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Sports on TV: Big Ratings for Big Stars

Given the game's star power and story lines and the NFL's season-long ratings strength, CBS' upcoming Super Bowl at least seems poised to be the highest-rated in a decade.

The record - 49.1 percent of U.S. households for CBS' Cincinnati Bengals-San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl on Jan. 24, 1982 - seems out of reach. But after the most-watched regular season since 1990 and across-the-board boosts in playoff ratings, Super Bowl XLIV could be the highest-rated since NBC drew 46 percent of households for Dallas Cowboys-Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 28, 1996.

CBS seems a shoo-in to get the biggest Super Bowl audience ever. Because the U.S. population is always increasing, the total number of viewers often rises from the previous year. Last year's game drew the highest Super Bowl total ever - 98.7 million viewers.

MLB prime time: Fox spokesman Dan Bell says the network is talking to MLB about moving two dates in its regular-season Saturday afternoon coverage - one in May and one in June - into prime-time slots.

Say what? NFL Network's Michael Irvin, talking about Brett Favre on Sunday, said "it would give some kind of peace to all of us if at least he ended with a Super Bowl. Then we could say, 'OK, there was a reason he did all of that.' " Otherwise, we'd be stuck trying to make sense of why the future Hall of Famer would come back while still able to have perhaps the best season of his career. What a riddle. . . . "Defense doesn't win championships," NFL Network's Warren Sapp says. Huh? You might as well announce there's an "i'' in "team".

Spice rack: Fox's Pam Oliver, in a taped interview with Favre that aired Sunday, was direct in asking why he's so enthusiastic about "slapping people in the butt." Favre answered it's a "motivational tool." . . . CBS' Bill Cowher has kept quiet on-air about returning to coaching. In response to Jerome Bettis, who played for Cowher in Pittsburgh, saying he has "coveted" coaching the New York Giants, Cowher told the New York Daily News: "I haven't talked to Jerome Bettis in two years. I'll leave it at that."

Flawed democracy: It's bad enough fans vote for the starters in TNT's upcoming NBA All-Star Game, suggests TNT's Kenny Smith, but leaving players out of the loop is worse. "That the NBA doesn't allow its players to have a vote in the All-Star process is a bigger travesty than the fans (voting). The coaches and fans vote, but game recognizes game." TNT's Charles Barkley says the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson, starting for the East, shouldn't even suit up. He says Iverson should decline to play - "the Sixers have not played well, and he hasn't played well."

On tap: NBC parent General Electric has said it will lose $200 million on next month's Winter Olympics coverage but, on a conference call with financial analysts Friday, revised that estimate upward - it now expects losses of $250 million. . . . The Michael Vick Project, an eight-part documentary series on BET, debuts Feb. 2. Vick says he hopes the series about his rise and fall might "prevent someone out there from making the same mistakes I did." . . . Careers can take twists and turns: Paul Page, who called the Indianapolis 500 on TV or radio for decades, has these play-by-play roles in ESPN's X Games, which start Thursday - he'll call SnoCross and Adaptive SnoCross, which involve snowmobiles.

Commendable kvetching: In the best ESPN.com ombudsman column ever, Don Ohlmeyer explores how ESPN's coverage of the Texas Tech-Michigan State Alamo Bowl became "dreadful" when ESPN occasionally veered toward "bifurcated" coverage. That happened when ESPN tried to follow the game as well as explain the controversy - involving the son of ESPN analyst Craig James - that led to Texas Tech coach Mike Leach being fired.

Ohlmeyer, who retired from a long career as a TV sports executive, also suggests ESPN analyst Bob Knight should quit making so many predictions - "every time an announcer makes an outright prediction and is wrong, it subconsciously calls his credibility into question" - and has a practical suggestion to deal with Knight's on-air "monotone" - "an old production trick to help pump him up in those moments is to raise the crowd volume in Knight's headset, which will naturally raise his noise level." Good stuff.

Pro Bowl makeover: Like the Olympic closing ceremony, the Super Bowl trophy presentation has a clear message... Show's over.

So the NFL is trying to make its Pro Bowl more relevant by moving it this year from the Sunday after the Super Bowl to the Sunday before. The past three years, it aired in an afternoon time slot on the network that carried the Super Bowl. On Sunday, the exhibition game moves to ESPN - which is willing to air it in prime time.

That might prove a mixed blessing.  The game averaged 8.6 million viewers on broadcast networks after averaging 6.2 million the previous three years on ESPN.

On Sunday, ESPN producer Jay Rothman says, the idea will be to "absolutely" turn the game into a "slick prime-time" show - including interviews with players picked for the Pro Bowl but sitting out because they're playing in the Super Bowl - that will try "to create Super Bowl buzz." And, he says, players in the game will be miked on a 10-second delay: "The reason it's on a delay is so we can do live audio" - albeit live audio that has been sanitized for our protection.

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