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Networks Plan for Live Sports Pre-emptions

With the U.S. involved in a war on terrorism, the broadcast networks have quietly made contingency plans to shift coverage of live sports coverage to cable, should news developments take precedence.

In most cases, broadcast network executives said such shifts would be made easier because of corporate ties to sister cable networks. But some cable programmers said scheduling considerations and contract provisions might hamper any potential changes in programming.

Though broadcast networks executives downplayed the odds of moving live sports events to cable in deference to breaking war news, such shifts had already occurred on Oct. 7. On that day — the first of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan —ABC and NBC pre-empted live soccer and National Association for Stock Car Racing programming, respectively.

Turner Network Television aired NBC's scheduled afternoon coverage of the United Auto Workers-General Motors Corp. Quality 500 NASCAR race while NBC reported the news. Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes said the transition of the race from NBC to Turner was easy because the two network share NASCAR rights.

"Because we have a 50-50 partnership, it worked out very well," Hughes said. "It was a seamless transition, and we've made contingency plans if such an occurrence should present itself in the future."

ABC wasn't so lucky. Scheduling conflicts on sister cable networks ESPN and ESPN2 prevented the broadcaster from moving its live coverage of the United States-Jamaica World Cup soccer qualifying match to cable once it switched to ABC News. At the time, ESPN was telecasting a live Championship Auto Racing Teams event, and ESPN2 was televising a Major League Baseball game. ESPN aired a tape of the soccer match the next day.

ESPN senior vice president programming development Len DeLuca said the network's professional and college sports contracts prohibit it from pre-empting live games, making it difficult to fill in for ABC at a moment's notice.

ABC Sports vice president of public relations Mark Mandel echoed those sentiments.

"We know if a Sunday afternoon golf tournament runs over, we can move it to ESPN or ESPN2 because we've worked that out previously with the networks," Mandel said. "We have a good relationship with ESPN, but there are so many variables and unknowns that any plans that we develop now could drastically change in the future."

Nevertheless, DeLuca said ESPN is prepared to take ABC's Monday Night Football
if the situation should arise.

"ESPN will use all of our resources and work with ABC, and at the same time serve our sports viewers with our scheduled programming," he said.

Even when there aren't any scheduling conflicts, other variables may cause problems in shifting broadcast sports programming to cable. Although NBC's decision to move the NASCAR race to Turner was easy because of their partnership, a similar arrangement for their National Basketball Association games isn't as clear cut.

NBC Sports spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said that the network hasn't made contingency decisions on whether to move any of its pro hoops telecasts to TNT or TBS Superstation, in lieu of breaking war news.

"It's something that we haven't discussed yet," added Turner's Hughes.

Since NBC and Turner are not financial partners in the NBA deal, the broadcaster would take a direct financial hit if it moved its live telecasts to cable, according to sources.

Fox Sports also doesn't have a hard rules governing if and when to switch a sports event from the Fox broadcast network to FX or Fox Sports Net.

Fox Sports spokesman Dan Bell said the sports department is in "constant communication" with the news department concerning breaking news issues, and would respond accordingly by switching to Fox News Channel in the event of a major news story. The decision to then move a sports event to cable would be based primarily on the length of time that the game or event would be pre-empted for special news coverage.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.