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Dan Rather and the Courageous Dogs

It was early in the morning and I had been up far too late the night before, so I rubbed my eyes at what I was seeing on my television screen.

No, I hadn't imagined it. There were dogs on my screen -- lots of them. Little wiener dogs, strangely-shaped poodles, giant saint bernards. And there, in the background, was a familiar banner that read "CBS Sports."

CBS Sports coverage of a dog show, on a Sunday morning in April. At the same time, NBC was showing the NBA playoffs. ABC was broadcasting a bickering match between George Will and Sam Donaldson, with David Brinkley playing referee. On ESPN, Chris Berman was busy filling time between picks at the NFL draft.

CBS, on the other hand, was highlighting that famed world-champion Pekinese, Muffy. For a few hours, the mighty CBS eye was focused on Stupid Pet Tricks.

Shh. Do you hear that sound, way in the distance? That's Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave. The mighty CBS, the network of news integrity, Dan Rather, the Winter Olympics and multimillion-dollar baseball contracts, broadcast a dog contest. Throw in a horse race, and you've got the proverbial CBS dog-and-pony show.

It was baseball, in some ways, that brought CBS to this. After spending buckets of money on the broadcast rights for major league baseball, the network had to begin cutting costs wherever they could. The news division, among others, suffered intense cutbacks.

And in one attempt to recoup a little money, they decided to program a dog show on a Sunday morning. Prop up correspondent Andrea Joyce (who was no doubt thrilled with the assignment) in front of the reviewing stand and let the dogs parade by.

"Courage," Dan Rather would probably advise Joyce. Courage.

Joyce and other CBS sports correspondents will need more courage in the future, if the ridiculous spending of late 1980s television contracts continued into the '90s. But chances are that the next NFL and Major League Baseball contracts will be quite a bit smaller -- the networks can't afford it.

Then Rather will have to advise courage to NFL and baseball owners, because the networks will no longer be subsidizing the ridiculous salaries they've been handing out to players.

And when teams, running short on TV money, begin to go into the red, it will be time for salary caps and revenue sharing. That means that the players won't make what they're making now.

Courage, Mr. Sandberg, Rather might say. Ryno and like players might have to make due with only $3 million-a-year contracts from now on.

While all that goes on with football and baseball, NBA Commissioner David Stern can sit back, light a fat cigar, and cackle madly. His league, once on the brink -- not because of player salaries, but because of low fan interest -- is now the healthiest of the bunch, due both to the work of Stern and people like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Stern and his associates did an incredible job in making their league profitable -- but their task will be nothing compared to what the football and baseball people will need to do. A large part of Stern's solution was simply to clean up the league and begin filling arena seats. The football and baseball owners will need undergo a course of economic reform even more painful than the one going on in the former Soviet Union.

Courage, Mr. Yeltsin. Courage, Mr. Tagliabue. Courage, Mr. Vincent.

And while we're at it, let's not forget to note the one major league I haven't mentioned yet: the NHL. Led by Incompetent League President (now his official title) John Zeigler, the NHL has managed to run a sure thing into the ground.

Just when hockey was in the perfect position to become a truly national sport in America, thanks to the L.A. Kings and the San Jose Sharks, Zeigler decided to pull his league off of national network ESPN and instead went with the little-seen SportsChannel.

So Zeigler has the economic problems of the baseball and football brain trusts, but also has a major visibility problem. Nobody sees the NHL, at a time when many Americans are curious about this strange athletic export from colder climes.

What's the frequency, Mr. Zeigler?, Dan might ask.

For the NHL, the answer is simple: the frequency is SportsChannel. And the league's prognosis isn't good.

This leaves fans in the middle. Some of their TV sports will no doubt move to cable or pay-per-view, leaving them out in the cold. Cost-cutting may decrease the quality of the broadcast, and there may also be hikes in ticket prices. Player strikes are also a very real possibility.

It's a nasty spiral that started with ridiculous TV contracts --right now, the newest symptom was yesterday's dog show telecast. But for fans, there will be worse times ahead.

Courage, fans. You'll need it.


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