SPORTS Bill Benner: A life lesson to remember: Television always rules

April 24, 2006

Even after all these years, my bride still sometimes forgets that there really are three sure things in life: death, taxes and the fact that television rules, especially in sports.

As a guy who spent most of his life in the newspaper business, the increasing influence of television became an everlarger burr in my behind. Everything from the length of games (those four-hour-plus University of Notre Dame football games were especially excruciating) to deadlinecrunching late starting times to preferential treatment ("out of the way, inkstained wretch; here comes a mini-cam!") made television a bane of my existence.

Certainly, I understood the deal. I was there by virtue of a press pass for which I had paid nothing. Television was there by virtue of a rights fee for which it might have paid thousands, millions, perhaps billions.

Still, that didn't make me like it. Not then, and not now, even as I enjoy my favorite sports events televised into my living room.

At any rate, television's all-encompassing influence came to mind last week when I read in IBJ that NFL owners-certainly with the encouragement of their network partners-are kicking the little guys off the sidelines at league games.

No longer will videographers-aka cameramen-for the local affiliates be able to shoot game footage for use on newscasts and sportscasts. Instead, the affiliates will have to rely on the network feed for game highlights.

"This impedes our ability to cover the hometown Colts," my good friend, Jeff White, general manager at WISH-TV Channel 8, told IBJ's Anthony Schoettle.

"This undermines the tenets of a free press," added Linda Compton, president and CEO of the Indiana Broadcasters Association. "How can you ban coverage of a news event in a publicly funded facility?"

The answer, Ms. Compton, would be found in precedent.

For example, the recently concluded NCAA Men's Final Four was a major local news event that took place in that same publicly funded facility that houses the Colts. But there were no local affiliates shooting game footage. That's because CBS-for $6 billion-has purchased the exclusive rights from the NCAA. And when the Final Four takes place, the NCAA (and CBS by extension) essentially owns the building.

In fact, rights-holders excluding local affiliates is nothing new. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its rights-holder, ABC, control what affiliates can shoot on Race Day and they have to take "feed" footage of race action. Formula One all but shuts out the affiliates with its policies.

The NBA allows local affiliates to shoot game footage but when the action reaches the conference and league finals stage of the playoffs, the locals are given the boot in (publicly funded) Conseco Fieldhouse.

At the Big Ten Basketball Tournaments in the Fieldhouse, local affiliates are not allowed access to the floor to shoot their own footage, even when local teams (Indiana University, Purdue University) are playing.

If the local affiliates really wanted to drive home their complaint, they'd boycott coverage of the Colts, but don't think for a second that will happen.

It's also a stretch to suggest the local affiliates will lose viewers (and, by extension, ratings and ad revenue) because they can't provide their own sideline footage. The likely response from most viewers will be a yawn.

Compton told IBJ the decision to ban affiliate videographers could hurt the Colts in terms of marketing, ticket sales and revenue.

Yeah, right. You can just picture a guy saying, "Honey, unless the NFL allows Channel 8's Ivan Gratz and his camera back on the sidelines, we're going to give up our season tickets."

As an old newspaper guy, I sympathize with the locals' frustration and plight. Yet I can't help but smile inwardly at the irony.

Television rules. Sometimes even over television.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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