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TV biz should follow rules of sport

The major networks’ upfront presentations always overlap with the Natl. Basketball Assn. playoffs and Major League Baseball season. Yet while the NBA has gotten its game together in a manner TV might be wise to emulate, baseball is mired in the kind of denial that often seems to plague Hollywood.

This year’s basketball playoffs have proved unusually compelling, demonstrating that after a dry spell, the league has reloaded with an array of marketable young stars. The action itself also has been cleaned up through tighter officiating, resulting in a more wide-open, viewer-friendly style of play.

Once again, fans are buzzing about NBA games, reflected in across-the-board demographic gains, with cable outlet TNT eclipsing an 11-year-old first-round playoff record during the Lakers-Phoenix Suns series — a mark set back when Michael Jordan ruled the airwaves. Pretty good timing for a league whose TV contract is up for renewal after the 2007-08 season.

So the NBA has cultivated new talent and adapted its product to fuel consumer demand — a winning combination, even if it doesn’t always fulfill the old “It’s fan-tastic” marketing slogan.

Compare that with baseball, which has responded to its current public-relations nightmare by doing — well, pretty much nothing. After a surge in interest thanks to its home run explosion, the bill is coming due, with widespread allegations of steroid use by the same sluggers who bulked up and began jacking balls into the cheap seats at an unprecedented pace.

Nowhere is this more awkward than with Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants star inexorably bearing down on Hank Aaron’s all-time homerun record. That’s been preceded, however, by what one sportswriter rightfully dubbed his “dreary” countdown to Babe Ruth’s plateau of 714 homers, with the league behaving as if the whole sordid mess will rectify itself if officials ignore it.

By contrast, even what might be called the NBA’s DVD extras — such as the ongoing feud between former Laker teammates Shaquille O’Neal, since relocated to Miami, and Kobe Bryant — have added soap-operatic spice to the mix. Meanwhile, Bonds is the unwanted gift that keeps on giving, including an excellent hour of HBO’s “CostasNOW” in which Bob Costas dissected the controversy.

As a snapshot of this disparity, the May 9 New York Times sports section featured side-by-side columns about the Bryant-O’Neal split and Bonds’ home run chase — one centering on the quest for championships, the other about an aging headliner pursuing a landmark all about personal (if tainted) glory.

The lessons for network TV are clear: Nurture new stars, be willing to tinker with the product to suit fans, and if a problem is staring you in the face, pretending it’s not there won’t make it go away.

Oh yeah, and you’re only as good as this season’s scorecard. Play ball.

* * *

Speaking of the upfronts, the nagging question of whether people will actually continue watching the 30-second spots that media buyers are about to pay billions to place mirrors the pricing challenges faced by the airline industry.

After all, for major carriers to survive, someone has to pay full fare for a ticket or not travel on frequent-flyer mileage. Just let it be some other poor dumb bastard, not me.

A similar mentality applies to sitting through commercials. In our heart of hearts, TV viewers understand that without some mechanism to prop up advertiser-supported television, we’re going to have to pay for all this entertainment we’ve grown accustomed to receiving free (excluding the cable bill) one way or another. Yet if advertising is necessary to keep making expensive programs possible, let some dope without a TiVo or equivalent DVR watch the blurbs so we can skip them.

This “have it my way” approach is fine when consumers are willing to pay for the privilege (say, a buck extra to order advance movie tickets and bypass lines) and problematic when they don’t (illegally downloading content).

The point is that those of us breezily gliding past commercial pods are pretty happy about it, and while DVR penetration remains relatively low, eventually, something’s got to give. In the interim, anybody whose livelihood relies on the existing system might start by asking a friend to watch a commercial, and maybe enduring one ourselves. The program or job you save might be your own.

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