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United We Sit

In May 1968, CBS News aired a special report called "Hunger in America." The program showed children dying of malnutrition and shook the country. Soon senators George McGovern, a Democrat, and Bob Dole, a Republican, joined with incoming president Richard Nixon to champion legislation that expanded food stamps, shored up school lunch programs and, by the end of the 1970s, largely solved the problem.

Given the legislative catatonia in Washington, that nugget of history has the quaintness of a bygone age. And it has nothing to do with the huge TV deal the NBA reached with Disney and Time Warner earlier this month, which will almost triple the value of the current contract, from $930 million a year to $2.66 billion—except that it has everything to do with it. The NBA could command those terms for a simple reason: In an age of webstreaming and time-shifting, live televised sports remains one of the few properties that can't be watched on-demand or tamed by a DVR. Networks will open the vault for compelling appointment viewing because advertisers cling to the audiences drawn to it.

That programming is good for us. We need to sit down together as one every now and then to keep us strong as a citizenry. Once upon a time we tuned in to Walter Cronkite. Now our atomized media slices and dices us. We consume entertainment on individualized schedules, punching up that track on Spotify, binge-watching a series on Netflix, getting our news from MSNBC or from Fox News (but not both!). Yet we'll still scurry off to any channel carrying that game we want to see, whether it's on NBCSN, ESPN or Fox Sports 1. And as the action unspools, we'll interact with others on Twitter and Facebook in real time.

A sports event has such power to galvanize us that we happily put our lives on pause for it. ESPN reports that more than 99% of its programming is consumed live. The highest-rated program last week was Sunday Night Football on NBC, while the top cable show was ESPN's Monday Night Football. With more women tuning in, today's sports audiences replicate that focus-group family once gathered around the Philco in Levittown. Meet Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley of TNT's Inside the NBA, the modern Smothers Brothers.

If sports have lately served as a staging ground for national discourse about concussions, domestic violence, child abuse, gay rights and racial sensitivity, it's because we have so few live, public spectacles around which discussion of any kind can take place. One highlight of the NBA deal, which starts with the 2016--17 season, is that the league will work with ESPN and ABC to deliver games to mobile devices. That will broaden the sports common even more, and we won't even have to be in our homes to find our place in it.

So when that 186% increase in NBA rights fees shows up in advertisers' pass-along costs and carriage fees on your cable bill, you can gripe about how avaricious players and greedy owners are unworthy of the windfall. But you might console yourself with the knowledge that you're paying for shared thrills, for reality TV that's not manipulated, for community—for one of the last common experiences in our culture.

As for hunger in America, it's still here—not because those social programs spurred by McGovern and Dole no longer exist, but because they've been steadily underfunded. You probably don't know that 50 million Americans, including one in five children, struggle to find enough to eat. Or that the number of food banks and soup kitchens, trying in vain to pick up the slack, has risen from 200 to more than 40,000 since 1980. But how would you know, what with the cat videos, bloviations from political echo chambers and ginned-up controversies on ESPN's First Take making a claim on your time?

No one would mistake Kenny Smith or Charles Barkley for Walter Cronkite. But if they were to take up that topic on Inside the NBA, they'd have an audience.

Sports have served as a staging ground for national discourse about concussions, domestic violence, child abuse, gay rights and racial sensitivity.

How much would you pay to watch live sports on TV?

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