Still Filling It Up With no NBA games to draw from, highlight shows are giving more play to lesser leagues

December 07, 1998

At CNN they're growing hideous beards to mark the NBA lockout.
This applies only to sports anchors Fred Hickman and Vince
Cellini, mind you, and doesn't explain Wolf Blitzer, but that's
precisely the point: Roughly nine Americans are mourning the
loss of the NBA, and every one of them, it seems, is a
television sportscaster. "You can tell the length of the lockout
by the length of the beards," CNN/SI managing editor Steve
Robinson says of his network's handy Whiskerticker. "Fred and
Vince have some pretty serious beards right now, and if the
lockout goes into January, well...." We're talking Ayatollah.

"We're leaving the beards to David Stern," says John Terenzio,
executive producer of Fox Sports News, referring to the NBA
commissioner who increasingly resembles a badly watered Chia Pet.
Which isn't to say that Fox anchors aren't counting the days
since the work stoppage began last July 1. They are. Terenzio
toiled at ABC in 1979 when that network developed a late-night
crisis-in-Iran program that would eventually become Nightline.
"On that show, we'd do 'Day 14: America Held Hostage,'" Terenzio
recalls. "Here, we're doing 'Day 35: The NBA Lockout.'"

There's only one problem. "I'm not sure America knows it's being
held hostage," says Vince Doria, assistant managing editor for
ESPN's SportsCenter. Indeed, even without material from the NBA
(which had been scheduled to begin its season on Nov. 3),
average ratings for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter this November were
up slightly, from 1.18 to 1.21, over last November's. Which
suggests how seamlessly--and satisfactorily--pro basketball
highlights can be replaced on your late-night sports wrap-up
show by pro hockey highlights. The Kings are dead? Long live the
Kings.

Those who doubt that any one league has a tenuous, dead-fish
grip on American sports fans need only do the math. An hourlong
SportsCenter has 44 minutes of content. "In a normal season, on
a heavy night, with a lot of NBA games, we might do 12 to 15
minutes of NBA highlights," says Doria. On a normal night in a
normal season, CNN typically devotes seven minutes of its
22-minute show to the NBA. At Fox Sports Net, says Terenzio,
"the NBA might be 60 percent of our newscast." Now, NBA
highlights are exactly zero percent of everybody's newscasts,
and the newscasts haven't gotten any shorter because of it.

That's because TV sports shows, like nature and certain college
roommates, abhor a vacuum. So into the breach have come other
highlights: NHL, NCAA, PGA, NASCAR, even the ABL--the endless
Scrabble rack of leagues and tours and circuits. "More sports
have gotten a better pop," says SportsCenter's Doria. "We've also
increased our analysis, which is difficult to do when you're
buried in highlights. We did a five-part series on the five most
prominent free agents in baseball. The lockout has given us more
variety and more opportunities for storytelling. And none of that
is a bad thing."

But what if you're a sportscaster in an NBA market with no NFL
team, no NHL team and three minutes and 15 seconds to fill every
night after the weather? In short, what if you're Rod Zundel,
sports director at KSL, Channel 5 in Salt Lake City? "We'd
forgotten how easy we had it with the Jazz playing," says
Zundel. "Now we'll see what kind of journalists we really are.
Let's see how creative and offbeat we can be. The other night we
featured a paralyzed former high school football quarterback.
Tomorrow, I talk to fifth-graders who are writing letters and
poems to Karl Malone, asking him, 'If you don't come back, who
will be my hero?'"

That answer is now clear enough: somebody else.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO [Drawing of bearded sports anchor juggling basketballs on television]

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