SI Vault
William Taaffe
February 11, 1985
It was a spectacular early morning in the desert when CBS executive Neal Pilson first expounded the Gospel According To Pilson. He spoke at a press conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Across from him was a wall of windows that looked out onto sun-dappled lawns. But his speech that morning, June 8, 1984, was anything but serene. What he told the assembled group of TV journalists was that the industry is in some difficulty and that he was about to propose a brave—and seemingly gloomy—new world.
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February 11, 1985

A Decline In Tv Ratings Has Major Implications For The Sports World

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There are other considerations. The networks feel they have reached their limit on the number of hours of sports they can air and the number of commercials they can plug in. Wall Street investment houses, whose friendship the networks covet, are growing wary of broadcast companies whose costs have been rising at more than 10% annually.

So, welcome to the Big Squeeze. "The spiral is going to come to an end, and if the players don't realize it, they're going to find out the hard way," Pilson says. "We have a very real concern that major sports packages will build their economic model for the future on ever-increasing rights fees. We don't want anyone in the sports business to wake up one morning and find out that's not the case."

Thus far, there's been one major test of Pilson's credo: college football. When the Supreme Court removed the NCAA's TV controls for this past season, the number of college games on the tube proliferated like soap operas. More viewers flipped on the set, but individual ratings plummeted. Naturally, rights payments did, too. Down, down they went, until they reached half of what they were the year before. CBS and ABC were delighted. They had lost $3.5 million each on college football in '83, but now were turning a profit because of the lowered rights fees, and they were no longer required by NCAA contract to provide regional telecasts. Advertisers loved the discounted rates. Only the colleges suffered.

The networks are like your mother. She found a dinner you liked to eat and fixed so much of it you got sick.
head coach, Pittsburgh Steelers

I used to watch every game on the networks. Then I got cable last September and began watching football on ESPN and some of the other cable outlets. After a few weeks of solid football weekends, I began to feel like Td swallowed a football. One game was right into another until I couldn't even tell which game I was watching. My wife would ask me who's playing and I couldn't tell her sometimes.
advertiser, Orange, Ohio

Just what are we seeing in the ratings decline? For one thing, we're seeing the proof of what should be called the Nielsen Law of TV Dynamics: the more hours, the lower the ratings.

To a certain extent, the networks themselves brought about the decline. According to Paul Kagan Associates, a cable-and network-TV research firm, the networks increased their sports programming from 979 hours in '73 to 1,596 hours in '83. Curiously, it was Pilson's own company, CBS, which led the charge, jacking up its hours from 270 to 585. ( NBC's hours went from 358 to 526, ABC's from 352 to 485.) The increases have been especially large the last two years, rising 11% in '83 and another 20% in '84. These hours, remember, are only network hours. Never mind about the eye-popping increases racked up by each of the following: independent stations; superstations such as WTBS in Atlanta and WGN in Chicago; cable networks such as ESPN and USA; and scores of pay-TV services, from giants such as HBO to the fledgling Sports Time system in the Midwest.

Because of last season's college football explosion, there were as many as 15 college or pro games available in the San Francisco Bay area each weekend. Was it any wonder that Ed Phelan, a retired Bay Area delicatessen man, got tired? "I started the season watching them all," he says. "After a while there was a sameness, a sense of shapes and figures swimming before my eyes."

Despite the ailing ratings numbers, the slide didn't become alarming until the '83-84 college basketball season. A number of TV syndicators, those independent businessmen who buy up TV rights to leagues and then patch together their own networks, struck multimillion-dollar deals with college conferences. The result was a smorgasbord for the viewer. But something was wrong. Because of the glut, ads were going begging. Some syndicators were forced to return to the colleges and admit that they'd made a terrible mistake, that the money wasn't there, that the contracts had to be rewritten.

Of course, it's not all doomsday. A wise man once said that if most of heaven is covered with cloud, save a few small chinks of blue, make much of the blue. Here goes:

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