Once on top, NBC looks for Super Bowl jump start

OK, SPORTS FANS, from our 50-yard-line vantage-point overlooking the television industry, it’s time for a little Super Bowl history.

Not from a football perspective, mind you, but rather from a ratings standpoint, and specifically what it means to a team that doesn’t exactly look like a contender this season, NBC.

Stepping into the way-back machine (in network parlance a time-span encompassing the career longevity of the average programmer, or roughly three years), we go to January 1990, when then-hapless CBS–network of the “mired in third place” designation–presented Super Bowl XXIV, a one-sided blowout by the Washington Redskins over the Denver Broncos.

The game drew a 39 rating, the second-lowest in history behind only Super Bowl II, an afternoon affair in 1968. In the greatest indignity of all, CBS–which followed the game with the premiere of the action series “Grand Slam, ” starring Paul Rodriguez and John Schneider–still managed to finish third for the week. The winner, of course, was NBC, en route to its fifth of six consecutive season ratings crowns.

Three years later, the tables have turned. CBS is ensconced in first place in household ratings and has solidified that position since the start of this year, with “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” suddenly making the network competitive on Saturday while ABC has lost some steam Monday with the midseason exit of “Monday Night Football.”

NBC, which hasn’t won a week through 18 weeks of the current season, has its first major opportunity to break that streak thanks to the Super Bowl. It would doubtless represent a small moral victory, but no matter how the week turns out, this year’s Super Bowl could very well end up reflecting both the best and most daunting aspects of being a network programmer in difficult times.

With the millions of viewers it will attract, the game will demonstrate the unique capacity of network TV to reach a massive audience of more than 100 million viewers. Just as quickly, however, NBC will see how elusive those viewers can be, based on whether all those on-air promos during the game translate into ratings for the dizzying array of lineup changes the network has on tap for the month of February.

RECENT HISTORY INDICATES they probably won’t reverse NBC’s fortunes. That makes the momentary surge a network can experience from an event like the Super Bowl seem more dubious in its long-term benefits. CBS, for example, gained far less from the Super Bowl than by finding a 10 p.m. hit like “Northern Exposure” to solidify its Monday lineup.

All three networks lost money on their football rights deals this year, and each web is talking the same lingo about the future, saying they still want to be in the sports game, but not at a loss, or at any price. As CBS/Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer put it, the desire not to lose money “doesn’t seem a lofty goal.”

Nevertheless, such austerity may be easier spoken of than realized, particularly for a network languishing in third place, struggling to find an audience. The baseball owners learned as much when a then-desperate CBS anted up for their exclusive deal, and the various sports franchises are no doubt gambling that the networks shouldn’t be heard too literally in their pleas of poverty.

Time will tell, but for now NBC can make do with the almost-dizzying prospect of winning a week, an achievement the web not long ago took for granted. In the sports world, things can change quickly. Just ask Dallas … or NBC.

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IN OTHER SUPER BOWL NOTES, one of the most talked about players in town this week is NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, the subject of repeated (and repeatedly denied) speculation about an eventual move to the West Coast.

Ebersol, the exec producer of “Saturday Night Live” from 1981-85, served as NBC’s VP of late night programming when “SNL” was conceived and helped secure NBA broadcast rights, which has proven a valuable franchise; then again, he also oversaw the Olympic Triplecast and, in his dual capacity as senior VP of NBC News, took responsibility for the near-disastrous decision of bumping Jane Pauley from “Today” to make room for Deborah Norville.

Win some, lose some, but Ebersol reportedly has the ear of NBC brass and will be someone to keep tabs on in ’93. Meanwhile, Ebersol and various NBC commentators will tout the Super Bowl tomorrow at a Hollywood Radio andTelevision luncheon. For NBC’s sake, let’s hope the event is less entertaining than the game.

MICHAEL JACKSON, SUPERSTAR–Or rather, media superstar, and a persistent one at that. The November sweeps were highlighted by the five-hour miniseries “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” and January and February are quickly becoming the months of Michael.

First there was the Clinton inaugural, then Monday’s appearance on the American Music Awards, now this weekend’s Super Bowl halftime show and an upcoming 90-minute ABC interview with Oprah Winfrey scheduled for Feb. 10. (ABC could promote the evening as an “Improvement” night–“Home” leading into “Face.”)

For a celebrity whose notoriety has been built in part on eccentricity and reclusiveness, Jackson certainly isn’t lacking for visibility. What’s next, a guest shot on “Roseanne?”

FINALLY, BAD NEWS FOR FANS of NBC’s “Mad About You” and CBS’ “Picket Fences,” as the group Viewers for Quality Television named them the best new comedy and drama series of the season, voting additional kudos to stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt and “Picket’s” Tom Skerritt.

Considering the recent track record of other VQT favorites–notably “Brooklyn Bridge,””I’ll Fly Away” and “Homefront”–that’s one vote of confidence to which the recipient should politely pass.

Speaking of passes, in keeping with the season, score it Dallas 28, Buffalo 20.

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