Lakers likely will save ABC’s ratings bacon
Lakers likely will save ABC’s ratings bacon
By BOB WOLFLEY of the Journal Sentinel staff
Friday, June 4, 2004
You have to imagine ABC Sports executives were thinking about popping bottles of hemlock and not champagne when the Los Angeles Lakers went down, 0-2, in their best-of-seven series to the San Antonio Spurs earlier in the playoffs.
You really do wonder where the National Basketball Association would be as a ratings attraction on network television without the Lakers.
The Lakers are the NBA’s contemporary version of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, which is to say having the Lakers in a series inoculates the network carrying those games from record-setting low ratings for the Finals.
And record-setting low ratings are a frequently told tale in recent years on network television.
But since the Lakers awakened in time to beat the Spurs and then beat the Minnesota Timberwolves to advance to the NBA Finals, ABC assured itself of ratings that will be higher than last year, when the Finals were the lowest-rated since 1981, when some of the games were put on taped delay.
It’s not a coincidence this record was set with the Lakers out of the picture.
The six-game Spurs and New Jersey Nets series averaged a 6.5 rating, the first time since ’81 that the Finals averaged in single figures. The Lakers’ four-game sweep of the Nets the season before averaged 10.2, also the lowest average for a Finals since ’81 but still in double figures.
It should be interesting to see this weekend if Smarty Jones and NBC will be able to upstage the Lakers and Detroit Pistons on ABC. Will Smarty Jones racing for the Triple Crown attract a bigger audience on NBC-TV on Saturday afternoon than Shaq and Kobe will attract in Game 1 of NBA Finals on Sunday night?
If it was any other team than the Lakers in Finals, the smart money would all be on Smarty.
ABC’s lead broadcast team, Al Michaels and Doc Rivers, is not the best one working NBA games on network television, but given time they could have become the best.
Marv Albert is still the voice of NBA basketball, and along with his regular partner Mike Fratello you have a team that is as formidable as they come because the level of comfort and level of authority they have working together for so many years is evident.
Turner put the energetic Doug Collins with Albert and Fratello for the Western Conference Finals and it wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. Collins probably is best suited to working a two-man booth — he has that kind of presence — and having him with Albert and Fratello did not make for a good team necessarily. It felt as if Collins joined the team of Albert and Fratello, but a team of the three of them wasn’t formed.
Fratello was accommodating, willing to take a background role to Collins, who was positioned and sounded like the featured analyst.
Rivers was a terrific hire for ABC, but short-lived.
He’s personable, likable, authoritative, passionate, with an effortless sense of humor. His voice often goes hoarse during his calls, but not so much he can’t be understood.
Michaels said Thursday during a conference call that it was Rivers who schooled him about the NBA and helped him overcome his initial nervousness about calling NBA games.
“The best thing that happened, there is no question about it, for me was the way the Orlando Magic started out this year,” Michaels joked.
Rivers was the coach of the Magic but was fired after the team stumbled to begin the season. ABC then hired him.
“Doc Rivers has made it such a pleasure for me,” Michaels said. “He has taught me so much about it. He helped me get up to speed to the point where I’m confident this is going to be very good. I’m just distressed the bum is leaving me for Boston.”
Rivers was hired to coach the Celtics next season.
Coming into the Finals, Michaels and Rivers have worked a total of 11 games together this season, in addition to four practice games.
Unlike Rivers, Michaels did not work any of the conference finals games, but Michaels said that would not pose a particular problem for him for the Finals.
“I might be 5% sharper had I done a game in one of the conference finals,” Michaels said. “But the reality is that once we get on the air and get off to a good start, get it going smoothly, make a couple of real salient points at the top and let the game begin. Then I find there’s a flow to it. There’s a flow and rhythm, pretty much like a musical instrument.”
Rivers, somewhat like Fox’s Tim McCarver on baseball broadcasts, has developed a knack of being able to predict what will happen in a play before the play is executed, which he did at least three times in Game 6 of the Pistons-Pacers series when he worked the game with Brad Nessler on ESPN.
“I think it just comes along,” Rivers said about his guesses about strategy. “If you do a game over and over again (with) the same two teams, you start guessing tendencies.”
Michaels and Rivers could have been on their way to becoming a formidable team on ABC telecasts, but they simply didn’t work together long enough to get there. Think of them as a really high- priced and effective temp team.
Next season, ABC will have to replace Rivers and form the third team it has had in three years of presenting NBA games.
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