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With no games for weeks, TV networks have hours to fill

Cancelled college basketball tournaments left gaping holes in sports television. And with the NBA and NHL on hold, NBC Sports Chicago will run classic Bulls and Hawks games.

Big 12 Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals
College basketball conference tournaments across the country were cancelled Thursday.
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So, sports fans, what do you want to watch this weekend?

Perhaps the better question is, what can you watch this weekend?

One by one Thursday, college conferences and professional leagues essentially pulled the plug on their TV programming for the weekend and beyond because of the coronavirus outbreak. The NBA was the first to go dark Wednesday night, suspending its season. College basketball conference tournaments followed with cancellations Thursday morning, and the NHL, MLS and MLB suspended their seasons as the day wore on. The capper was the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament in mid-afternoon.

It all will send network schedule-makers back to the drawing board with the loss of hours upon hours of live game programming, the type for which networks pay millions upon millions of dollars. There’s nothing that will make up for those losses this weekend, and they’ll be challenged to fill their lineups in the weeks ahead until games resume.

Locally, NBC Sports Chicago faces the challenge of making up for lost Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox games, the lifeblood of the network. It has 11 Hawks games and 16 Bulls games remaining this season, and it was scheduled to air Sox exhibition games March 21-24. With MLB pushing Opening Day back at least two weeks from March 26, NBCSCH won’t be able to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the Sox just yet.

“For the foreseeable future, we will be airing a mix of Blackhawks and Bulls classic games, along with a variety of national programming content provided by NBC Sports,” NBCSCH said in a statement. “We will continue the process of determining additional next steps for our pro game replacement programming moving forward.”

The Cubs’ Marquee Sports Network now has more to deal with than just carriage issues. The team’s games are the primary reason for the network’s existence, and it won’t have any for at least a month. It relies on Stadium for other live programming, but that network figures to be in a similar pinch. MSN said it’s determining what to do with its lineup.

WGN, which is one game into its 24-game slate of Fire games, will lose its next two broadcasts (March 14 and April 4) after MLS suspended its season for 30 days.

Just two days before calling off March Madness, CBS and Turner had revealed its game broadcast teams and plans for the tournament selection show. Now those time slots, spanning four networks (CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV), must be filled, and the losses in viewership will be huge.

ESPN will suffer its share of losses, too. It was to air the American Athletic, Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conference tournaments this weekend. The network will have to deal with replacing NBA games next and baseball games soon after.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” the network said in a statement. “We have great relationships with our league partners and are confident we can address all issues constructively going forward. Our immediate focus is on everyone’s safety and well-being.”

The Big Ten Network was set for two of the biggest days on its programming calendar, airing four games Thursday and four more Friday from the conference tournament. NBC Sports Network was to carry the Atlantic-10 tournament, and Fox and FS1 were to air the Big East tournament and some of the Pac-12 tournament. NBCSN’s next task will be replacing its extensive NHL schedule.

ESPN is best positioned to fill its holes with live programming. On Thursday, it stayed live with “SportsCenter” all day and night. The network interviewed coaches and analysts and provided reports from the tournament sites. ESPNews aired its usual radio simulcasts and taped programming to fill additional holes. ESPN2 simulcasted a combination of both channels.