Broadcast outshines ugly game

Much of the college football season seemed to be less about the BCS than ABF, as in “Anything But Football” — hideous allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State, rules violations by major universities, arbitrary conference realignments and big-money TV deals. Never mind the inevitable griping about the Bowl Championship Series, which yielded a rematch between two teams from the same conference whose first contest failed to produce a touchdown.

Yet when the dust cleared and the whistle finally blew, ESPN’s coverage of Monday’s BCS title showdown came up stronger than the game itself, with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit living up to what, despite the 21-0 shutout, almost certainly will register as the most-watched cable telecast of 2012.

It’s always been a mystery, frankly, why ESPN hasn’t developed another play-by-play guy to supplant Musburger, who is competent but frequently irritating and has a penchant for lionizing coaches as if they were curing cancer.

On Monday, however, he was in fine form, repeatedly capturing key moments with almost the perfect phrase. The halftime statistics were “flat ugly.” LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson made “a horrible mistake” when he tried, belatedly, to flip the ball to a receiver, resulting in an interception. Alabama’s kicker, who nailed five field goals, was (before a late touchdown) “a one-man scoring gang.” Alabama’s defense delivered “a mauling” of LSU, which didn’t even cross midfield until late in the game, marking the first shutout in a BCS championship.

Musburger also addressed — perhaps a little too definitively — that there’s little chance Associated Press voters still will pick LSU as No. 1, given how one-sided the game was. While that turned out to be true, proclaiming the Crimson Tide’s unchallenged right to the title sounded like a veiled apology for a BCS system millions of fans understandably abhor, which ESPN might analyze endlessly but helps perpetuate through its TV deal.

For the most part, though, it was a pretty good night for ESPN, the final score notwithstanding. On the booth side, the network also could point to a solid performance by Herbstreit, whose insights are sharp and blissfully free of the hysteria and buffoonery characteristic of so many of the channel’s college analysts. (Seriously, did we really need to see Lee Corso put on a Tiger headpiece when he unveiled his game prediction?)

Granted, the pregame hype went on forever, but what else is new? On its face, this game had “ratings killer” written all over it. A regional contest between LSU and Alabama, two Southeastern Conference schools in relatively small TV markets (one reason ESPN is no doubt thrilled at the prospect of having Southern California in next year’s title chase). Moreover, it was anticipated to be another defense-oriented showdown, in a year in which offensive pyrotechnics by the likes of Oregon and Oklahoma State ruled the day.

Nevertheless, Monday’s broadcast averaged 24.2 million viewers, down about 11 percent from last year but still the second-biggest cable audience ever — it trails only ESPN’s inaugural BCS title-game telecast last year. Despite the fact moving the game off broadcast TV means millions of US households don’t have access to it, ESPN’s 2011 telecast (Auburn beat Oregion) drew an estimated 27.3 million viewers but dropped a modest 11 percent compared to ABC’s 2010 BCS broadcast.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the current scenario. A reader recently complained to the Los Angeles Times about being unemployed and forced to give up cable, meaning he couldn’t see virtually any of the major bowl games “thanks to ESPN and the almighty dollar.”

For the majority of fans who could tune in, ESPN delivered one of those rare broadcasting commodities: a performance by the network team that was superior, in most respects, to the actual game.

Besides, based on all the tumult and unpleasantness surrounding the 2011-12 campaign, the ugly nature of the game proved oddly appropriate. After dozens of bowls spread out over weeks, the season closed in a fashion that was anything but pretty to watch, in some respects leaving behind less a rush of enthusiasm — you’re an Alabama fan — than a sigh of relief.

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