. What do the networks show in their place? Made-for-TV events like the Subaru NFL's Fastest Man competition, which aired this August.
Item: Last winter CBS didn't cover the World Speed Skating Championships, even though the network owned the rights. The event was held in Heerenveen, the Netherlands. "They didn't want to pay to send a crew out," says George Howie, president of the U.S. International Speed Skating Association. Europe was too far to go for taped footage, which would have constituted only one segment of an anthology show.
Item: CBS once was a showcase for World Cup skiing, airing five events plus highlights in 1984. It has not televised a downhill competition in two years and has no plans to carry any this season. NBC, which televised two downhills in 1985, has broadcast none since then. ABC, which included some low-rights-fee world championship skiing events on Wide World of Sports last winter, is down to two World Cup shows. Without a sponsor that will guarantee the purchase of airtime, World Cup skiing is about to fall off the chair lift.
As unfunded second-tier events leave the networks, only to be replaced by made-for-TV, sponsor-supported specials like Minolta Presents The Stakes Game tennis, which ABC will carry Nov. 28-29, the disappearance of the anthology shows could be just around the next commercial. Says former CBS and ABC exec Barry Frank, senior group vice-president of Trans World International: "CBS has cut back so far that it almost doesn't have an anthology series anymore. It wouldn't surprise me if it did away with it [Sports Saturday/Sunday] entirely. ABC preempts Wide World a lot. ABC never would have done that three, four, five years ago. Wide World was a rock. Now if you bring ABC a sponsored tennis event that's going to get a 2 rating, who cares? It's 'Let's take the money and run.' "
The prophets of doom might still be proved wrong if advertising revenues continue to improve. ABC's Iger says Monday Night Football was able to sell all of its commercial time at "a price that's palatable." (Of course, if ratings suffer during the strike, advertisers will get rebates.) Monday Night's improved sales, which Iger attributes to a more attractive schedule and the elimination of ABC's four odd-night games, has had a domino effect, benefiting NFL sales on CBS and NBC as well as college football on CBS and ABC.
So, the bottom hasn't fallen out of TV sports yet after all. But you wouldn't know it from what you see on the tube.
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