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One screen not enough for playoff viewers

Bruins, Celtics on the air same days, same times

Even an adroit channel-switcher runs the risk of missing Bruins Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron celebrating a goal or Celtic Ray Allen draining a three-pointer. Even an adroit channel-switcher runs the risk of missing Bruins Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron celebrating a goal or Celtic Ray Allen draining a three-pointer. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / May 6, 2009
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For prime-time drama buffs, it would be like the season finales of "24" and "Lost" airing head to head.

For many fans who love the Celtics as much as the Bruins, it's a deep psychic quandary.

In a merciless scheduling twist, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have messed with the sports souls of many New Englanders by slotting the next five playoff games involving the Celtics and Bruins on the same nights at similar times.

The rare scheduling conflict has turned Boston into a split-screen sports town, beginning tonight when the Celtics host the Orlando Magic at TD Banknorth Garden in Game 2 of their playoff series while the Bruins visit Raleigh, N.C., for the third game of their series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Similar scenarios are scheduled Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, May 14, as each team competes in its Eastern Conference semifinals.

Factor in a few Red Sox games, and the viewing options become downright dizzying for diehard Boston sports fans.

"I'm sure a lot of people, like me, will be hardening the calluses on their fingers clicking channels back and forth," said Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England at the Garden. "But it won't be as much fun watching the games that way."

In the time it takes to switch channels, viewers could miss memorable moments: a goal-scoring laser by Zdeno Chara, a clutch 3-pointer by Ray Allen, an acrobatic catch by Jacoby Ellsbury.

"It's definitely going to be a pain in the butt for people like my father who have to flip back and forth to follow it all," said Mike Jackson, general manager of the Stadium Sports Bar and Grill in South Boston. "I'm sure the general public's reaction to it all is, 'Wow!' "

NBA and NHL spokesmen characterized the conflict as an inadvertent bad break for New Englanders. Though fans of both teams might have benefited from the Celtics and Bruins playing on alternate nights, league officials said the best they could do when they prepared the playoff schedule last year was try to avoid having both teams needing to occupy the Garden on the same nights.

"Our playoff schedule was determined months and months ago by working with our network partners," NBA spokesman Mike Wade said. "Obviously, we don't know what teams are going to fit into that schedule. It's just wait and see who emerges."

Modern technology will ease the burden for many fans. Some can watch both games on double-tuner, picture-in-picture televisions. Many can program their DVRs to record both games. Some can videotape one game or the other. Or they can sit before two television screens.

But all the technology in the world cannot provide fans the pleasure of fully watching each game in real time.

"If we had our druthers, we would be watching the games on different days," Johnson said. "But the TV genie rules all."

The TV genie refers to the networks the leagues need to accommodate by scheduling games in profitable time slots. While the NBA teamed with TNT, ESPN, and ABC to determine its schedule, the NHL worked to satisfy the needs of Versus and NBC in the United States, and CBC and TSN in Canada.

NHL spokesman Frank Brown used a bird analogy to describe the influence of the four networks on scheduling.

"Imagine four hungry eagles in a nest looking for a chunk of food from their mother," he said, referring to the NHL as the mother. "The eagles need to be fed because they have paid for the meal."

At NESN, which is scheduled to carry four of the next five Bruins games (Versus will broadcast Game 5 Sunday) as well as the Sox, executives voiced no complaints over the conflict with Celtics broadcasts on TNT or ESPN. The ratings for the Bruins playoff games are up 73 percent from a year ago, according to Joel Feld, NESN's executive vice president of programming.

"Our expectations are that the numbers will increase as the Bruins continue their run for the Stanley Cup," Feld said.

Fans across New England are expected to address the scheduling conflict by swarming sports bars. The Stadium, for instance, plans to equally divide coverage of the Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox among its 30 plasma screens. Despite the anticipated bonanza, however, Jackson said the Stadium and other sports bars would fare even better if the Celtics and Bruins were to play on alternate nights.

"With everyone who wants to watch both games, we may have people lined up outside to get in," Jackson said. "We would rather be able to accommodate everybody on different nights than hit the capacity mark and have them line up."

While some fans fret over the conflict, others consider it a welcome opportunity. Jeff Bennett, president of Name Media, Inc., in Waltham, said he's a big fan of both the Celtics and Bruins, and plans to communicate with like-minded friends during the games by using Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking media.

Bennett said he will watch the games on a television, with his computer within reach.

"I can't watch the games simultaneously, but I can talk about them and share what's going on with my friends, which I would not be able to do otherwise unless we were sitting in the same living room," Bennett said. "To me, this is great. It's a bountiful opportunity."

He gets no argument from Leonard Zaichkowsky, a professor of sports psychology at Boston University who has studied fan behavior. Yes, the scheduling conflict "will help the clicker industry," Zaichkowsky said.

But things could be a lot worse, Zaichkowsky noted. He is old enough to remember a time before television remote controls, when viewers needed to lurch from their couches to their televisions whenever they wanted to change channels. In the days before cable, many viewers also needed to adjust the rabbit-ear antennas on their televisions with every channel shift.

No more rabbit ears. And plenty of viewing options.

"Even though the games are on the same evenings, it can't get much better than this for Boston fans," Zaichkowsky said.

Indeed, the Celtics and Bruins are still playing in May, while the season has ended for dozens of other NBA and NHL teams. All in all, Zaichkowsky said, finding a way to enjoy watching Boston's winter teams pursue their championship dreams "is not a bad problem to have."

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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