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Original Issue

Profitable but forgettable

ABC's USFL coverage did well financially but not journalistically

Whew, it's over! At last we can wipe our brows, forget about football in 90° heat, ignore the Michigan Panthers' victory in the first Who Cares Bowl and get down to the really important stuff about the USFL. For instance, how did this TV creation do on television? And how well did the ABC team of Keith, Swannie and Sideline Tim and ESPN's Paul Maguire serve the viewers during the league's inaugural season?

First, let's head to the ABC booth. For most of this year the avuncular Keith Jackson, Mr. College Football himself, probably would have preferred to say, "How 'bout them Dawgs" instead of "The Stars are on the move." But his football instincts and relaxed manner more than made up for his lack of enthusiasm for the USFL. Kudos also should go to Tim Brant, who was given the thankless task of trying to question players on the sidelines who were more interested in passing out from injuries or passing along regards to Mom. An erstwhile linebacker at Maryland, Brant is a nimble-minded, businesslike reporter who knows how to ask the right question. Unfortunately, Lynn Swann, who comes across as Mr. Goodwrench—always on his best behavior, always mechanical, and rarely letting his personality come through—hasn't gotten into the swim of things. For one thing, he never seems to know when to stop talking about zone-flag routes and post patterns. On Sunday he gabbed incessantly, overanalyzing replays, cramming in half a dozen comments every time Jackson paused for air.

Besides Brant, the most pleasant surprise of the season was the irreverent Maguire, the former Buffalo Bills lineman and NBC color man who teamed with the reliable Jim Simpson on ESPN. It's not enough for an analyst to diagram X's and O's anymore; the good ones like Maguire entertain us. Maguire comes across like a well-informed fan at the tap house. He says what's on his mind, is occasionally hilarious, has a feel for the lunacy of the game and doesn't like George Allen's conservatism. Thanks to Maguire, the nod in the booth goes to ESPN.

Neither ABC nor ESPN will win a Peabody for rigorous journalism in its USFL coverage, however. We had three questions before the season: 1) Would commentators whitewash inferior play? 2) Would TV cover the major story of Nielsen ratings and attendance? 3) Would the networks personalize these mostly no-name players? On balance, ABC and ESPN weren't afraid to call attention to inept performances. They certainly established open season on the refs. However, neither network had the courage to air a self-assessing feature on its ratings and neither talked about attendance much after the boffo opening week. In fact, ABC's cameras sometimes stopped shooting the ball on kickoffs and punts, thus avoiding panoramas of empty seats. A more glaring omission was ABC's failure to put the players in context. Presumably some had failed in the NFL and had driven doughnut trucks last year, but we never heard their stories. Case in point: After four hours Sunday night, America still wants to know who Michigan Coach Jim Stanley is.

As for the ratings, the two semifinal playoff games drew a so-so 5.0 and 5.9, and the championship pulled overnights of 7.4 in New York, 8.7 in Chicago and 9.9 in Los Angeles, disappointing for prime time. On Black Friday, June 17, ABC aired a prime-time game between Chicago and Birmingham. It finished 72nd out of 72 shows that week with a rating of 4.8, the worst prime-time number of the year. Some advertisers who bought time this season seem skittish about reenlisting. "I thought there was a lot more upside potential in the playoffs," says Steve Grubbs, director of network programming for BBD&O, an ad agency that represents two clients who advertise on ABC's USFL broadcasts.

Still, ABC's regular-season average of 6.0 met sponsors' expectations. ABC projected a 5.0 for the year, and the 6.0 was a far-sight better than the 4.8 ABC drew for Superstars and other programming during the same months last year. Most telling of all is this arithmetic: ABC paid $9 million in rights fees this year while realizing more than $31 million in ad revenues. It may well raise its rate of $30,000 per half-minute by 10% to 15% next season. For the Who Cares League, that may be a more important score than Sunday's 24-22 in Denver.


ESPN beat ABC in the booth in large part because Maguire (right) outdid Swann.