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Original Issue

Too much of a good thing

College football ratings appear to be suffering from overexposure

Window" is the hot new term in college football. It means any three-hour time period in which you can show a game on TV. Thanks to the Supreme Court's June decision that ended the NCAA's control of football telecasts, just about anybody with a production truck can get himself a window. There are network windows, the prime-time ESPN cable window, and the syndicators' windows, not to mention pay-TV windows and assorted other peepholes through which the schools show their games. In fact, the new age of wall-to-wall football is nothing more than a long row of windows that are wide open from noon to midnight on fall Saturdays.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, we've decided to open our own window on college football for a look at the world of glut in midseason. It isn't a pretty sight. This is the year in which everybody got greedy and America got bored.

•ITEM: ABC's Boston College-Alabama game on Sept. 8 gets an 8.8 rating, the lowest ever for a prime-time, regular-season college game; it's even beaten by CBS's U.S. Open tennis telecast.

•ITEM: Syracuse's upset of Nebraska on Sept. 29 draws a rating of 0.9 on the cable USA Network; this means only 236,000 households tuned in.

•ITEM: ABC'S thrilling Notre Dame-Missouri game the same day gets a 3.5 in Chicago, where interest in the Irish supposedly is insatiable; the game gets beaten by CBS's Sports Saturday, which features Gerry Cooney fighting a palooka.

Isolated examples, you say? Then let's throw open the window all the way.

ABC, which has a package of games from the College Football Association, the umbrella group that represents 63 major schools, is down 19% in the ratings (9.5 to 7.7) compared to 1983, when it carried half of the NCAA's two-network non-cable package. Last year's other major NCAA network, CBS, which now offers a slate of Big Ten and Pac-10 games, is down 39% (9.1 to 5.5).

Despite the fact it's paying far less for college rights this year, ABC says it probably won't break even, and the two networks are offering no guarantees they'll stay with college football in '85. Meanwhile, conference syndicators are getting blitzed. Says Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich: "The networks have dropped their ad rates substantially. They're pushing the syndicators out of business because why should an advertiser go with a syndicator when he can reach more people on the networks for almost the same dollar? Once the syndicators go out, we're not going to have the exposure we want. We'll have the worst of both worlds—low rights payments and not enough exposure."

Aren't there any winners out there? Only after a fashion.

First, there's ESPN, which is pleased with the 4.4 rating it has been averaging for its prime-time series of CFA games. Unlike over-the-air networks, ESPN doesn't need 10s to survive. Although it's losing $1 million on the series, the surprisingly good games ESPN has featured are giving it a certain cachet. Second, there's Harry Homeviewer reclining in his La-Z-Boy. Harry now can see almost any number of games on Saturday. The desultory ratings, however, suggest he may be suffering from Shoppers' Confusion. Like the bewildered bloke who goes into a store, sees 10 items of equal value and walks away without buying anything, the TV fan may be freezing at the switch. After all, if there are 12 games on today, how do you know what's special? And oh, yes, there's a third winner of sorts, Paul Hornung, co-host of the Saturday studio show on WTBS, the Turner superstation (see box). When the NCAA controlled TV, it kept Hornung off college games because of his NFL suspension for gambling and his closer identification with the pro game. In effect, the Supreme Court freed him and the greedy colleges with the same stroke.

So what does this all mean? One thing that has become clear only recently to network insiders is that early in the season at least, football, like basketball, is essentially a regional-interest sport. Why should Harry Homeviewer care about Pitt and Oklahoma on national TV in September when he can watch his own team on local TV? And for that matter, why should he tune in his own team now if he can catch it many times later on?

The glut is pernicious, not propitious. Unless the CFA and Big Ten and Pac-10 kiss and make up and legally curtail the number of games on TV—a dubious prospect, considering the Supreme Court ruling and the bitterness between them—the colleges will be left with a depressed marketplace. There will be no money to prop up non-revenue sports such as swimming and wrestling. The big network paydays will be over, assuming the networks remain in college football at all. As Nebraska athletic director Bob Devaney says, "I don't see any great resurgence in the next year or so. I'm not predicting colleges will go broke—but it isn't going to be the bonanza it was."

Sweet irony. Remember how the major colleges, once liberated, were going to dip into that bottomless pot o' gold at the end of the rainbow? Well, 3.5% fewer households are watching college football on national TV this year, even though there have been 55% more games available on the five national outlets. It's enough to remind one of a remark by ABC's Beano Cook: "The colleges are like an aging woman at a singles bar. They overrated themselves. They used to be in demand, but not now."


Hornung won a new broadcasting job after the NCAA lost control of the TV package.


A glassy-eyed Taaffe rates the networks currently doing national college games

ABC—Late-afternoon CFA games. A-1 in terms of announcing and production values, although those sideline interviews with the coaches at the end of the half are absurd. The coaches are always in a rush, never have a thing to say and seem to be praying that Tim Brant will just go away. Easily the best halftime show. Beano Cook may not have blow-dried hair, but he doesn't have a blow-dried brain, either.

CBS—Early-or late-afternoon Big Ten and Pac-10 games. Brent Musburger, having grown antsy in the studio, is calling some games. He's cool and proper, not at all the huckster he was on NBA play-byplay. The melodramatic Gary Bender sounds as if he's narrating another installment of Victory At Sea. Lindsey Nelson's "Echoes of College Football" is a nice touch at halftime. but Pat O'Brien is a weak presence behind the anchor desk.

ESPN—Prime-time package of second-choice CFA games. Expert commentator Paul Maguire has emerged as the equal of ABC's Frank Broyles. Maguire is irreverent, humorous, unpredictable and unpretentious. He's also downright prescient when it comes to predicting plays. Also, ESPN shows you the bands at half-time. Good for ESPN!

USA Network—Early-afternoon games of Big Eight and other schools. Eddie Doucette, play-by-play, and Kyle Rote Jr., analysis, are undistinguished. Doucette gives you the score—"It's 7-0 on USA Sports"—without telling you who's winning. And how does Rote, a former soccer star, suddenly qualify as an expert on football? Because of the Jr.?

WTBS—Early-afternoon SEC games. Ted Turner ought to hire himself some directors who know how to shoot replays. It's pointless to shoot them so tightly that all you see is the ballcarrier and no advancing tacklers. Jowly, bifocaled Paul Hornung looks like a young Charles Laughton playing a Southern senator. He's the only announcer on a college wraparound show who picks (with 56% accuracy) NFL games against the spread.