The battle was the bruising Game Three of the NBA Finals between Boston and Los Angeles. Human highlight reel Kobe Bryant led the Lakers past the Celtics, giving each team home victories as the Celtics' series lead was cut to 2-1. As with Games One and Two, last night's action was the highest-rated program of the night, scoring a 6.0/18 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic.
The war is between the NBA and Tim Donaghy, the disgraced former referee who has already pleaded guilty to gambling charges. He claimed in court during his sentencing hearing yesterday that the NBA conspired with other referees to extend a 2002 playoff series to a more lucrative seven games by altering foul calls.
NBA Commissioner David Stern's denial was quick and complete, as the league can ill afford to let this year's ratings rebound slip away. So far, it's been a good year for the finals, as Games One through Three are up 55% from last year's Cleveland vs. San Antonio series.
Indeed, to date, the gambling scandal, which emerged pre-season, hasn't hurt the league, just as the steroid scandal hasn't much cooled baseball fever. Fans seem to be alternately awed by athletic feats and accept athletes' feet of clay.
Past Boston's bedtime
Instead, what seems to have fans fuming aren't charges of extending a series, but rather when they're started, as bleary-eyed Boston fans on Eastern Time had to stay up to midnight to watch the end of the game. The timing can be partly justified as accommodating Lakers fans on Pacific Time. But it's more likely due to L.A.'s top industry -- entertainment -- and ABC's desire to squeeze in an extra hour of prime time.
This extra hour has averaged 28% extra viewers in this year's pre-game "NBA Countdown," which delivered a 1.8/6 last night. But that's down 22% from Game One's pre-game, as by now fans are familiar with the storylines and are more geared for the game. As for the pre-game's pre-game -- otherwise known as "Jimmy Kimmel Live" -- last night's 1.0/3 indicates that while the funny Jimmy Kimmel may be a late-night natural, he's an acquired audience taste in prime time.
Actually, viewers found Fox more entertaining in the first hour of prime time, as "Moment of Truth" won its timeslot with a 2.4/8. Not surprisingly, "Hell's Kitchen" cooled down 16% from normal levels up against the game, but Fox was still the only other competitive network last night, delivering an overall 3.3/10.
Conversely, CBS and NBC -- two networks which used to have the NBA -- played more like the Minnesota Timberwolves -- in the same league, but noncompetitive. Airing reruns of "NCIS" (1.9/6) and "Without a Trace" (1.8/5) around an original "48 Hours Mystery" (1.9/5), CBS was third with a 1.9/6. NBC finished fourth with a 1.8/5 as two repeats of "Law & Order: SVU" (1.8/5 and 1.9/5) ran after two episodes of "Most Outrageous Moments," both of which delivered a 1.8/6 even though one was original and one a repeat.
The CW (.4/1) also repeated its usual fifth-place finish, and repeated .4/1 ratings for reruns of "Beauty and the Geek" and "Reaper."
As for the NBA, a tighter series should mean higher ratings for Thursday's Game Four battle. That is, unless the gambling gossip gains any more traction, as even resilient sports fans won't accept game-fixing, unless it's the Harlem Globetrotters extending its decades-long, road-show winning streak over the Washington Generals.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: With NBC's "Celebrity Circus" the only network premiere, it may be time to start watching ABC's "Men in Trees" -- even if it is the season finale.
Thursday: Game Four of the Lakers/Celtics series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Apathy? Or engagement? Network TV tests its reality TV summer strategy tonight at 8 p.m. as all five run reality: "The Price Is Right: Million Dollar Spectacular" (CBS); "Deal or No Deal" (NBC); "Wife Swap" (ABC); "So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox) and "America's Next Top Model" (the CW).
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NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day, unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.