CBS's live NCAA selection show on Sunday had most of the ingredients of good basketball theater: suspense, success, failure, mystery, resentment, envy and the fickle finger of Arnie Ferrin's all-powerful NCAA basketball committee. But more than anything else, for the CBS people who staged the show, it had anxiety.
Not until 4:29 p.m. EST, 61 minutes before air time, did Len DeLuca, CBS Sports' director of program acquisitions, get his sweaty hands on a copy of the pairings. "Waiting for the pairings sheet, I got that same kind of sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I used to have while waiting for my test results in school," said DeLuca, who had paced nervously outside Suite 4008 of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, where the NCAA selection committee was sequestered. With the arrival of the sheet, CBS began a high-wire act that it carried off with ease.
DeLuca rushed onto an elevator (his deputy, Teresa Ross, carried another copy of the pairings onto a second elevator that took her down to the street level, where a production truck and its crew waited) and hand-delivered the sheet to CBS's specially constructed studio on the the third floor, 37 floors below. He then dashed to a phone and called in the pairings to the New York studio, where Jim Nantz, Brent Musburger, Billy Packer and James Brown were gathered.
Last year CBS had all of 15 minutes in which to perform this fire drill. In contrast, technicians in Kansas City had aeons of time this year to feed the pairings into a graphics machine and—in a failsafe plan to guard against the machine's failure—to stick Velcro name tags for each team on a huge board behind announcer Tim Brant.
Since its debut in 1982, CBS's half-hour selection show, as well as ESPN's recap that follows it, has developed a cult following among basketball junkies. The CBS program's average rating of 7.2 since 1984 slam-dunks all regular-season college basketball programs, not to mention all other sports shows on this particular weekend. Last year ABC's Pac-10 and Big Eight championship games averaged a pitiful 2.6 against the NCAA pairings presentation.
Why? The phenomenal growth of the tournament for one thing. And controversy for another. The questions that Brent and Billy ask (How come Indiana is a fourth seed? Why does Pitt rate a boost over Syracuse?) on the show stir up resentment. The major reason for the show's popularity, though, may be the country's preoccupation with lists. The pairings show is the ultimate pecking-order vehicle, and, let's face it, basketball fans love it when giant-killer Ohio State gets the shaft while LSU gets picked in spite of 13 losses.
Jim Lampley's arrival at HBO proves that, in the TV business, you can burn your bridges and still come up smiling. Lampley—who will make his HBO debut Sunday night on the Mike Tyson-Tony Tubbs fight broadcast from Tokyo—replaced Barry Tompkins just a week or so after ripping ABC, his former employer, for its coverage of the Winter Olympics.
The difference between Calgary and previous ABC Olympics, Lampley said, was that this time key assistants to executive producer Roone Arledge were no longer around. Arledge "has always been indecisive," Lampley told the Los Angeles Times. Former aides such as Jeff Ruhe (now a TV syndication exec) and Peter Diamond (now NBC's vice-president for Olympic programming) "weren't intimidated by Roone. They weren't afraid to tap him on the shoulder and tell him what to do next."
Lampley also zinged ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson, who had a falling-out with Lampley last summer. He said that Swanson "created an atmosphere of insecurity," miscast Keith Jackson as a studio host, and made the awful mistake of assigning Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford to the late-night wrap-up.
Coming from Lampley, the remarks amounted to a cheap shot, and he later said that he regretted making them. But he didn't issue a retraction. Moral: To the snipers belong the spoils. Lampley signed an HBO deal that will bring his total pay from KCBS in Los Angeles, CBS Sports, CBS News and HBO to more than $1 million a year.