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Cosell on football: "People who work for me, who've been in the sports business all their lives, say they can't watch it anymore, that the game is a bore, that it's a stereotype. The plethora of football games on the air has deleteriously affected the professional sport." (For us common folk, this means "overexposure has hurt the NFL.")
Football glut is one of those things that's self-evident; it's like eating too much over the holidays. "I'm sure the USFL [whose presence has meant that we've had football without a break now since August 1982] has affected our ratings some," says Houston Oiler quarterback Warren Moon. "I think people are just kind of footballed out by the time we come along." And it's not just football, of course. According to BBDO, the program category with the largest number of network telecasts in the last five years was weekend anthology shows. Anthologies ranked second to football in the number of network hours, ahead of both baseball and college basketball.
Ken Schanzer, executive vice-president of NBC Sports, is perhaps the leading advocate of the glut theory. The greater the number of games, he says, the less likely it is a fringe viewer will tune in to any one of them. "You may have greater interest on the part of those who watch, but what you're stepping on is the last pieces of your rating—somebody who will turn it on if it's not available elsewhere but may not turn it on if it's ever-present."
Here's some hard evidence in favor of the glut theory: The only major sport with reduced exposure on the networks in the last five years, the NBA, suddenly went up in the ratings (from an average of 6.2 in '80 to 7.6 in '83; it declined to 7.2 last year).
As far as Steve Leff is concerned, the vast number of options available to cable viewers is the culprit. Leff is executive vice-president and media director for Backer & Spielvogel, which has the Miller Beer account. "You'd have to be a piece of wood not to realize that if there are more choices, to some degree people are going to exercise that freedom of choice," he says. "The viewer now has 30 choices as opposed to three."
It used to be that the networks paid the freight but had all the viewers. Now a lot of the viewers are tuning in elsewhere. The trend showed up clearly in a Nielsen survey last November. The network affiliates' share (the percentage of TV sets actually in use) went down 4% for all TV viewing in 1984. The big gainers were cable-originated services, such as ESPN and USA, and the superstations.
Viewing alternatives include the video recorder. No one knows how many Monday Night Football fans, say, have been lost to the VCR, but rest assured this gadget eats away at sports ratings. Why watch just another game when you can pop in, say. Animal House? Dr. Raymond Kitziger, an orthopedic surgeon in New Orleans, says, "I consider myself a big football fan. However, I'd rather see Casablanca for the 32nd time than watch Cincinnati play Houston. I'd rather hear Bogart tell Bergman, 'The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill o' beans in this crazy world' than listen to a play-by-play man say it's third-and-long."
Evidence in favor of the viewing alternatives theory? Major league baseball, which prohibited its teams from putting games on independent stations, superstations or pay-TV outlets on Saturday afternoons last season, thereby giving NBC's Game of the Week exclusivity in its time frame, came back from a 5.8 in '83 to a 6.4 last season.
THE MYSTIQUE FACTOR