For CBS this year, March Madness means Michael Jordan returning to professional basketball just in time to divert attention from the network's coverage of the NCAA tournament.
College basketball's premier event was all but eclipsed for about 3 1/2 hours Sunday when NBC's coverage of the Chicago Bulls-Indiana Pacers game, in which Jordan returned to the Bulls after a 21-month absence, became the most-watched regular-season telecast in NBA history.
Cable network TNT, taking note, announced Monday that it would televise tonight's Bulls-Orlando Magic game, Jordan's first in Chicago's new United Center. The Magic is led by Shaquille O'Neal, Jordan's heir-apparent as king of sports endorsements.
Said Kevin O'Malley, senior vice president of programming for Turner Sports: "All the circumstances are right for us to do a really substantial rating."
And, he might have added, for CBS to possibly take another bath as it counters with its coverage of the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
A CBS spokeswoman, while all but conceding defeat, tried to inject a positive spin.
"Michael Jordan coming back to basketball, in the short term, is a big obstacle for us to conquer as people who are programming college basketball against Michael Jordan playing professional basketball on another network," said Leslie Anne Wade, a publicist for CBS Sports, which last year paid $1.725 billion to televise the NCAA tournament through 2002.
"But Michael Jordan brings so much to basketball that, for the long term, it's going to bring people to the sport (that) CBS has invested in and enjoyed for a long time, and will continue to enjoy until 2002. And so, we think it's good for the sport of basketball and people's viewing of the sport."
Jordan's return last Sunday scored a 10.9 rating, according to national numbers released Thursday by A.C. Nielsen, meaning that it was seen in about 10.5 million homes. A record 35 million viewers saw all or part of the telecast, NBC researchers said.
Meanwhile, CBS' coverage of the NCAA tournament during the first 2 1/2 hours of the Bulls game drew a 3.6 rating. A CBS spokesperson said that the advertisers affected will be given slots during future games, at an undisclosed cost to the network.
The telecast of the game featuring Jordan drew a larger audience than all but 35 other television shows--prime time included--for the week of March 13-19.
The 10.9 rating is the highest for a regular-season NBA telecast since Feb. 2, 1975, when the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics scored a 11.0 rating. But Sunday's game still ranks as the most-watched regular-season NBA telecast because the value of ratings points have gone up as the U.S. population has increased.
By comparison, the average rating for last season's seven-game NBA finals matching the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets was 12.3, down 31% from the all-time high of 17.9, set a year earlier when the Jordan-led Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns in six games to win their third consecutive NBA championship. In Jordan's last trip to the finals, the NBA's TV ratings passed those of the World Series for the first time.
Jordan's return, however, does not necessarily mean that the Bulls, after tonight, will make added national TV appearances during the final four weeks of the regular season, although Turner Sports is negotiating to add a game or two to its TNT/TBS package.
NBC, which can show each team no more than eight times without special permission from the NBA, has featured the Bulls five times this season and, even before Jordan announced his return, already had planned to show them three more times--April 9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, April 16 against the Knicks and April 22 against the Charlotte Hornets. Advertising for those games already was sold out, however, so NBC will not benefit.
Asked if the network would like to add more Bulls games to its schedule, an NBC spokesman said: "It's easy to dream. I'd also like to play center field for the Yankees, but that ain't happening."
TNT was already scheduled to carry the Bulls game against the Knicks on Tuesday, but that will be Chicago's 13th appearance this season--the maximum that the Turner network can show without getting approval from the league. TNT got the OK for the Magic to make their 14th appearance tonight and is hoping the NBA will permit it to add more Bulls dates.
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NBC's 'Hoop Dreams' Come True
With the return of basketball's greatest player, Nielsen ratings for the NCAA tourney on CBS fell, while NBC's NBA ratings soared to a season high.
NCAA Tournament, Nielsen Ratings, March 16-19
Sunday (Jordan returns to the NBA): 3.6
1994-95 Top Rated NBA Games, Nielsen Ratings
Seattle vs. Denver (12/25/94): 3.5
New York vs. Chicago (12/25/94): 4.1
Orlando vs. Phoenix (1/22/95): 5.1
Houston vs. Chicago (1/22/95): 5.4
NBA All Star Game (2/12/95): 10.7
Chicago vs. Indiana (3/19/95*): 10.9
* Michael Jordan returns to Chicago Bulls.
Note: Each Nielsen rating point is equivalent of 954,000 TV households.
Source: Nielsen Media Research