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Original Issue


From the spectator's point of view, the best football in the nation last week was the Army-Pitt game. It was so good, a driving rain could dislodge only a casual handful of the 50,000 people jammed into Pitt Stadium. And it was so good, the National Broadcasting Company chose to televise it throughout the East. But NBC did not feel that the game warranted a coast-to-coast telecast. Instead, the most colorful and imaginative Army team in a decade will not be served up to a national audience until the Navy game Nov. 29. For football buffs it is a long time to wait.

Naturally, NBC did not schedule the first national appearance of Army at the end of the season in a moment of caprice. They did it that way because the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which controls college football television, permits only one national and one regional broadcast of any one team. The TV philosophy of the college football fathers can be roughly gisted like this: 1) TV gravy is dangerous, and 2) the gravy should be spread around, within reason.

Of course, the NCAA puts it more formally, and even though their case may not make you happy as a TV watcher, you may have to admit that it does make a case. The NCAA says its first aim is to promote and defend college football. Among other things, this means protecting a team from indecent overexposure (and the accumulated monies that come with it). "To us," says Asa Bushnell, director of the NCAA's Television Committee, "television is very definitely a dangerous situation. In New York, for instance, there used to be four or five games on the air every Saturday afternoon. Nobody with a television set was going out and buying a ticket and sitting in the stands. The cost to colleges in lost receipts was immense, and the NCAA membership demanded a restricted program." Even Pitt suffered last week: the announcement, four days in advance, that the Army-Pitt game would be televised prevented a Pitt Stadium sellout.

The restrictions the NCAA imposed on the networks (and on you in a sense) in 1951 amount to a benevolent cartel, although Bushnell prefers to call them "the best compromise we could develop to solve the current problem." A wildcat fringe of free enterprise still exists on the borders of the cartel: for half a dozen years Notre Dame has had a compact with Tel-Ra Productions to film and televise Notre Dame games, but you have to wait until the following week and twist your dials a bit before you can see for yourself what the Irish did or had done to them.

As currently conceived, the NCAA-NBC plan reduces adverse effects of live TV on game attendance, spreads the sponsors' gravy ($185,000 for a national telecast) as far as it will go, and rah-rahs football to the public. To do all this, the NCAA permits one network, selected on a bid basis, to show 11 national games on nine weekends. (On two of the Saturdays, two games are shown on the split network.) About two dozen regional games (such as Army-Pitt) are farmed out to networks and TV cooperatives on four other weekends. As we said, it is a thought that it would have been nice to see Army on a national hookup before Thanksgiving, but that would not be according to the plan. "We are trying to do a lot of things at once," says Asa Bushnell, "and I think we are succeeding. Attendance at games is up again, and football across the country is getting publicity without losing its gate."

So the NCAA-NBC cartel is good for football. But is it good football? Yes, sometimes, but there have been some notably routine games this year on a national basis. "Well," suggests Bushnell, "let's say that if the network could pick its games without our one-exposure and geographical restrictions, it might be able to pick better ones. But then again, maybe it couldn't."

This week's football TV? Well, it will go out nationwide and will be in color, too. But it won't be any such natural as Notre Dame-Navy. The book says it's the Big Ten's turn, so you'll be seeing Wisconsin and Michigan State.