By Jon Solomon -- The Birmingham News
October 15, 2009, 12:59PM
This story appears in the Thursday, Oct. 15, edition of The Birmingham News.
With Florida and Alabama separating themselves from the rest of the SEC and sitting atop the national polls, CBS plans to keep riding them to higher TV ratings.
By late November, Florida or Alabama will likely have appeared on CBS in nine of the 11 weeks the network broadcasts SEC regular-season games. Florida figures to be on CBS six times and Alabama will be on five or six times.
"Our ratings are through the roof," said Mike Aresco, vice president of programming for CBS. "We've got star power. We've got two teams in the top two or three. Life is good at the moment, knock on wood."
CBS reports college football ratings are up 36 percent from last year, with a 3.8 rating that is the network's highest at this point since 1999.
Florida-LSU last Saturday drew a preliminary rating of 6.1, up 61 percent from last year's game. Alabama-Ole Miss attracted a 3.0, up 11 percent from the Tennessee-Georgia game in the early doubleheader time slot in 2008.
"Tim Tebow has just been ratings gold, of course, but there's more to it than just that," Aresco said. "These ratings are the function of the emergence of the SEC as a national conference. The other key factor is the attention given to the BCS and the fact the SEC almost every year has one or two or three teams in national championship contention. That means people outside the region are watching."
SEC teams must appear on CBS at least three times over the course of the new 15-year deal that pays the conference an average of $55 million per year. The maximum appearance number per year is supposed to be five, but exceptions can be made -- and CBS is eyeing them this season.
Over the length of the contract, on four occasions CBS can pick a team six times in one season. If a team gets a sixth appearance, one of those must be a nonconference game or the 11 a.m. doubleheader on Nov. 14.
Aresco said CBS plans to air the Gators six times this season.
Florida has already played Tennessee and LSU on CBS, and will also appear this week against Arkansas and Oct. 31 against Georgia. The new contract with the SEC provides CBS the annual rights to Florida-Georgia.
In addition, Aresco said the Gators will likely appear on CBS on Nov. 14 against South Carolina and Nov. 28 against Florida State.
Alabama has appeared on CBS against Arkansas and Ole Miss and later plays Tennessee and Auburn on CBS. Aresco said Alabama-LSU on Nov. 7 will almost certainly be on CBS, and there's a chance the network will air Alabama-Mississippi State on Nov. 14 at 11 a.m. as part of a doubleheader likely involving Florida-South Carolina.
This is the first year CBS gets the top pick of SEC games each week. Previously, CBS protected six SEC games -- picks 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8 -- and one nonconference game. That left ESPN to protect three games, picks 3, 6 and 9.
"I'm a more relaxed fella this year, I'll you that," Aresco said. "It's a significant change for us. It's so much easier. There really isn't going to be a big, marquee game that's going to escape you."
Aresco makes no apologies for what he calls "checkerboarding" the CBS lineup with Florida and Alabama. At this rate, the only weeks both of those teams won't be on CBS will be Oct. 3 (Georgia-LSU) and Nov. 21 (LSU-Ole Miss is the leading candidate).
On Oct. 3, Alabama played Kentucky and Florida had a bye. The Nov. 21 date sees Alabama playing Chattanooga and Florida facing Florida International.
"You have to ride them," Aresco said. "You cannot overstate the value of Florida and Alabama. Nationally, Florida's appeal ranks right up there with the USCs and Penn States and Notre Dames. Alabama has always been a national team. People have not forgotten the Bear. If you needed two teams to carry you, those are the two."
Down the road is potentially another lucrative Florida-Alabama SEC Championship Game, which drew a championship-game record 10.4 rating when they played last year.
"This year I think the hype would exceed it," Aresco said. "Knock on wood."