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Too much of a good thing
William Taaffe
October 15, 1984
College football ratings appear to be suffering from overexposure
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October 15, 1984

Too Much Of A Good Thing

College football ratings appear to be suffering from overexposure

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Window" is the hot new term in college football. It means any three-hour time period in which you can show a game on TV. Thanks to the Supreme Court's June decision that ended the NCAA's control of football telecasts, just about anybody with a production truck can get himself a window. There are network windows, the prime-time ESPN cable window, and the syndicators' windows, not to mention pay-TV windows and assorted other peepholes through which the schools show their games. In fact, the new age of wall-to-wall football is nothing more than a long row of windows that are wide open from noon to midnight on fall Saturdays.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, we've decided to open our own window on college football for a look at the world of glut in midseason. It isn't a pretty sight. This is the year in which everybody got greedy and America got bored.

?ITEM: ABC's Boston College-Alabama game on Sept. 8 gets an 8.8 rating, the lowest ever for a prime-time, regular-season college game; it's even beaten by CBS's U.S. Open tennis telecast.

?ITEM: Syracuse's upset of Nebraska on Sept. 29 draws a rating of 0.9 on the cable USA Network; this means only 236,000 households tuned in.

?ITEM: ABC'S thrilling Notre Dame-Missouri game the same day gets a 3.5 in Chicago, where interest in the Irish supposedly is insatiable; the game gets beaten by CBS's Sports Saturday, which features Gerry Cooney fighting a palooka.

Isolated examples, you say? Then let's throw open the window all the way.

ABC, which has a package of games from the College Football Association, the umbrella group that represents 63 major schools, is down 19% in the ratings (9.5 to 7.7) compared to 1983, when it carried half of the NCAA's two-network non-cable package. Last year's other major NCAA network, CBS, which now offers a slate of Big Ten and Pac-10 games, is down 39% (9.1 to 5.5).

Despite the fact it's paying far less for college rights this year, ABC says it probably won't break even, and the two networks are offering no guarantees they'll stay with college football in '85. Meanwhile, conference syndicators are getting blitzed. Says Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich: "The networks have dropped their ad rates substantially. They're pushing the syndicators out of business because why should an advertiser go with a syndicator when he can reach more people on the networks for almost the same dollar? Once the syndicators go out, we're not going to have the exposure we want. We'll have the worst of both worlds—low rights payments and not enough exposure."

Aren't there any winners out there? Only after a fashion.

First, there's ESPN, which is pleased with the 4.4 rating it has been averaging for its prime-time series of CFA games. Unlike over-the-air networks, ESPN doesn't need 10s to survive. Although it's losing $1 million on the series, the surprisingly good games ESPN has featured are giving it a certain cachet. Second, there's Harry Homeviewer reclining in his La-Z-Boy. Harry now can see almost any number of games on Saturday. The desultory ratings, however, suggest he may be suffering from Shoppers' Confusion. Like the bewildered bloke who goes into a store, sees 10 items of equal value and walks away without buying anything, the TV fan may be freezing at the switch. After all, if there are 12 games on today, how do you know what's special? And oh, yes, there's a third winner of sorts, Paul Hornung, co-host of the Saturday studio show on WTBS, the Turner superstation (see box). When the NCAA controlled TV, it kept Hornung off college games because of his NFL suspension for gambling and his closer identification with the pro game. In effect, the Supreme Court freed him and the greedy colleges with the same stroke.

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