Local TV stations drop back and punt sports coverage

Is there too much sports on tv?

While some die-hard fans can't get enough baseball and stock car racing, others say the public is overwhelmed by the choices.

"There's so much competition out there," says sports historian Richard Davies, author of "America's Obsession." "I think people are saturated."

Sports programming has quadrupled in the last decade, adding more options for people who can also turn to the radio, newspapers, and the Internet for highlights and homeruns.

And it doesn't stop there. FOX's sports channel plans to roll out nightly local roundups in several dozen markets starting next month, and ABC is considering reviving the long-running "Wide World of Sports," possibly as soon as next fall.

All of this choice has changed the way people watch sports, according to recent research by Disney-owned cable network ESPN. A fall 1999 survey showed that 75 percent of viewers are more likely to turn on a sports channel and surf from there, rather than picking an event ahead of time as they did five or 10 years ago.

Broadcasters are busy trying to figure out how to stop these viewers - coveted by advertisers - from overworking the remote. Ratings for some professional sports and even for this year's NCAA Final Four basketball tournament have fallen. Local sportscasts are also feeling the pressure.

Two weeks ago WTSP-Channel 10, a CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg, Fla., dropped sports segments from its 5 and 5:30 p.m. broadcasts - joining at least one other station in its market. Sports remains in the 6 and 11 p.m. broadcasts.

"Obviously, I'm not wild about it," says Al Keck, the station's sports director, who had no say in the decision. The 13-year veteran says, "We don't stop doing news because there are more outlets -it forces us to do our job better."

In the last decade, all-sports cable channels have multiplied. ESPN now has four; FOX and CNN each have one. A handful of niche networks also offer coverage of topics like motor sports and, Tiger Woods aside, the medium's least likely partner, golf.

According to research by ESPN, in 1994 a typical cable household had access to 21,000 hours of sports programming. In 1998, that number had shot up to 86,000 hours -"roughly a lifetime's worth of viewing," says Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's vice president of research and sales development.

As a result, both national and local broadcasters are experimenting with ways to break through the clutter.

Local stations have moved away from national coverage, which viewers can get elsewhere, and are trying to more aggressively cover their turf. To provide added value, some are using bottom of the screen tickers to offer scores of high school sports, for example.

Other broadcasters are exploring the role the Internet can play. ABC and Disney sibling Go.com give people the chance to play along with the Super Bowl (or Regis Philbin on "Millionaire"), using an approach they call Enhanced TV that debuted last year.

It allows people to click on live stats, for example, or guess the next play. "You get a lot of information on traditional television," says Eric Handler, a Go.com spokesman."You get even more on Enhanced TV."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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