05/06/2002 12:00AM

Derby ratings hold steady despite lack of major story

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The overnight rating for Saturday's 105-minute Kentucky Derby broadcast on NBC-TV was an 8.3, even with last year, when the rating soared 26 percent with the removal of competition from NBA playoff games.

Share for the broadcast, which ran from 5 p.m. Eastern to 6:45 p.m, 15 minutes longer than scheduled, was a 19, down 5 percent compared with last year. Share represents the number of televisions in use tuned to the broadcast, while each overnight rating represents approximately 675,000 households. Final numbers for the broadcast will be available on Thursday.

Rating peaked from 6 to 6:30 at 11.1 and a 25 share. Peak rating last year for the identical time frame was 11.3 and a 26 share.

Last year's overnight rating - and this year's, by extension - was the highest since 1992. The Derby rating had been in a free fall since the late 1970's, when horse racing's popularity began its steep decline.

"Quite frankly, you would expect a little bit of a drop this year, so to hold up is very, very strong," said Ed Seigenfeld, the executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, on Monday. "We didn't have a major horse or a major story going in, so we're thrilled."

This was the second year that NBC broadcast the Derby. The network outbid ABC-TV two years ago for the rights to the Derby through 2006, shelling out $51.5 million for the three races to the Triple Crown. ABC had broadcast the previous 26 Derbies.

When ABC had the rights to the Derby, NBC broadcast NBA playoff games opposite the race, a move that splintered the audience for both events. When NBC took over, they rescheduled the NBA games so that the Derby would act as a lead-in, and the strategy paid off, with double-digit increases in viewership for both broadcasts.

Next year, broadcast rights for NBA playoff games on Saturdays will be held by ESPN. Racing officials said they are optimistic that ESPN will retain the current scheduling, especially considering the network's heavy promotion of its own pre-Triple Crown programming.

"We'll probably lose some of our audience that is watching the race leading up to the NBA game, but ESPN probably doesn't want to go head to head," said David Michaels, the producer of horse racing broadcasts for NBC.

NBC's broadcast this year was a significant departure from years past, when the coverage was heavy on prerecorded features. This year, NBC's broadcast used only 8 minutes and 40 seconds of taped material, all within the first 35 minutes of the show.

The prerace telecast largely centered on the day's events, with ample live coverage from reporter Kenny Rice and analysts Bob Neumeier and Mike Battaglia, who sifted through the wide-open field with live interviews of a handful of the race's trainers.

The trio touched on many of the logical players, but they also largely ignored eventual winner War Emblem, except to mention that he was a strong possibility to make the pace. The only hiccup in the coverage to that point was cuing the wrong race when Battaglia made his pick.

Post race, however, the broadcast wandered, in part because of War Emblem's surprising and somewhat unexciting front-running victory. But the shortfalls were also because of the increasingly tedious trophy presentation, which is coordinated by Churchill Downs, not NBC. During the presentation, the microphone was handed off to eight different people, and only three of them were connected to the winning horse.

During the postrace coverage, NBC did not post any parimutuel prices until at least 3 1/2 minutes after the race had been declared official. During that time, a handful of Internet sites had already posted payoffs.

Michaels said that he was investigating why the prices were not posted. He said the network has consistently posted official prices as soon as they become available during the network's other racing broadcasts.