It isn't always
how you're doing so much as how people perceive you're doing. Take the CBS
telecasts of NBA games this season. To be sure, things are on the upbeat from
the gloom and doom of last year, when there was much public hand-wringing about
the league's future on TV. But the odd thing about this turnabout, according to
Chuck Milton, the executive producer of pro basketball for CBS, is that
"the ratings are up this season, but they aren't up as much as the media
would have you believe."
The 1979-80 NBA
telecasts started off well with the infusion of new stars (notably Larry Bird
and Magic Johnson), slumped in the ratings when the Winter Olympics dominated
the airwaves and continued to slide when the pros started to compete with the
hoop and la of the NCAA tournament on NBC. In fact, the colleges have moved
ahead in the overall Sunday ratings—they led 7.1 to 6.0 at the end of last
weekend—though the networks are tied 5-5 in hoops after having gone head to
head 10 times. Nonetheless, the NBA's ratings are up 16% over last year, and
the pros expect to get even higher numbers in the playoffs.
The fact that CBS
and NBC are splitting the basketball audience explains why neither the pros nor
the colleges are on top of the ratings. That honor belongs to the series of
trashsport "events" like Superstars that ABC has put on in the same
Sunday afternoon slot that the other networks have used for their battle of the
Certainly, the pro
basketball telecasts are better this season than they have been in recent
years. After the NBA's 26% drop last season—the colleges, with Bird, Johnson et
al., led the pros 8.1 to 5.1 in the pre-NBA playoff ratings—the league and CBS
made some significant changes. They moved up the starting time of the games so
that NBC didn't retain its head start with the audience; they canned regional
coverage in favor of national telecasts, featuring Boston with Bird and Los
Angeles with Johnson, to best showcase the sport; they scheduled
"fresh" teams—i.e., those that hadn't played the night before—for TV
games; and they promoted the telecasts more aggressively. CBS has enhanced the
NBA's image by doing more interviews with players and using taped highlights at
halftime—instead of the hokey one-on-one and H-O-R-S-E games of past
CBS brought back Bill Russell. Russell, who did the color commentary for three
seasons when ABC telecast NBA games, has added substance to the CBS coverage.
He is an interesting man, and he says interesting things. Though he could
enunciate better—a shortcoming that might be alleviated by turning his volume
higher—he has a way of making listeners feel that they are getting inside
stuff. And the fact that he was the best player ever to perform in the NBA
lends authority to whatever he says.
When Seattle was
in a dry spell during a recent game against Boston, Russell noted that the
Sonics had stopped getting the fast-break opportunities they had been enjoying
earlier. 'That's because the Celtics aren't missing the kind of shots that set
up such opportunities," he said, "and because foul situations have
forced the Sonics to go to lineups that don't include their best fast-break
observations that "a lot of centers put the ball on the floor a lot when
they are nervous, and that gives the defense more chances to steal the
ball" and that "when Bird is playing some of his best basketball, he
sometimes will go four minutes without taking a shot" are the kind of
comments that have enhanced the CBS coverage.
afraid to be silent, and he laughs a lot while kidding with his co-announcers,
Brent Musburger and the irrepressible Hot Rod Hundley. This offends some
purists, but, Milton says, "An average fan tuning in might get the feeling,
'Those guys are having fun. I'd like to listen to them.' "
The general view
in the NBA and at CBS is that this year's improvement is merely a start.
Boston's resurgence is important because the Celtics are the closest thing to a
national team in the NBA. The big TV markets are important, so Los Angeles'
rebirth is significant. But the league won't hit full stride until there is a
revival of the Knicks, with the huge New York audience, and the Bulls, with the
big numbers Chicago can provide.
Musburger, who has
toned down the cheer-leading that earned him ridicule last season, says,
"With all the criticism last year about the NBA having no TV future, you
began to wonder if the game really isn't dull, if it isn't all decided in the
last five minutes, if the players don't have a strict take-the-money-and-run
attitude. It has been different this year. I feel that the athletes understood
they had to contribute. There is a subtle black-and-white issue here. I think
the big stars have come to feel there are a lot of kids on the playgrounds of
the big cities who need the same opportunity they had. It's not that pro ball
is the answer for most black kids, but the players realize they have a pretty
good thing, and they don't want that door closed on those kids. I also think
the players have tried harder in the games televised nationally."