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Sports Weekend | TV-RADIO LARRY STEWART

Different Tone to Tournament

March 19, 2004|LARRY STEWART

Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, opened a conference call with reporters this week, saying, "I was a bit late because I was making plans for the Billy Packer-Phil Martelli celebrity golf outing."

McManus is able to kid around this year. He wasn't quite so jovial going into last year's NCAA tournament. No one was. The nation was about to go to war in Iraq.

Last year, the first day of the tournament was also the first full day of the war.

This year, CBS' main concern is deciding the appropriate time to move the audience from one game to another. Last year, it was deciding when games should be farmed out to ESPN to make room for CBS News reports on the war.

McManus said, "I think for our people at the remotes and our announcers, it was a whole lot more difficult and more sensitive leading to a cut-in from Dan Rather on the war in Iraq than it is to lead to a cut-in of Greg Gumbel talking about another region.

"We had to adjust the tone of our telecasts. It was not a lot of fun for anybody in news or sports last year."

CBS lost about eight hours of the tournament to ESPN, and took a big hit in the ratings. While ratings at news channels such as CNN soared, ratings for the tournament dropped 31% during the first four days from what they were in 2002.

Backing Packer

Although McManus was making jokes about the Packer-Martelli feud, acknowledging that it helped generate interest in the tournament, he was perplexed that Packer was criticized for saying he didn't believe Saint Joseph's deserved a No. 1 seeding.

"I am a little surprised, quite frankly, about the fact that everyone seems to think it's OK to attack Billy personally," McManus said. "From having him called a ... to having some pretty mean-spirited things said about him.

"All Billy was doing was what he always does, which is voicing an opinion. Billy has been questioning seedings and brackets for a long time. That's his job and that's what he gets paid for. He didn't do it in any mean-spirited way."

Packer and partner Jim Nantz were assigned to work the games in Buffalo, N.Y. Saint Joseph's is playing in Denver.

Asked if it wouldn't have been fun to have Packer in the same region as Saint Joseph's, McManus acknowledged it might have been a good idea. But when the assignments were made Sunday night, no one knew how big the story would become.

"We didn't anticipate Billy and Coach Martelli being on the back page of the New York Daily News," McManus said.

CBS on Thursday was working on having Packer interview Martelli this weekend.

Tournament Notes

Asked what was more important for attracting viewers, good runs by marquee teams or good runs by Cinderella teams, McManus said, "What's most important is close games."

He said that was particularly important in markets such as Los Angeles, which does not have a team in the tournament.

"I think there's still significant interest in L.A.," McManus said. "But we need to get lucky. We need good, close games to maintain a good rating in L.A. If you have a UCLA winning by 20 points, or a USC, you're still going to maintain a good rating. If you don't, then you need a close game."

In case you haven't noticed, CBS has abandoned going to split screens.

"It was just too frustrating to viewers," McManus said. "We got more complaints about that than almost anything. It was one thing viewers were very vociferous about."

Besides DirecTV's Mega March Madness pay package, out-of-market games also are available on AOL for Broadband members.... As many as eight of the games on DirecTV will be televised in high definition.

CSTV is offering highlight shows every night of the tournament (6:30 tonight and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday).

The tournament has Laker radio play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Seattle. He worked Wednesday night's Laker-Clipper game for KLAC (570), then Thursday morning flew to Seattle to work tournament games there for Westwood One, whose coverage is being carried by KMPC (1540) in Los Angeles. It's back to Los Angeles today for tonight's Clipper-Laker game, then back to Seattle on Saturday, then back to L.A. on Sunday for the Lakers and Milwaukee.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird meeting in the 1979 championship game, ESPN Classic is offering a block of programming Wednesday, beginning at noon and continuing on through the night. It includes the games leading to the title game, the title game itself between Michigan State and Indiana State at 6 p.m. and "SportsCentury" profiles of Bird and Johnson.

As for the women's tournament, Loyola Marymount's game against Baylor Saturday at 8 p.m. will be televised in most of the L.A. market on ESPN2. Some areas will get Missouri-Stanford and Santa Barbara will get the Gauchos and Colorado. UCLA's game Sunday at 11:30 a.m. against Minnesota will be on ESPN.

Short Waves

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