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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Skating Goes to Cable as ABC Plays Wild Card

January 12, 2002|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in 39 years, the women's free skate final in the U.S. Figure Skating Championship--usually a ratings winner--will be relegated to cable, yet another far-reaching effect of Sept.11.

The terrorist attacks and the subsequent postponement of NFL games led to a programming headache for ABC, which is broadcasting today's NFL wild-card games. As a result, tonight's figure skating final at Staples Center featuring Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, Sarah Hughes and Angela Nikodinov will be carried live by ABC Family Channel at 8 p.m. in the East and on a three-hour delay at 8 on the West Coast. ABC will repeat the telecast Sunday at 2 p.m.

"Unfortunately, we had to move the figure skating," said Loren Matthews, ABC senior vice president of programming.

The move to cable was permitted under the 10-year, $100-million contract that runs through the 2006-7 season and pays the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.. $10 million a year for the TV rights to the U.S. championships and four other events.

"These things happen," said John LeFevre, USFSA executive director. "Sure, we'd love to have the network exposure, but we understand ABC's problem. It was their call."

Figure skating can be found on television year-round for a simple reason: Check the Nielsen ratings and it often ranks at or near the top, thanks to an unusually large number of female viewer.

The women's free skate final at the U.S. championships last year drew a national rating of 6.0.

The ratings the three previous years were 7.7 in 2000, 6.7 in 1999 and 11.5 in 1998, the last Olympic year.

Regular-season college football on ABC this past season averaged 4.0, the four BCS bowl games 10.6 and "Monday Night Football" 11.5.

Figure skating gave television the third-highest rating ever for a sports event, sixth-highest for any program.

That's when Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding--competing against each other for the first time in the wake of Kerrigan's infamous knee bashing--skated the technical program in the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway. CBS got a 48.5 rating with a 64% share of the prime-time audience.

In sports, that ranks behind only the two top-rated Super Bowls, which rank fourth and fifth overall. The three highest rated programs are, in order, the last episode of "M*A*S*H," the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas," and Part 8 of the "Roots" miniseries.

The women's final at Lillehammer got 44.1, the 32nd highest rating of all time.

It could be argued that the '94 Olympic ratings were artificially high because of the soap opera that surrounded Kerrigan and Harding, whose then-husband was linked to the attack on Kerrigan. But the women's figure skating final two years earlier at Albertville, France, produced a 25.0 rating and a 40 share.

Skating fans say the sport offers a unique perspective and an unusually close look at the athletes. Every emotion is visible.

"The setting is very intimate and easy to televise," said Phyllis Howard, the president of the USFSA. "It's held in an indoor arena and an enclosed rink and the cameras can get up close and very personal. And it is an individual sport, so you can create individual stories."

It's also markedly different than team sports, said Terry Gannon, ABC's lead announcer on figure skating, who played on the 1983 NCAA basketball championship team at North Carolina State.

"I guess what intrigues me the most is that skaters are all alone out there on the ice," he said. "I played a team sport where you had teammates to rely on."

The USFSA's LeFevre says, "Figure skating is one of the few sports where there's sports and art combined. So it appeals to a wide range. Even people who would not otherwise watch sports watch figure skating because of the artistic aspect. Then there is the judging, It's intriguing."

That, and the mix of artistry and athleticism, and the costumes, are a few of the reasons why it attracts such devoted fans as Shari Martineau of Harbor City, who was at Staples this week.

"I watch every ice skating event on TV," Martineau said. "I tape it when I'm not there to watch it. ... I like ballet, and there's a lot of that in it. The skills and the grace are a wonderful combination. I always say if I die and have another life, I'd like to come back with the grace of Kristi Yamaguchi and the jumping ability of Midori Ito."

Tonight's broadcast and Sunday's repeat will include the women's short program, taped earlier this week, as well as the free skate competition.

ABC Family Channel until recently was Fox Family Channel. It reaches 84.1 million of the nation's 105.5 million television households.

Before Sept. 11, ABC was planning to carry the women's free skate final for the 39th time. But after the attacks the NFL postponed its Sept. 15 games, rescheduling them Jan. 6.

The rescheduling delayed the start of the NFL playoffs a week. And because ABC carries the Saturday wild-card games on the first weekend of playoffs and the starting times had already been set for 1:30 and 5 p.m.--4:30 and 8 p.m. in the East--skating had to move.

ESPN or ESPN2 were considered, but Disney, ABC's parent company, chose its newest cable channel.

"We felt ABC Family would be the perfect fit since figure skating is something that appeals to the whole family," Matthews said.

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Staff writers Lauren Peterson and Helene Elliott contributed to this story.

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