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March 18, 2008

On Media: Who’s going to the NCAA Tourney?

No one was more interested in the fate of local teams in the NCAA basketball tournament than executives and news directors at local TV stations. That’s because their budgets and reputations were riding on being able to get reporters to game sites. From the time the brackets were announced Sunday night, station personnel scrambled to figure out how to get talent, equipment and satellite time in Birmingham, Raleigh and Anaheim. As viewers, we expect one thing from our local newscasts this time of year — a local personality standing in front of a distant arena, gauging the atmosphere and interviewing fans who have made the trip. Some of us want to know what people are paying for tickets as much as what Rick Pitino thinks of Boise State. With sports staffs thin, stations often send anchors on these trips, giving the games a bigger sense of importance. But the new posture seems to be this: It’s no longer sacrilege to consider bypassing Kentucky’s first-round game in Anaheim. No one died because Bob Domine wasn’t at the SEC Tournament. In the same way that local newspapers have cut back on travel and beat writers, TV stations are finding excuses to keep reporters at home. Fred Cowgill, WLKY’s longtime sports director, said he doesn’t like the way things are trending. Up until 2006, he said local stations just didn’t consider the option of not sending a reporter to a conference or NCAA Tournament. Cost didn’t matter. Find a way. “Up until a few years ago, it was never even talked about,” said Cowgill, whose station was the only local operation to skip both last week’s SEC Tourney in Atlanta and the Big East showdown in New York. “It’s a financial reality that we can’t go everywhere.”WLKY saved on its travel budget by skipping last weekend’s conference tourneys, but it will spare no expense on the NCAA Tournament beginning this week. That’s because it’s Christmas in July for the CBS affiliate, which has been the nation’s top-ranked affiliate for the tournament for seven years running.News director Mike Neelly said he’ll send anchor Rick Van Hoose to Raleigh with Indiana, while Fred Cowgill goes to Birmingham with U of L and Keith Farmer gets the Disneyland trip with UK. “I’d like to be able to do everything,” he said. “With the conference tournaments, we don’t have the games, and there aren’t a lot of newscasts, and there’s a timing factor. But we’re committed to the NCAA Tournament.”At WLKY, the NCAA pays the bills. Advertisers clamor for spots in the tournament games, which last year pulled an average 18.3 rating and 32 share over 26 games, Neelly said. That’s ahead of Columbus (which had Ohio State in the title game last year) and Indianapolis. Let’s estimate those numbers are at least 50 percent higher when local teams play. So the station bulks up its basketball inventory, airing a one-hour special Wednesday night and a half-hour pregame on Thursday. Want to buy a spot during the U of L game? Guess what? You’re buying the specials, too.At WDRB, news director Barry Fulmer said his station won’t be sending anyone West with the Wildcats. The station is not part of a large ownership group and can’t make deals for equipment and satellite time as easily as its local competitors. Logistics, not necessarily expense, factored into the decision. “It was a tough call with UK, but considering the game times and travel, it just wasn’t possible,” Fulmer said. WHAS plans to cover Kentucky’s trip to California, but is skipping coverage of Indiana. News director Genie Garner said, “Money’s tight, but we’re committed to the coverage. We have to make choices, and will cover Indiana with feeds from our affiliate stations.”WAVE’s Lee Eldridge said distance had a lot to do with his decision not to send a crew to Anaheim this week. He said that if the Cats had gone almost anywhere else, he had a crew ready to go, but couldn’t justify sending a SAT truck across the country. As is, WAVE is sending Kent Taylor to Birmingham and Connie Leonard to Raleigh. He added that there is another story the station is covering — the boys’ high school Sweet 16 in Lexington, with Bob Domine. Viewers know the drill with local TV — but will they notice if their favorite station doesn’t bother to send anyone to Anaheim? Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes about media and local politics on his website, The ’Ville Voice (http://thevillevoice.com)