Sure, the Badgers and Bears Won, But Who Could See It?

First of all, a big Rosey Grier-sized shout-out to my old frat brothers who came to town last weekend for the Badgers/Northwestern game. Lizard King and Grandpaboy, let’s do it again soon. And I swear I’ll pay for the damages. Sorry again.

Good thing those friends of mine went to the game, since they weren’t going to be able to see it on TV. Which brings me to addressing a couple of concerns that WISC-TV viewers had about football coverage the weekend of October 7-8.

Fans not attending the whipping that the Badgers put on the Wildcats on October 7 were unable to watch the game live on TV. Why? Because the Big Ten has determined that ESPN and ABC (owned by the same company, of course) are to be the sole television providers of their games. And when their impressive yet limited resources — including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN Regional, and ESPN Local (the latter two being games available to local stations like WISC) are allocated for games presumably more interesting or competitive than ones involving the Badgers, then games are either not televised or are only made available via ESPN360.

Now I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable sports and television fan, and before last week, I had never heard of ESPN360, an expensive Internet service only available through a limited number of providers. So while ESPN may pretend that ESPN360 is a viable broadcaster for games, in reality telling people that they could see the Northwestern game was akin to telling people they could make a martini out of vegetable oil and Shasta Cola. Not very likely.

My take on this? It stinks, but you can’t fault ESPN for only being able to cover so many games. Badger fans (and Wildcat fans, for that matter) may take umbrage that their game was considered less interesting than other games, but out of the three Big Ten games involving then non-ranked teams (always due to be the first eliminated from television consideration), the Wisconsin game was the least competitive of the three, with both Indiana @ Illinois and particularly Penn State @ Minnesota being much closer. Perhaps the answer would be for the Big Ten to retain a right of recapture, whereby allowing the conference to find a more suitable television partner on a game-by-game basis if ESPN/ABC are not able or willing to do so.

Of course, much of this will change next year with the introduction of the Big Ten Channel. All Big Ten games should be televised with the inclusion of the new network; however, it remains to be seen how many cable and satellite providers will carry the new channel. If not many do (right now I believe only DirecTV has signed on), Badger fans that rely on television coverage can count on being disappointed a time or two again next year.

With their team’s dominating performances so far this year, the last group of people to be disappointed should be fans of the Chicago Bears. But none of them in the Madison television market were happy with WISC-TV’s coverage of the Bears/Bills game on October 8. With 6:59 left in the third quarter and the Bears ahead by the commanding score of 30-0, viewers saw coverage switched from the lopsided Bears/Bills contest to the much closer (13-10 at the time of the switch) Dolphins/Patriots game.

Why would WISC-TV switch from a Bears game to a AFC East matchup featuring the lousy Miami Dolphins when it is common knowledge that there are hordes of Bears fans in the Madison area? Are people at the station unaware that the Bears are enjoying their best season in twenty years? Are people at the station bitter Packer fans looking for any way to upset fans of their arch rival? The answers are: We wouldn’t, no, and maybe.

Seriously, WISC-TV did not make the switch, CBS did. CBS has a policy to switch their affiliates (like WISC-TV) to more competitive games when a game is out of hand. CBS defines out of hand as an “18 point lead (not before the start of the second half).” Certainly Chicago being up by thirty points with more than half of the third quarter elapsed qualifies under these guidelines. (And, no, CBS wouldn’t do this to WISC-TV during a Packer game, just as CBS didn’t switch Chicago and Buffalo markets even when the score become 40-0.)

Did CBS do right by Madison football viewers by switching from a blowout with local interest to a competitive game with little local interest? (And it’s important to stress that it was CBS’s decision; WISC-TV only has a say in what games they are assigned, the station has no say in how those games are presented, including when and if they are switched mid-game.) The NFL fan in me says “yes”; after all, that’s why I ordered the NFL Sunday Ticket (love it), so I could access the most competitive NFL games at any time. But the broadcaster in me says “no”; our first rule is to serve our viewers, and common sense tells me that a Bears game is more valuable to more of our viewers than any AFC East game, even if the Bears game is as competitive as a wrestling match between King Booker and Ugly Betty.

So WISC-TV will try to convince CBS to keep Bears coverage intact the next time the station airs a Bears game, which is Sunday, November 5. Unfortunately, that game is against the previously mentioned lousy (so lousy they need JOEY FREAKIN’ HARRINGTON to be their savior) Miami Dolphins. The Bills game could have been a squeaker for the Bears compared to how they are primed to manhandle the inept Dolphins. So, WISC-TV will try, but Bears fans, be prepared to call in on November 6 with your complaints about abbreviated coverage. Either that or hope that your team actually struggles (at home, no less) against a markedly inferior opponent. We’ll expect your calls.

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