10/29/2001 1:00AM

NBC broadcast a success, warts and all

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Ten minutes into its broadcast of the World Thoroughbred Championships on Saturday, NBC was jolted by the injury to the filly Exogenous as she was walking to the track before the first Breeders' Cup race of the day, the Distaff.

Horse injuries are difficult to watch and difficult to cover, especially in the live and intimate medium of television. But other than a clumsy diagnosis of the injury offered prematurely by analyst Charlsie Cantey, NBC and its staff handled the injury with grace and efficiency, a signal of the smooth work that was to come during a difficult five-hour broadcast from Belmont Park.

Overall, NBC's coverage moved at a spirited pace, with little wasted time, even during the often-tedious winner's circle presentations. Focusing on the live action and airing very few preproduced features, the broadcast kept viewers informed and interested all along its lengthy run, although there were several noticeable gaffes.

One was Cantey's statement that Exogenous appeared to have suffered a serious injury to her right rear leg, which had become entangled in an iron fence that runs along the track. In fact, the filly did not suffer any harm to her leg, and Cantey's hasty remark was ill-considered.

Otherwise, NBC handled the injury well. Reporters Bob Neumeier and Mike Battaglia were sent from their usual stations to the scene, and Battaglia got the first word that the injury was actually to Exogenous's head. Cameras captured what they could before being pushed away by Belmont security, including the difficult sight of Exogenous struggling to get her balance, as well as assistant trainer Randy Schulhofer in tears, appearing to mouth, "Why?" over and over again.

In the production trailer, producers had received footage from the one camera that had been in a position to record how Exogenous was injured. The decision was made to air the footage once, in slow motion, according to producer David Michaels.

"We thought that if you see it once, you can see that it's a head injury, and you don't need to see it again," Michaels said on Monday. "There's some horrible stuff on television that you should only see once. I'm thinking about Joe Theismann's broken leg on Monday Night Football. They only showed that once."

Injuries have been a delicate issue for horse racing, and no televised injury was more notorious than Go for Wand's in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Go for Wand broke her leg in deep stretch, and replays of the fatally injured filly struggling to reach the finish line on only three legs were played seemingly endlessly during the broadcast. It was an event that affected even the most hardened racing fans and might have contributed to the sport's difficulty in broadening its appeal.

Michaels, a lifelong racing fan, was not involved with that broadcast, but he said the Go for Wand injury immediately came to mind when Exogenous went down.

"I really thought that I could never watch that again, and now I like to err on the side of not putting nasty stuff on the air," Michaels said.

After Exogenous was led away, NBC was faced with the task of making up 15 minutes of air time because of the delay. Michaels said that no features were dropped, if only because the injury happened so early in the broadcast. "With five hours, it got to be pretty easy to spread out the lost time," Michaels said.

One feature that turned out to be prescient was a pre-Classic piece on the late Cecilia Straub-Rubens, the breeder and one of the co-owners of Tiznow. Straub-Rubens died just three days after Tiznow won his first Classic last year, and the feature brought home what a victory in the Classic this year would mean to the horse's current connections. Tiznow validated the producer's decision with a stirring win.

A feature that missed the mark, however, was a spot that glorified Officer, the 2-year-old trained by Bob Baffert, shown before he finished fifth in the Juvenile. You would think that broadcasters might think twice about anointing a superstar, without a Breeders' Cup trophy already on the mantel.

NBC gave Baffert the opportunity to talk up his horse twice, once in a feature that was brimming with images of rippling horse flesh and little else, and next in a live interview that directly followed the glossy feature.

Despite NBC's solid work, the overnight television rating for the broadcast was a 2.1, down 19 percent from the overnight rating of 2.6 last year, and share was down 17 percent, from a 6 to 5.

Cameron Blanchard, a spokeswoman for NBC, blamed the ratings decline on competition from college football, especially a game between Nebraska and Oklahoma, the top-ranked teams in the country at the time. Blanchard also said that the rating suffered from the absence of Point Given, the Preakness, Belmont, and Travers winner who was retired two months ago.

Each overnight rating point equals just under 1 million households. Share represents the percentage of the viewing audience watching a specific program, meaning one in 20 households watching television on Saturday afternoon were viewing the Breeders' Cup program.