Sports beats bombing news
October 9, 2001: 10:58 a.m. ET

Fox, CBS get ratings wins showing football during Afghan attack.
A twice weekly column by Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - President Bush watched college football Saturday on the eve of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan. Much of the nation watched pro football as the attacks took place Sunday afternoon.

CBS and Fox stayed with their football programming as ABC and NBC bumped sports to go to news coverage. And overnight ratings suggest the networks that went with fun and games over news reports made the right call, even if that call left civics teachers and my journalism professor wife shocked and outraged.

Fox saw an average rating of 9.2 for the early 1 p.m. ET game, and 10.7 for the 4 p.m. ET game. CBS showed only one game in each market. About half the country got a CBS game at 1 p.m. ET and about half at 4 p.m. ET, after most of the news reports and press briefings on the bombing had concluded. CBS saw an average rating of 8.5 for its games.

By comparison NBC saw a 6.5 rating for its 1 to 4 p.m. news coverage, while ABC gained a 5.2 rating during the same period.

Fox stayed with its football coverage, such as this game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, rather than bump it for news coverage of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
Fox and CBS spokesmen stress that they both covered President Bush's address to the nation, which took place just before the early games started. They said they gave their affiliates the choice between a news feed and a football feed, but none chose news over football.

"We have the luxury of having a 24-hour news channel that was providing wall to wall coverage," said Lou D'Ermilio, spokesman for Fox Sports. "If news felt was a break-in was warranted, it would have happened."

CBS bumped Dan Rather and news coverage to UPN stations owned by corporate parent Viacom (VIA.B: down $1.40 to $33.05, Research, Estimates) in some markets where that was possible.

"It made sense to offer choice to viewers," said Gil Schwartz, spokesman for CBS. "If America is under attack, it might be different. And we're not going to run a football game if the president is speaking. We'd interrupt a football game for that. But we're accepting the president's agenda of attempting to resume life as normal."

NBC gave up a NASCAR race, which probably would have generated strong ratings. Coverage of the UAW-GM Quality 500 race was switched over to cable station TNT just before the race got started.

NBC bumped coverage of a Nascar race to TNT, its joint venture partner in race coverage, although it went back to the race in time to get the last half hour of the event.
The NASCAR coverage is a joint venture between TNT, which like CNNmoney is a unit of AOL Time Warner (AOL: up $0.17 to $31.92, Research, Estimates), and General Electric Co. (GE: up $0.07 to $36.87, Research, Estimates) unit NBC. So despite the different ownership of the stations, NBC still got half the revenue from the race and it won't lose any money for making the switch unless advertisers need to get some kind of refund due to the lower ratings on cable. Overnight ratings for the race are not yet available from Nielsen.

"This is something discussed in advance each week," said Kevin Sullivan, spokesman for NBC Sports. "This is an option always available to us. It took a matter of minutes to make it all happen. At least we were moving it to a place where race fans are accustomed to watching races."

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw also made two references to the race, telling fans where to turn, and a crawl across the bottom of the screen also alerted fans where they could find the race.

Before news purists give NBC too much credit for bumping a popular sports event, they should know the network did return to race coverage in time to get the last half hour of the race, which was then broadcast on both stations. It then went ahead with its tape-delayed, made-for-television coverage of the Gravity Games, probably the least significant sporting event of the day.

ABC gave up what turned out to be perhaps the most compelling sporting event of the afternoon, the World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. team and Jamaica. The U.S. victory gave the national team an unexpected berth in the World Cup finals.

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It says everything you need to know about ABC's faith in soccer's appeal that it did not move the game to one of four all-sports ESPN cable channels it operates, although the game was showed on tape delay on ESPN Monday.

The decision to keep football on the air while U.S. bombers were still flying and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was briefing the nation undoubtedly angered some in the news staffs of CBS and Fox. But the ratings suggest that from a business point of view, it was the right call. Viewers who wanted news instead of football were able to find their coverage elsewhere.

The danger for Fox and CBS is that their viewers who went elsewhere for news will stay there for news in the months ahead. Even some sports fans, like my wife the journalism professor, won't be quick to forgive a network that gave short shrift to such important news. graphic

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