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TV Sports Lives Down To Its Boob-Tube Image

It’s the video age, and isn’t it wonderful? There are now officially more channels than there are chemical elements. You can turn your computer into a television, your television into a computer, or scan the Internet for stop-action video of your favorite sports talk show host.

Technobabble in Technicolor.

But in keeping with the way technical leaps and bounds sometimes fall like Skylab, 1996 in TV sports will be remembered for what viewers didn’t see.

NBC set up an Olympic camp of personnel in Atlanta large enough to have its own gross national product, but then chose to use its exclusive rights as a way to hold the country hostage.

NBC’s plausibly live Olympic concept was a classic head-fake. Viewers watched in record numbers, perhaps in anticipation that they would eventually see something live or an event in its entirety. The upshot, of course, is that we’re all still waiting.

Meanwhile, ESPN rolled out its all-sports news cable channel in November, ESPNews. Six weeks later, CNN debuted its all-sports news channel, CNN/Sports Illustrated. Both were heavily celebrated, yet their combined cable coverage to date is a little more than a million homes.

There are test patterns with greater penetration.

And boxing promoter Bob Arum, in the name of cable piracy, took a step back to the ‘60s by taking the Julio Cesar Chavez-Oscar De La Hoya fight off pay-per-view and into closed-circuit theaters.

This was about piracy, all right - piracy of the boxing public.

These can be considered warning shots. TV has always been about consumerism, but brand-name identity and the corporate mentality of seizing audience shares like terrorists has become all-consuming. Content has become the caboose and distribution systems the runaway train.

In order of importance or annoyance, here’s a look at some of the top TV sports stories of 1996:

NBC’s Olympic (non-)coverage: As one critic neatly noted, NBC stood for No Bleeping Clue during the Olympics. Not only was the plausibly live coverage dishonest, but several good events were blacked out, and the tone was condescending to the female audience.

Closed-circuit crime: Arum’s desire to make an extra million or two off the biggest fight of the half-decade for Latino boxing fans was muy gross. The only question now is when will Don King do the same thing for one of his fights?

The ESPNization of ABC: Disney CEO Michael Eisner salivated over ESPN when ABC bought Capital Cities, and now we know why. Not only was ESPN chief Steve Bornstein named to replace Dennis Swanson as head of ABC Sports, but Chris Berman, Mike Tirico and Dan Patrick have all begun to land ABC events.

Sputniks: The launches of the two cable all-sports channels were overhyped, underseen, and perhaps unwanted. There’s no proof there’s any need for an all-sports outlet. Cable systems have yet to feel inclined to add either. The power of ABC (ESPN) and Turner (CNN) may change that, another example that cable has less to do with consumer demand than corporate confluence.

Bloated pregame shows: After Fox went to an hour for its NFL pregame show in 1995, 1996 saw NBC go to an hour and ESPN to 90 minutes. It made room for good analysts like Ronnie Lott and Cris Collinsworth, as long as you could stomach Terry Bradshaw and Chris Berman. Coming soon: The all-pregame channel?

Fox Sports takes over Prime: It’s interesting to note that while the ESPN and CNN ventures raised a stink, Fox’s purchase of Prime put the Fox name into 42 million homes nationally.

Fox covers baseball, no deaths reported: Despite concerns that Fox’s edgy attitude would hurt baseball - as if Jerry Reinsdorf hasn’t killed it already - Fox covered the American pastime respectfully and aggressively.

CBS tries Wide World approach: Still adrift since losing the NFL, CBS made some specious moves, adding a weak college football package and mishandling golf analyst Ben Wright’s sexist and homophobic comments. Sean McManus, Jim McKay’s son, was hired to beef up the department and get back into the NFL fold when the next contract goes up for bid in 1997.