By JOHN COTEY
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 21, 2003
CBS began coverage of the NCAA Tournament it paid $6-billion for (over 11 years) with a request for viewers: turn to ESPN to watch.
At 12:20 p.m. Marquette and Holy Cross tipped off what promises to be an interesting tournament, as far as television coverage goes, with CBS broadcasters and production on ESPN, prompting CBS studio analyst Clark Kellogg to remark "Kind of a strange way to start the tournament, isn't it?"
Our advice to viewers: keep the remote control nearby.
While ESPN picked up the early games for CBS, the network was back broadcasting its own games at 7, bringing viewers the conclusion of the Stanford-San Diego game. Today's games also are scheduled to return to CBS (WTSP-Ch. 10), but that can change at any moment. If the war escalates -- the full-fledged assault on Iraq has yet to begin -- and CBS News returns to constant coverage, then games would be switched immediately.
CBS, which is in about 103-million homes, has remained tight-lipped. ESPN and ESPN2 are likely destinations today; it gets trickier Saturday and Sunday.
Because ESPN and ESPN2 have other commitments this weekend -- though ESPN could accommodate some coverage -- other Viacom-owned stations like TNN (Channel 43 on Time Warner) and TV Land (Channel 75) could air games. Though TNN is not as widely recognized, it is in roughly the same amount of homes as ESPN (85.8-million to ESPN's 86.7-million) and more homes than ESPN2 (84.5-million).
"There are a lot of examples of networks sharing coverage with cable; this is not unprecedented," said Neil Pilson, former president of CBS Sports.
When Pilson was at CBS, he said he made the decision to shift some coverage of U.S. Open tennis to USA. But the NCAA Tournament offers "an extra amount of complexity" unlike any sporting event other than the Olympics.
He applauded the "very practical solution" of switching the early games to ESPN, which ESPN handled well.
LOCAL GUYS: Ian Eagle will do play-by-play and Jim Spanarkel will be the analyst for CBS at the St. Pete Times Forum today and Sunday.
For Spanarkel, it is the best assignment he can get.
"I enjoy the basketball games in general, and I love this time of year," said the former Duke star and 16th overall pick in 1979 by the NBA's 76ers. "It's a real blast for a guy who has basketball in his blood."
It also is the toughest assignment he has had.
With the war ongoing, Spanarkel wonders how much he has to temper his enthusiasm.
"The first thing is, obviously, there's a lot of emotions involved," Spanarkel said. "There's going to be a lot of people watching who have friends and family directly involved. And you have to be sensitive to the way it affects you personally."
The first two days of the NCAA Tournament might be the two best sports television days of the year, and without question the most fun. Eagle and Spanarkel's job is to bring that feeling to viewers.
But war makes it a tenuous balancing act. How much is too much? How much is disrespectful? And should we be having fun?
"Sometimes, sports becomes a release for a lot of different reasons," Spanarkel said. "If the decision is that the NCAA is going to go ahead and play the games, I do have a job to do. But you almost have to trick yourself into saying it may be a release for some people, as unimportant as one basketball game is."