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Sports on TV: Blowouts Hurt Ratings

The NFL's season-long TV ratings juggernaut was slowed, but not stopped, by less-than-suspenseful playoff action Saturday.

Fox's 45-14 New Orleans Saints win against the Arizona Cardinals drew a 17.9 overnight rating, translating into 17.9 percent of TV households in 56 urban markets - up 5 percent from CBS' Baltimore Ravens-Tennessee Titans game in that time slot last year. The Indianapolis Colts' 20-3 win vs. Baltimore on CBS drew an 18.7 overnight - up 18 percent from Fox's comparable coverage of Arizona-Carolina Panthers last year.

The NFL, which had its most-watched season since 1990, will have four star quarterbacks on display Sunday. For the AFC title game (3 p.m. ET), CBS, which doesn't normally use NFL sideline reporters, will use Steve Tasker in that role Sunday. Fox, even with Brett Favre, the marquee later time slot (6:40 ET) and the momentum of the NFL's ratings roll, would need something cataclysmic to break the TV ratings record for playoff action outside the Super Bowl: The 1982 NFC Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers game drew a 42.9 rating, which outrates 23 Super Bowl games.

Spice rack: Taped sit-downs with stars for NFL studio shows can be soporific. So after Dallas' Tony Romo said "anytime you win in the playoffs it's enjoyable" in a taped interview with Fox's Pam Oliver that aired before the Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings game Sunday, Oliver's immediate follow-up with Romo was refreshing: "How would you know?" Said Romo, who had won one: "Good point. Well, I see a lot of clips on TV." 

Jerome Bettis, on Sirius Satellite Radio, said Bill Cowher would leave CBS to coach the New York Giants because "that's where he always wanted to be." So? Well, Bettis, then with NBC, predicted in the 2006 preseason that Cowher was in his last season coaching Pittsburgh - an early call that turned out to be true.

TNT's Charles Barkley says suspended Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas "was wrong" to bring four guns to the locker room. But, Barkley suggests, not all that wrong. Barkley said the incident shouldn't cost Arenas his contract - "this is not a $90 million incident" - and added that New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress shouldn't have gone to jail on a gun charge and neither should Arenas. Having pleaded guilty to a felony gun charge, Arenas will find out at a March 26 sentencing whether he'll serve jail time.

CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday looked at how Samoa, with about 65,000 residents, produced more than 30 current NFL players and 200-plus college Division I players. Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, a Samoan, wondered how many pro players there would be "if there were 120 million Samoans." That's a pretty big if.

On tap: Nick Charles returns to calling blow-by-blow on Showtime boxing Friday after being treated for bladder cancer. Charles, who last called a fight in July, says he's 80 percent in remission and "never really lost hope." . . . Matt Winer, having left ESPN, premieres in his new job as a studio host at NBA TV on Wednesday.

The memorial service for George Michael, the longtime nationally syndicated and Washington, D.C., broadcaster, will be held at the National Cathedral in Washington at 11 a.m. Thursday. Speakers will include Joe Gibbs.

HBO's latest Real Sports, premiering Tuesday, features Chris Nowinski, a medical researcher who studies head injuries among NFL players. He says he has pledges from more than 60 NFL players for their brains to be donated after their death to study effects of concussions - "some of these guys are doing it honestly to protect their own sons" who play football.

This really happened: With his Sports Job series on Versus and a snappy appearance on Showtime's Inside the NFL last week, recently retired Junior Seau seems positioned for a big NFL TV job next season. Still, there's this: On Wednesday's Sports Job, in a series in which he does real-life sports occupations, Seau works at a racetrack and - no kidding - castrates a horse. That will make his audition tape stand out. 

Going beyond the now-commonplace use of comics on NFL studio shows, the NFL Network's Steve Mariucci - an ex-NFL coach - wore a wig to impersonate Jay Leno. Mariucci's lines included noting teams who "score more easily than Tiger Woods" and backfields that remind him of Sarah Palin - "decent-looking, but probably not going to run." NFL studio shows, however, still haven't added animal acts.

"Regis Philbin is the greatest picker of football games ever," Fox's Michael Strahan said Sunday. "Ever!" Strahan promised Philbin he'd state the obvious on-air if the Green Bay Packers made the playoffs and the Seattle Seahawks didn't.

Method acting: Marv Albert returns to NBC in the time slot after the Vancouver Olympics closing ceremony Feb. 28 to play a role he's performed often and strives to perfect: himself.

Albert will be the announcer in The Marriage Ref, which NBC is already flogging on-air, though it won't premiere in its regular Sunday night time slot until March 14. The show, produced by Jerry Seinfeld and longtime Oprah Winfrey producer Ellen Rakieten, will let celeb judges - such as Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Eva Longoria - weigh in on real-life bickering couples.

Albert, calling today's Orlando Magic-Los Angeles Lakers game (10:30 p.m. ET), the finale of TNT's NBA tripleheader, says he didn't have to show up for auditions for Marv Albert types. Instead, he says, "This just came out of nowhere."

Hardly. "I love the guy," Seinfeld says. "And every other guy I know does, too." There's so much love in the business of show.

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