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NBA rebounds, but can’t drive by Mike

The first game of NBA Finals featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and more of the heart-stopping, down-to-the-wire action that has become a staple of this year’s playoffs. The result was a solid ratings performance, but it was not up to the levels of 1993’s Michael Jordan-Charles Barkley contest.

This year’s series opener scored a 14.7 rating and a 26 share, exactly midway between last year’s Game 1, which was 2.1 rating points lower and 1993’s first game, which was 2.1 points higher.

Heading into the finals, the playoff ratings had improved by 10% over last year’s ratings, helped in large part by Jordan’s return and his Bulls’ survival in the early rounds.

But Game 1 still had trouble with the competition from ABC, losing the 9 p.m. slot to a repeat of “Grace Under Fire” (12.4/22 to 11.5/21) and the 10 p.m. slot to a fresh “Prime Time Live” (13.7/23 to 13.2/22), and barely winning at 10:30 (14.5/25 to 14.4/24).

In fact, with “Dateline NBC” providing a weaker lead-in than that afforded by “Unsolved Mysteries” had for the past two years, NBC was defeated on the night by ABC 12.1/22 to 11.4/21.

Still, if the NBA Finals keep to the breathless script offered in Game 1, then NBC can count on an improvement over last year. This year’s household numbers were 16% higher than last year (but 13% lower than 1993’s first game) and the game also drew 10% more men 18-49 and 19% more women 18-49 than last year (See Demo Derby, back page).

That improvement is vital, because in 1994, with Michael Jordan out of basketball and not in the finals for the first time in three years, ratings for Game 1 of the championship series fell 28% in households, 24% in men 18-49, and 34% in women 18-49. (Women tend to be more casual sports viewers, and so more likely to be attracted to marquee names rather than close match-ups.)

Last year, ABC not only won the night (12.2/21 to 11.4/20), it also won the first 90 minutes head-to-head against the NBA with repeats of “Home Improvement” and “Grace Under Fire” plus the first half-hour of “Turning Point” (even though New York is the largest market, and the New York Knicks played for the NBA title last year, handily winning the night in the Big Apple).

By contrast, in Jordan’s last finals appearance, the NBA easily won the night (14.3/25 to ABC’s 10.0/17) and lost only one half-hour, to “Home Improvement.”

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