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Networks Are The Biggest Losers

As the NBA lockout drones on, as exciting as a Clippers-Raptors game, one keeps looking for signs the public and its participants actually care.

The reality surrounding this labor action -- now there's a non-sequitur -- is all of the owners are wealthy independent of basketball, none of the players will file for unemployment benefits, and most of the fans can fix their sports habit with football, college basketball, hockey and even pro wrestling.

There really is only one area where the lockout might have a major effect, and that's in the board rooms of network television. If the lockout goes much longer, there could be some network wrist slashing.

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  • Ted Turner's two cable tentacles, TNT and TBS, have already lost 30 of their 80-game regular season dates to the lockout. Turner's cable outlets are in year one of a $890 million, four-year deal, and the first payment check has already been delivered and cashed.

    TNT and TBS have filled programming with Turner's vast library of films and its trademark wrestling shows. Whatever dates lost will be made up during the length of the contract, and the outlets will get a rebate on that first payment.

    But ad-wise, this is lost revenue. Turner cannot charge its clients the same for a film as it does an NBA game. And if there is a psychological impact from the lockout when the league does return, then the value of the whole package takes a hit.

    NBC, which is in year one of a four-year, $1.75 billion deal, has also made its first payment and will also be eligible for a rebate and programming make-goods down the road. Its only loss thus far is its Christmas Day doubleheader. The network will fill the time with the ironically titled film classic, It's A Wonderful Life

    NBC has shrugged off concerns about losing NBA ames, but without the NBA, NBC Sports is essentially dark until next October. It has no football games of any kind, a modest college basketball schedule, no hockey, and no baseball until the 1999 playoffs. NBC will have its usual assortment of early-season golf tournaments, and Wimbledon in the summer, but that's not much to hang a division on.

    A few more cancellations, and NBC can perhaps rerun Death Wish.

    The outlet which is feeling the hit most right now is News Corp.'s Fox Sports Net. Rupert Murdoch's network of regional cable outlets holds the rights to 26 of 29 NBA teams. All November and December dates have been flushed.

    The only way to see Detroit's Grant Hill and San Antonio's Tim Duncan on television is in new soft drink commercials. (AP)

    The outlets are scrambling to fill hours by adding hockey and college basketball games where they can. FSN affiliates will be able to add NBA telecasts (where they can) once the league returns to the court.

    But the peripheral effect on the ratings of Fox Sports News, its SportsCenter wannabe, will be serious. The show depends on live games in local markets to gain and keep an audience, and the lockout coincides with FSN's attempts at a makeover. Ex-ESPNers Keith Olbermann and Chris Myers will both make their FSN debuts within the next six weeks.

    All this underscores what a premium sports programming has become. Sports ratings might often float at modest levels, but the audience it delivers can't be replicated via movies or sitcoms.

    Entire networks have been built on the strength of sports. The longer the players stay dry, the more the networks sweat.

    Breaking the rules

    The NFL likes to say its current TV blackout rules are fair and within the letter of the law. They were created as a result of a congressional investigation of the league's TV policies.

    But the league plays loose with its alleged definition of a home market. The 75-mile rule is often cited -- a team's market extends 75 miles around its hub -- but the league often fudges according to the situation.

    A new situation presents itself if the Patriots move to Connecticut. If the actual rule is applied, then all Pats games, home and away, would be available for broadcast in Boston. But the league has said it will take that rule under advisement when and if the Pats do move.

    The CBS affiliate in Boston undoubtedly would count on Pats games being available. But Pats' owner Bob Kraft will also be counting on some Boston-based companies and fans to buy luxury suites and tickets to games in Hartford. If all games in Boston are televised, potential ticket buyers miht decide to stay home.

    Once around the channels

  • You, too, could have a future in sports programming. ESPN just promoted George Bodenheimer to president of the cable network. Bodenheimer got his start at ESPN in 1981 in the mailroom. Come to think of it, ESPN probably didn't get much mail back in '81.
  • The NBA might be locking out the players, but its syndicated show via NBC, NBA Inside Stuff, continues airing in NBA markets each week. It's just not fair the players can't play and Ahmad Rashad still winds up on our television.

    © 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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