Friday, March 17, 2006

WPEC-12's Decision Bad News for Fans

BYLINE: Charles Elmore
DATE: March 17, 2006
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
EDITION: FINAL
SECTION: SPORTS
PAGE: 9B
MEMO: TELEVISION
CBS' West Palm Beach affiliate made a maddeningly bad call to cut out of March Madness Thursday.

WPEC-12 abruptly switched to local news at 5:15 p.m. with the outcome still in doubt in several close games immediately after Florida's first-round victory over South Alabama. No. 15 seed Winthrop was tied with No. 2 Tennessee in the final minutes, in exactly the kind of first-round surprise that makes the NCAA Tournament worth watching.

CBS had been switching to frequent updates of that game during the Florida contest. Tennessee won on a fall-away shot from the corner by Chris Lofton with 0.4 of a second left. Or so I read on the Internet. WPEC viewers did not see it. Nor did we see the ending of two upsets, No. 12 Montana over No. 5 Nevada and No. 10 Alabama over seventh-seeded Marquette.

WPEC executive news director Steve Hunsicker could not say how many upset viewers had called the station, though he said at least two calls from angry basketball fans were routed to him. "We did exactly what we planned to do," Hunsicker said. "When the Florida game was over, we were going to carry news."

Announcer Tim Brando was cut off in midsentence after Florida's 76-60 victory over South Florida. The station showed about an hour and 15 minutes of its usual 90-minute local news block. "It was a local call," said CBS spokeswoman Jen Sabatelle. "That's their decision."

Will WPEC show more flexibility in the future? "I never say never to anything," Hunsicker said. "If you had, say, Florida State and Miami playing, certainly. If UCLA and Hawaii are playing, probably not. You have to make the best decision you can."

Ninety minutes of local news is wonderful in an age of shrinking news budgets, but the station needs to rethink its game plan on the NCAA Tournament. CBS is the only place fans can watch the games on television. It's a multibillion-dollar property, and the station should feel some obligation to fans who care as much as the network wants them to.

In fairness to WPEC, the games were running behind schedule because of developments, including Boston College's two-overtime victory over Pacific and a bomb scare in San Diego.

The Florida game ran about 15 minutes into WPEC's scheduled news time. But the station should have been ready to adapt. There was no local news emergency. I'm not begrudging the time to show video of a puppy-napping in Hollywood. But for basketball fans, the real theft is missing exciting finishes on the first day of March Madness.

Remedy on the Net: One way to watch the games is online, at www.ncaasports.com/mmod. CBS' NCAA March Madness on Demand set an Internet record with 268,000 simultaneous video streams, the network and CBS SportsLine announced Thursday.

Story courtesy of and copyrighted by The Palm Beach Post

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