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Original Issue

Rookie of the year? It's CBS

The network that grabbed the NCAA tournament is scoring in other ways

In July 1980, at the start of his 16-month stint as president of CBS Sports, Van Gordon Sauter said he wanted "sports with lungs." Last March he spent $48 million for the rights to TV sports' loudest event, the NCAA basketball championship. The deal also called for CBS to air regular-season games.

Of course, NBC, the only network the NCAA finals had ever had, didn't slink off to a winter of trash sport. Though it had lost the tournament, NBC continued its regular-season broadcasts, some of which have gone head-to-head with CBS's. Surprisingly, the competition hasn't hurt either network. NBC's telecasts had an average rating of 6.3 as of last week, meaning 6.3% of all TV homes were tuned in. At the same time last year the games were averaging 6.4. As for rookie CBS, it has drawn enough viewers to achieve a 5.5. Perhaps NBC commentator Al McGuire's belief that "the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores" isn't entirely true.

When CBS struck its three-year agreement with the NCAA, assembling a slate of regular-season games seemed a tough task. The NCAA doesn't control the rights to those games, as it does in college football; the networks buy them from individual schools and conferences. And NBC, thanks to its contracts with TVS, an independent sports network, had dibs on most of the best. Undaunted, CBS Sports Executive Producer Kevin O'Malley patched together a respectable schedule. For announcers, he matched veteran Gary Bender with former McGuire sidekick Billy Packer, the basketball shrink with the Bob Newhart hairline, whom he had wooed from NBC.

CBS didn't have to do much wooing to get the tournament, which practically fell into the network's lap when NBC allowed its option to expire for several reasons, including disagreement over the length of a new contract. After reviewing pitches by the three networks and TVS, the NCAA settled on CBS. Though CBS outbid NBC by $1.2 million, speculation is that money wasn't the only factor in the NCAA's decision. Personal differences between NBC higher-ups and their counterparts at the NCAA may well have been involved. Some observers maintain that NBC was poorly prepared for the negotiations. "We didn't win the contract," says Beano Cook, who has just left CBS Sports for ABC. "NBC lost it."

But NBC still had McGuire, who had three years left on his contract. Now that he works only with Dick Enberg, McGuire has become less the cutup and more the analyst. Fortunately, he remains the hyperactive child, bubbly and babbly, but with the worldly wisdom of a well-traveled man. You're allowed 10 seconds to bring the ball over the time line, says Al, "but it's more like 9½ on the road and 11 at home."

Another of McGuire's Sunday lessons goes, "The regular season is getting the beachhead. The tournament is getting to Berlin." Accordingly, CBS hit the beach like the Marines, introducing its own Top 20 poll and enriching its coverage with halftime and Sports Saturday segments on such timely subjects as Kentucky's refusal to schedule Louisville and Evansville's up-from-the-ashes Aces. NBC has filled its halftime slots with puffy pieces: McGuire chatting with coaches' wives and warbling country music with Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall. Better to treat the season as a series of self-contained extravaganzas rather than as a succession of news events that could serve as a protracted promo for the March Madness on the other network.

All told, CBS has won the ratings battle four of the eight times the two networks' telecasts have begun within two hours of each other. There have been only two blowouts. On Dec. 26, although NBC had a dream matchup in No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky, CBS's DePaul-Louisville game rode the coattails of the Sun Bowl to a 10.5 rating to NBC's 6.8. Two weeks later, with college football safely in mothballs, NBC mopped up CBS's regional games with its other ideal match, No. 1 Carolina against No. 2 Virginia, which got a 9.8. "If NBC doesn't beat us in the regular-season ratings, we'll be amazed," O'Malley said in mid-January. NBC has won, but the CBS eye is wide open at how close it has been.

And Berlin is on the horizon. CBS plans to televise 16 tournament games, five more than NBC did last year, along with two specials previewing the tournament. There will also be a control center—√† la The NFL Today—to make sense of it all. As Cook has said, abruptly shifting the metaphor but still sounding a lot like McGuire, "NBC gets to dance with the pretty girl, but we get to take her home." So far, CBS hasn't exactly been a wallflower, either.