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College Bowl blitz

Pigskin payday for nets

NEW YORK — An abundance of college football storylines is turning ABC/ESPN into a big winner this season — and giving Fox plenty to salivate over as it prepares to launch its pricey BCS Bowl package in January.

But the riches aren’t going everywhere, as NBC will be without a bowl game for the first time this year.

And even those benefiting can find their hands tied.

Fox has a huge postseason but no network games in the regular season. ESPN, on the other hand, will pump up viewer interest during the regular season only to have another net step in for most of the big January games.

Every college football season is rife with enough drama and controversy to satisfy the chattiest talking head. But this year has proved more dramatic than most.

A traditional Big Ten rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan has been blown up to national significance as the two, both undefeated, sit atop the BCS. When they meet on Nov. 18, they will play not just for Midwestern bragging rights but, in all likelihood, for a spot in the title game.

Meanwhile, perennial contenders such as Texas, USC, Notre Dame and Florida continue to string together impressive runs. All have just one loss, giving heat to the games and the tantalizing possibility — for fans and nets — that they could wind up in a BCS bowl.

And parity has hit college football, allowing teams like Rutgers and Louisville — neither known for football dominance — to become big stories as they remain undefeated in November.

The two will play a showdown Thursday that ESPN is carrying as part of what was a previously little-regarded Big East package. Net is missing no opportunity to promote the game.

ESPN sported an equally important matchup between Louisville and West Virginia Nov. 2. When the net scheduled the game at the start of the season, it was beyond any exec’s wildest dreams that it would be between two undefeated, top-five teams. But they were, and the game drew an astonishing 6.4 million viewers, nearly double the number of any cable program that week.

College football ratings have generally been up over the last few years, particularly in the postseason, as the revamped BCS has given added importance to many games.

Ratings hit a peak last year for the title Rose Bowl game, a Matt Leinart-Vince Young showdown that Texas won in an upset. Game averaged 35.63 million viewers and was the most-watched title contest in 19 years.

But this year could prove equally big, especially since a separate national title game was added to complement the four BCS bowls.

Though traditionally college sports-averse, Fox paid a pricey $83 million per year to broadcast four BCS bowls, including the title game, through 2010.

Net’s move isn’t without risk.

Fox must find a way to promote the games without any regular season college football on its network. To do so, the net will try to borrow a page from another successful college postseason.

Fox for the first time this year will broadcast a live BCS selection show on network primetime, along the lines of CBS’ shows for the Division I hoops tourneys. It’s also promoting college football on its NFL postgame show and dedicated shows on Fox Sports Net.

ABC/ESPN has the opposite problem — a great regular season but few of the big ad dollars that come from the postseason. It is carrying only one out of five BCS Bowls, the Rose Bowl, after its package for the other games expired last year.

Still, despite losing those games — not to mention “Monday Night Football” — it is compensating with its Saturday primetime college football experiment, which has proved successful. The package’s secret? The ability to regionalize.

About 5.7 million viewers tuned in to Saturday’s broadcast, which featured three separate games from the Pac-10, the Big 12 and the ACC. Net scored a 1.9 rating in viewers 18-49.

ESPN Programming and Acquisitions veep Dave Brown said the net isn’t concerned about its package of lesser, non-BCS bowl games leaving it less able to fully capitalize on the regular season. “Every week is like a playoff game in college football,” he said.

Meanwhile, networks with narrower packages were trying to maximize their assets.

NBC execs were breathing hard when it looked as if Notre Dame would rack up its second loss against UCLA, effectively ending its hopes of playing in a BCS bowl. Peacock has bet it all on Fighting Irish home games; for the first time this year, it won’t carry any bowl game. And CBS has a deal with the SEC, which has several BCS Bowl contenders but has otherwise been a somewhat lesser player in a big year for college football.

(Rick Kissell in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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