05/19/2002 11:00PM

Overnight Preakness TV rating up

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NEW YORK - The overnight television rating for the Preakness broadcast Saturday by NBC was 6.5, the highest rating since 1990 and up 8 percent compared with last year, NBC officials said Monday.

The rating for the race portion of the broadcast, from 6 p.m. to 6:42, went up 14 percent, from 7.8 to an 8.9. Overnight ratings are measured in the top 53 U.S. markets with each point representing 675,000 households. Final ratings will be announced on Thursday.

The increase was unexpected, according to television officials, who pointed out that ratings for the Kentucky Derby were slightly down compared with last year.

"Who's to say?" said Cameron Blanchard, a spokeswoman for NBC. "Obviously, we're very pleased with the overnights. But we don't know what exactly it was. Maybe people were wondering if War Emblem could pull it off."

"I don't think there's any good explanation," said David Michaels, the producer of the broadcast.

This is the second year that NBC has broadcast the Triple Crown since taking over from ABC, and the rating Saturday was 41 percent higher than ABC's last broadcast, in 2000. Last year, the rating for the Preakness was up 30 percent largely because of NBC's decision to eliminate competition from the NBA playoffs, which are also broadcast on NBC.

Again, Michaels decided to focus nearly exclusively on live coverage, as he did for the Derby. The Preakness broadcast had only two prepackaged features: a lengthy retelling of the War Emblem story, and a short feature on 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who died May 7.

The strategy made for a fast-paced broadcast. Most of the segments were live interviews with either jockeys or trainers, including one unusual spot with sportscaster Bob Costas and Pat Day in the jockeys' room, where reporters are normally not welcome. Michaels said he believed it was the first live interview from the jockeys' room for a national broadcast.

"I really liked that, and that's because it was the real jockeys' room, not some flower backdrop that could have been shot at any time," Michaels said. "It was the real deal."

The decision to go live with nearly every shot cost the network a chance to introduce viewers to Magic Weisner, the longshot who was bred and is trained, owned, and exercised by Nancy Alberts, a Maryland trainer. It was the type of story that ABC, in its 26 years of broadcasting the Derby, would have likely seized upon.

Michaels said the decision not to do a feature on Magic Weisner and Alberts was difficult to make. But the broadcast team still planned to tell the Magic Weisner story when the gelding was being saddled in the paddock, using reporter Kenny Rice to do a live report.

"We ran out of time," Michaels said. "Kenny was ready to go, I looked at my watch, and we were running two minutes short of getting to the post in time. If Magic Weisner had won, well, I guess that's something where I'd have to shoot myself."

NBC also failed to dig into the controversy surrounding the sale of War Emblem to prince Ahmed Salman, neglecting the prince's ties to the Saudi Arabian government and glossing over a dispute between Salman and the horse's former owner involving bonuses related to the colt's Kentucky Derby win.

"That's a very, very complicated story," Michaels said. "You'd need 10 minutes in a TV format to really explain that." NBC's features normally average less than three minutes.

Michaels said that he is looking forward to the Belmont Stakes but that he has not yet worked out a strategy for the broadcast. It will be short on features, he said.

Viewership for the Belmont Stakes doubled in the 1990's when a Triple Crown was on the line.