It is no longer a media secret that last season's ratings for National Basketball Association games on CBS kept rolling around the old rim and falling off. The network went into the season hoping that the numbers would increase; after all, the 1977 Philadelphia-Portland championship series, starring Bill Walton and Julius Erving, had upped the pro basketball Nielsens to alltime highs. But because of the huge viewer decline during the final series last spring (minus 22%), some CBS affiliates have reexamined the NBA TV package. What they have found is that in all but that Walton-Erving year, pro baskets is unsuccessful as prime-time entertainment. The affiliates are so uninterested that it is still up in the air how many prime-time games will be carried by the network next spring.
The reasons advanced for the sharp decline, which hit regular-season viewing as well as playoff games, are as involved as the NBA schedule. One explanation is that in five of the six major TV markets—New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco and Boston—the teams were either dull and faceless or weren't contenders. In the sixth, Philadelphia, the 76ers had a troubled season and were eliminated a few weeks before the playoffs ended. Other observers maintain that there is a basic flaw in the structure of the game and that the casual viewer can enjoy the essence of any NBA contest simply by watching the final two minutes. Still others feel that the growing preponderance of blacks on the court is a factor. Also, whereas Los Angeles and, especially, Boston were once dynastic teams with national constituencies, there is now no dominant club with which an unaffiliated viewer can identify. In the last eight years seven different teams have won the championship.
Some doomsayers are predicting that if ratings don't rise sharply in the next seasons, pro basketball will eventually go the way hockey did on NBC and that the NBA may eventually find itself without the fat TV package that will split some $74 million among its 22 teams through the life of the NBA-CBS contract, which expires in 1982.
Whatever the reasons for their falloff, the ratings underline the fact that the situation is serious. WAGA-TV in Atlanta, for example, doesn't carry any NBA games and hasn't for the past five years even though it is a CBS affiliate and the city has an NBA franchise. "There's one reason, and one reason only," says station general manager Paul Raymond, "and that is simply that the NBA does not have a market in the city of Atlanta. The decision not to carry the network games was not arbitrary or capricious. We put a lot of time and research into it. It would benefit us to run them if anybody watched, but our research showed that no one was watching. I know that ratings for network games have eroded considerably in all markets except two or three." (Some network games were carried last season in Atlanta on UHF channels and drew woefully.)
Variety recently listed the 730 top-rated shows that played in prime time from Sept. 1, 1977 through Aug. 31 of this year. Overall, sports did well, taking four of the top five spots and six of the first nine with events like Super Bowl XII, Muhammad Ali fights, the NFC championship game and Game 6 of the World Series. The deciding game of the NBA playoffs, however, was tied for 442nd with Peter Lundy & the Medicine Hat Stallion, The Hostage Heart and Country Night of Stars. The next-highest NBA prime-time playoff game struggled home 619th. The NCAA basketball title game between Duke and Kentucky also was aired in prime time and came in 216th, dead-heating with The Laughing Policeman, Battle of the Network Stars and Hanna-Barbera's All-Star Comedy Ice Revue, among others. One can draw whatever conclusions one wants about sports in prime time, but should keep in mind that all but one of the six exciting major league baseball playoff games of 1977 did poorly when compared to the 138th-ranked National Collegiate Cheerleading Championships.
If nothing else, it seems clear that there is too much basketball on the tube. NBC does Saturday college doubleheaders, and on Sunday CBS often carries pro double-headers, while many independent stations air both local pro and college games. For those not interested in the hoops, a weekend in March can seem interminable. Those who do care for basketball tend to care deeply though not necessarily indiscriminately. The division of a fan allegiance between the college and pro game is deeper than it is in football.
Having paid for the NBA telecasts through 1982 (the league's original asking price of $88 million was turned down), CBS is going to try everything possible to pull its ratings up. The first two games, showcasing both of the championship final teams (Milwaukee vs. Seattle and Washington vs. Golden State), will be telecast at 11:30 p.m. E.S.T. Oct. 22 to test the waters. Until mid-January, when Sunday afternoon games are scheduled on a regular basis, CBS' sports department will be reviewing its problems. It is obvious to some that these include the playing of so much loud music that the telecasts have become an unpleasant exercise in Juke Box Journalism; the hiring and firing of so many announcers that viewers get no feeling of stability or continuity; a tawdry pregame show which, during last season's playoffs, involved mini-teams of celebrities and active and former NBA players competing against each other; and a ludicrous halftime show called "Horse." For those who feel that the last two minutes of NBA games are all you need to watch, and that they last too long anyway, the news is that they will likely last even longer. The reason for that is the added whistle of the NBA's new third official.