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COMMENTARY : Exclusivity in TV Coverage: A Dinosaur?

WASHINGTON POST

The distinction between news and entertainment constantly blurs in the world of television sports, a point that has been driven home with frequent regularity over the years. On Saturday afternoon, for example, NBC will air a one-hour show devoted to the announcement of the roster of the U.S. Olympic basketball team for the 1992 Games. It’s a significant story, particularly with all that NBA talent available, and reporters from all over the country will converge in Secaucus, N.J., to cover the event at an NBC studio.

But only one TV network -- NBC, of course -- will televise the event live, as the news happens, under an agreement with USA Basketball, the sport’s governing body charged with selecting the team and its coaches.

NBC is being paid for its airtime by USA Basketball, also a rather commonplace occurrence these days in network sports. In return, NBC provides a producer, the technical crew and the talent (in this case, Bob Costas and Marv Albert). USA Basketball gets huge exposure and pre-announcement publicity in promos for the show, not to mention an hour of time on the network following Notre Dame’s football game with Michigan State. Meanwhile, NBC Sports takes the money and runs for an easy profit, barely breaking a sweat.

When it’s over, NBC will allow its videotape to be used by just about anyone out there in television-land willing to give the network the standard credit line. It’s an arrangement a lot of local and national television executives don’t particularly care for. They’d rather be there with their own cameras and commentators, but they don’t have the rights and they know there’s not much they can do about it.

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These TV lambs also remained mostly silent last month over another news vs. entertainment issue when long jumper Mike Powell soared 29 feet 4 1/2 inches into the Tokyo sky to a world record, eclipsing the 29-2 1/2 by Bob Beamon in the 1968 Olympics. The fact that Powell also ended Carl Lewis’s streak of 65 straight long-jump victories made it so much the better, a story that was the lead article in almost every sports section in America.

Powell’s great leap forward occurred on a Friday night in Japan, early Friday morning in Washington. That morning, NBC’s “Today Show,” which is produced by NBC News, showed tape of Powell’s feat, unbeknownst to the sports division. That faux pas touched off what several NBC sources described as a nasty little internal spat.

NBC Sports was saving the jump for its late-night Friday show (actually Saturday from 12:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.), not to mention its four-hour show Saturday afternoon. It had exclusive rights, and wanted to use the jump to build its late-night and Saturday audiences.

The “Today Show” also gave hope to everyone else out there in videoland that perhaps NBC Sports was taking a magnanimous leap forward and would allow the Powell jump to be seen on local news shows -- at least on affiliate stations -- Friday at 6 and 11. It never happened.

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“After I saw the ‘Today’ clip, I called an NBC lawyer,” said Jim Walton, vice president and executive producer of CNN Sports in Atlanta. “I was hoping beyond hope they’d say yes. I should have known better. What it boils down to is this: Are they buying a news event or a sports event? In this situation, I think you can make a strong case that it’s a news event. But it’s banging your head against the wall. They come back and say we can report the news, and we can show people still pictures of it, but if we want to use their pictures, we have to play by the rules.”

The rules are basically the same for all the networks. For example, ABC sends out a standard rights reminder by fax to every station in the country, as well as the cable companies:

“ABC Sports has acquired exclusive television exhibition rights to (pick your event). Our exclusivity extends to all television media throughout the world and to use for all purposes, including news. ... We ask that you respect our exclusive rights by not televising any portion of (the event), even if coverage is supplied to you by other broadcasters, cablecasters or news services.”

NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol said there is only one reason for this embargo: the ratings game.

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“In this economy, you want to be extra protective of your rights because you want to get people to watch, which gives you better ratings, which gets people to spend money to advertise on your shows. Our advertisers are paying a fortune for these events to get magic in a bottle. If we’re giving it away earlier in the day, why should people watch that night or the next day? It’s still a business. For us to give it to a talk show in the morning, we’d be out of our minds.”

At the local level, there also is frustration. George Michael of WRC-TV (Channel 4 in Washington, D.C.) hates the prohibitions, but understands why they are in place. He used to skirt the ban by hiring his own crew or freelancers to cover events, then use that footage on his local show or the nationally syndicated “Sports Machine.” But he’s had his hand slapped so many times, he’s just about stopped trying.

He believes the reference in the network faxes about coverage supplied by other broadcasters was put in especially for him. “It’s the George Michael clause,” he said. “It happens all the time. I just think that when Mike Barrowman (the Potomac, Md., swimmer) breaks a world record in a meet they’re covering and I can’t show it, that’s ridiculous. It won’t screw up their ratings to give up 10 seconds of Mike Barrowman so Washington viewers can see it.

“But they pay the big money for it and, when it comes down to it, I know they have the right to do it. I don’t like it, but I understand it.”

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