- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

A remote control with fresh batteries is now in order.
With the expiration of President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, sports broadcast schedules are still being revised, leaving coverage of many marquee events most notably the NCAA men's basketball tournament, scheduled to start today on CBS decidedly in flux.
CBS last night finalized a much-anticipated agreement with ESPN and ESPN2 to move NCAA tournament games to the cable sports giant if CBS goes to full-time news coverage of a war with Iraq. ESPN would take on as much as the entire slate of games today and tomorrow and some of the weekend games if necessary.
CBS' parent company, Viacom, owns several cable networks, including TNN, Nickelodeon, VH1 and MTV, which possibly could be used as well to air part of the tournament. However, it's most likely the games first would be moved to Walt Disney Co.-owned ESPN and ESPN2.
Unlike the Viacom cable networks, the all-sports network has the ability to show different games in different regions of the country, is seen in more homes and already has a defined presence in college basketball.
"No specific game-by-game plans have been set," said Chris LaPlaca, ESPN vice president. "What's happened is that we have reached a deal and we are here if CBS needs us. Operationally, this is still a very fluid situation."
The financial stakes are serious for the CBS. The network is paying about $320million for this year's broadcast rights and had expected to reap about $375million in advertising sales. Moving games to cable almost certainly would diminish average ratings, because ESPN is in only four of every five homes that get CBS, ESPN2 slightly less. TNN is in a similar ratio of CBS homes. And the war coverage itself is expected to draw many viewers from all other programming.
CBS has guaranteed certain ratings to its sponsors, and not meeting those targets in the early rounds of the tournament would require giving free future ad time. Such make-good time could cost CBS more than $12million.
Terms of the potential transfer of games from CBS to ESPN have not been disclosed but likely would center on promotional opportunities for other ESPN programming during the tournament.
CBS has not yet determined how it would notify sports fans where to watch the games. Options include a text scroll along the bottom of its war coverage, or cutbacks from CBS newsrooms to CBS Sports studios where game broadcast plans would be announced.
"[Viewers] will not be on their own," said CBS spokesman LeslieAnne Wade.
ESPN last aired the men's basketball tournament in 1990.
Other networks are similarly juggling sports coverage plans with the impending war:
NBC would shift coverage of the PGA's Bay Hill Invitational to CNBC if needed. A decision on planned coverage of the Arena Football League has not yet been made.
Sunday's coverage of NASCAR's race in Bristol, Tenn., would shift from Fox to F/X if Fox runs its Fox News Channel over broadcast channels.
cABC's Saturday coverage of the NHL would move to sister channel ESPN, as would Sunday broadcasts of NBA games. A final decision on Sunday's coverage of the Indy Racing League's race in Phoenix has not yet been made, though another shift to ESPN would be likely. LaPlaca said its obligations over the weekend to assume ABC sports programming will take precedence over anything it does with CBS for the NCAA tournament. ESPN is also making a significant commitment to airing the entire NCAA women's basketball tournament, which starts Saturday.
Regardless of broadcast plans, every major sports entity is planning to continue its competition schedules uninterrupted. The only exception is Major League Baseball, which Tuesday called off a planned trip by the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners to Japan to open the regular season.

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