While the start of the U.S. war with Iraq played havoc with broadcast-network television lineups last week, most of the entertainment-based cable networks remained bunkered within their regular programming schedules.
As of press time, plans for weekend broadcast-network sports programming were in flux, as the Big Four and cable networks ironed out contingency plans in the event of heavy war-news coverage.
Last Thursday, rightsholder CBS shifted afternoon coverage of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's college basketball tournament to ESPN, while Black Rock devoted its airtime to the war coverage. ESPN aired games in a pair of afternoon windows, but CBS resumed coverage of the games by 7 p.m. on March 20.
Early last Friday afternoon, CBS began airing live coverage of "March Madness" contests, even though other news organizations were reporting that the beginning of the "shock-and-awe" stage of the invasion was drawing nigh. When the heavy bombing of Baghdad began, CBS and ESPN both quickly made the switch.
While terms of the agreement were not revealed, ESPN officials said the telecasts provided the network with high-profile programming during afternoon hours — even though CBS Sports produced the games, and CBS's logo and talent were prominently featured throughout the telecasts.
The college hoops games provided ESPN the opportunity to promote upcoming programming, including the start of the NCAA women's college tournament, which was slated to top off last weekend, said ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz.
Moreover, ESPN affiliates were able to retain two minutes an hour of local ad time.
It was unclear if ESPN would get another opportunity to air NCAA men's games in light of the war. But network officials said the game plan called for ESPN to air coverage during the early Saturday afternoon and early evening windows (1 p.m. 6 and 8 p.m.) and late Sunday afternoon (5 p.m.), if CBS elects to switch to the war.
TNN in game
CBS's fallback plan for the remaining weekend NCAA tournament games involved splitting the action between Viacom sister networks TNN and TV Land, as well as TBS Inc. services Turner Network Television and TBS Superstation.
TNN and TV Land would air simultaneous tournament coverage from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. TNT and TBS could pick up the last Saturday and Sunday night games, sources said.
CBS wasn't the only network preparing to adjust its sports schedules. NBC announced last week it would move its March 22 and 23 coverage of the Professional Golfers Association Tour's Bay Hill Invitational Tournament to CNBC.
ESPN officials said the sports network would take ABC Sports' afternoon National Hockey League games on March 22 and National Basketball Assoication contests on March 23, should ABC air war coverage.
And Fox Sports executives said the broadcast network would look to relocate its March 23 Food City 400 National Assocation of Stock Car Auto Racing telecast to sister News Corp.-owned general-entertainment network FX.
The outbreak of war did not have a major impact on most entertainment networks' programming schedules.
While executives scanned their lineups for what they deemed to be inappropriate programming, most networks planned to retain the status quo for the immediate future.
A notable exception was MTV, which returned to regularly scheduled programming on Thursday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. The music-and-lifestyle service went commercial-free beginning Wednesday night at 10 p.m., as it delivered war-related programming, said an MTV spokeswoman.
MTV took calls
MTV News correspondents Gideon Yago and John Norris fielded calls from viewers and provided updated news reports throughout the evening and daytime hours.
Even the network's Total Request Live
mixed war updates and discussions with music videos, said the spokeswoman, who added the network will air commercial-free "MTV News Specials" when merited.
The spokeswoman could not estimate network ad-sales revenue losses.
MTV also postponed its annual "Spring Break" programming, which was slated to premiere last Friday. It now plans to air that franchise this upcoming weekend (March 28-30).
CNBC also tweaked its schedule due to the war, indefinitely postponing the March 19 debut of its much-touted new series Topic A With Tina Brown.