Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The NBA on CBS late night and tape delay playoff era

It seems unthinkable now, but from 1979-1981, CBS actually televised 9 of the 17 NBA Finals games in the 11:30 pm ET timeslot with 6 of those games airing on tape delay. For the surrounding years, CBS made frequent use of late night telecasts during the playoffs. And even for these late night games which CBS televised live in the east, most CBS affiliates in the west aired these games on tape delay at 11:30 pm PT.

Here is a closer look at this low point in NBA television history.


For the first 3 seasons of its TV contract with the NBA, CBS televised all weeknight Finals games in prime time and aired some earlier round games in prime time as well. But starting in 1977, with NBA ratings on the decline, CBS moved all of its weeknight pre-Finals telecasts to 11:30 pm ET. CBS aired these live which of course meant these telecasts only involved teams from the Western Conference. Most of these late night games were on Fridays.

Tape delayed and late night NBA Finals

In 1979, CBS continued to use the late night timeslot for live playoff games. But the network provided a real slap in the face to NBA fans by televising Sonics-Bullets Finals game 2 from Landover on a 3-hour tape delay at 11:30 pm ET. So the first-ever CBS tape delay playoff telecast was a Finals game. CBS televised game 4 from Seattle live in the east at 11:30 pm ET, but on tape delay in much of the west.

The 1980 Lakers-76ers Finals featured popular teams and top stars (Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson). Yet CBS aired games 2 and 5 from Los Angeles live in the east at 11:30 pm ET, but again on tape delay in most of the west. And infamously, CBS televised the deciding game 6 on a 2.5 hour tape delay.

Rock bottom

The worst season for tape delays was 1981. That year, CBS again intended to show many live late night games from the west coast. However, the Lakers and Trail Blazers were upset in the mini-series and the top-seeded Suns were eliminated in the next round. During the 1981 playoffs, CBS televised a whopping 17 games at 11:30 pm ET, but due to the lack of west coast game site, only three of these games aired live. On 4/29, CBS actually provided regional coverage of two games on tape delay (the first and last time they would do this). The Celtics-Rockets Finals featured 4 games on tape delay including the clinching contest for the second straight year. CBS aired games 1 and 2 on a 4-hour delay.

During the tape delayed telecasts, CBS would periodically stick a Recorded Earlier graphic on the screen. In some cases, the CBS affiliate in one or both of the participating markets would televise the game live.

The final years of late night telecasts

In 1982, the NBA shifted the season a few weeks later to move the Finals away from the May TV sweeps period and CBS resumed showing Finals games live in prime time. However, CBS continued showing many earlier round NBA playoff games at 11:30 pm ET. The last tape delay telecast occurred during the 1986 conference finals. In 1987, CBS aired game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in prime time which marked the first non-Finals prime time NBA playoffs telecast on CBS since 1976. The last time CBS used the 11:30 pm timeslot was in 1988.

Lowlights from the tape delay era
  • For the first week of the 1981 conference finals, CBS featured the Houston-Kansas City series (both teams finished under .500!!) over the Boston-Philadelphia series (brand names which tied for the best record in the league). The reason for this bizarre programming decision? CBS preferred the shorter lag time between tipoff and the start of the late night tape delay telecast for the Western Conference series.
  • On the halftime show for the tape delayed 1981 Boston-Philadelphia game 5 (with the 76ers leading the series 3-1), host Brent Musburger promoted the CBS telecast for game 6 of that series on Friday without any "if necessary" qualifiers thereby tipping off viewers that the Celtics would win game 5. Musburger was doing that halftime show live and therefore knew the result.
  • During game 5 the 1981 NBA Finals, CBS analyst Rick Barry uttered the controversial "watermelon grin" remark which aired unedited on the late night tape delay telecast.
  • In both 1980 and 1981, the NBA scheduled Finals games back-to-back on Sat and Sun afternoon rather than add yet another tape delay telecast to the mix.
  • In the early 1980s, when cable TV networks such as USA Network and ESPN carried many playoff games, CBS would annoyingly hold selected games for tape delay and prevent a live national cable telecast. For example, in 1982 USA carried game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals live while game 6 was relegated to late night tape delay on CBS.
  • On the 11 pm local news on CBS affiliates, the anchor for the sports segment would suggest that you turn away for a few minutes if you didn't want a "spoiler" for the upcoming tape delayed game. 

Summary of 11:30 pm ET NBA playoff telecasts on CBS

1977: 6 games (all live)
1978: 6 games (all live) - one night, CBS televised 2 of these regionally
1979: 8 games (7 live including 1 Finals game, 1 on tape delay which was in the Finals)
1980: 9 games (7 live including 2 Finals games, 2 on tape delay including 1 Finals game)
1981: 17 games (3 live, 14 on tape delay including 4 Finals games) - one night, CBS televised 2 tape delay games regionally
1982: 5 games (1 live, 4 on tape delay)
1983: 6 games (4 live, 2 on tape delay)
1984: 4 games (3 live, 1 on tape delay)
1985: 3 games (1 live, 2 on tape delay)
1986: 3 games (1 live, 2 on tape delay)
1987: 1 game (live)
1988: 1 game (live)

total: 69 games (43 live including 3 Finals games, 26 on tape delay including 6 Finals games)


  1. But then came Bird and Magic, then Micheal, and now LeBron, and interest in the NBA has dramatically increased.

    In fact, when CBS got the rights to the NCAA men's basketball tournament and some regular-season games in 1981 (the package would begin in the 1981-82 season), there was much speculation in the press that CBS was going to drop the NBA.

    Likely, the league would likely have had to put together a syndicated TV package of games including the Finals, since ABC and NBC at the time had no interest.

  2. Actually, CBS aired one more NBA playoff game late night. In 1988, Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals (Mavericks at Lakers) aired at 11:30 PM EST. It was tape-delayed out West but shown live in Los Angeles.

    And lost in all this was one reason CBS chose to tape-delay playoff games especially Finals games. The 1980 Game 6 (a Friday night) was tape-delayed in favor of an episode of "Dallas". Not just an episode of "Dallas" but a rerun at that. Definitely a black eye on the NBA's part.

    1. Thanks for the correction, Jimmy. I updated the post to reflect that game.

    2. would have cbs preempted dallas even if was a repeat?

    3. No. Dallas was one of the highest(if not the #1 show) on TV at the time and the NBA was at its low point in popularity. So a repeat of Dallas would have gotten higher ratings than the NBA

  3. What was almost just as unthinkable was when CBS tape delayed the NCAA tournament. The one game I remember vividly was a first round game between NC State and Pepperdine. I was in the Army at that time, stationed at Fort Ord (near Monterey, CA), and was the CQ for the evening. Basically, I sat in the company's office, answered phones all night, and patrolled the company's grounds. At 11:30 PM, a late night basketball game was welcomed with open arms, especially since I couldn't get cable on a 8 inch TV, and it wasn't available in the company office. If memory serves, the game went to overtime, and was probably the toughest game NC State until the finals against Houston.

    1. The NC State-Pepperdine game was in 1983 and went double OT and I remember watching it also. CBS showed it live at 11:30 pm in the east, but on tape delay in the west. That telecast is available on YouTube. Also, you might like part 2 of the 3-part series at:

  4. The tape-delayed broadcasts of midweek games in the 1981 NBA Finals did air live in Boston and Houston.

  5. The live game in 1986 only happened to be Ralph Sampson's buzzer beater tip in v. the Lakers to send the Rockets back to the finals.

  6. Can anyone confirm ( or de-confirm but I'm sure of it ) that the 1987 "bird steals the ball, over to DJ" game was not on regular (cbs) television. I remember watching it in a bar and I would have NEVER watched a game like that a bar if I could have watched it in my house ( which most likely didn't have cable yet). It had to be on USA or one of those other cable stations at the time. I have confirmed that that game was on a tuesday which sits well with my theory because, back then, AFAIK, only the Finals game were sure to be shown on regular television if they were during the week. Thank you for confirmation.

    1. Yes, that 1987 Celtics-Pistons game 5 was on TBS.

    2. Thanks Jeff. How you know all of this is amazing and appreciated.

    3. Also, there were many NBA Playoff games from the early 1980s (and maybe even thru the mid 80s) where some games were never seen on a national cable channel, either live or tape delay. One example is game 5 of the 1981 Western Conference Semifinals between Kansas City & Phoenix. Only USA Network was televising games back then, not ESPN. So they just couldn’t cover every game, even with doubleheader’s. The above game was not on CBS either, and was probably only seen locally in Kansas City and Phoenix. The only other cable station to show games back in those days was a channel simply called “SportsChannel”, which not carried by very many cable networks. I remember having to either listen to the radio or simply wait until the morning to get the final score, even though the game started at 9:30 P.M. Eastern Time in those days. Boy, have we ever come a long way since then. Please leave a comment below if anybody ever finds out exactly where this game was seen/shown live. The date it was played was April 15, 1981. Thanks...............

    4. The practice of some NBA playoff games being unavailable on a national broadcast/cable network continued into the mid-1990s. The 1995 playoffs marked the first time that every NBA postseason game was televised nationally.

  7. The above comment that mentions a tape delayed NBA Playoff game from as late as 1988 sounds about right (I live in the Eastern Time Zone as I forgot to mention that in reference to my first comment). However, I don’t know when the tape delays ended nationally for good. As cable & technology in general progressed, tape delays ended. But it was a gradual process over several years for sure. As I said, in the early 80’s it was only the USA Network as far as national cable goes for NBA Playoff games. Back then no ESPN, TNT, TBS, etc to televise the NBA Playoffs nationally. Those contracts came in later years. Thank God those days are now forever over............

    1. The last tape delayed NBA playoff games were in 1986.

    2. Game 6 Western Semifinal in 1987 between Rockets and Sonics was last tape delayed game. Seattle won in double OT. Dick Stockton and Tom Heinsohn were on the CBS call

  8. My family got cable in 1983.USA Network had some really crazy blackout rules for NBA and MLB baseball.Some games 600 miles away not involving any Ohio teams would be blacked out.

  9. Yeah lots of tape delays that most of us youngsters did not catch.

  10. A lot of what prompted the demise of delayed broadcasts were contacts with cable stations that would broadcast the games in real time and fans could go there to watch. The big three networks were able to continue with more lucrative regular programing.