Channel 56

Back in the day, when ESPN was still showing Australian Rules Football on a regular basis and college basketball was not available every night, there was an over-the-air channel that was basically what the Full Court package is now. You could see quite a few games from all the big conferences. You know, the Southwest Conference, The Big Eight, the Metro. Remember them? Plus the SEC and WAC, among others. This thing was channel 56, and if you lived in northern Virginia in the mid ’80s, you know what I’m talking about.

The thing is, while 56 was basically today’s Full Court – it mostly relied on the syndicated packages for each conference – it was only one channel unlike the multi-plexed Full Court system. This meant that a lot of games were broadcast by tape-delay. The concept wasn’t all bad though. When Bob Knight threw the chair across the court, I got wind of it before 56 broadcast the game later in the afternoon. So I was able to watch all the events unfold, knowing what was to come. For some reason my best memories of this station involve Indiana University. I saw the Soviet exhibition where Knight pulled the players off the floor. There was a game in there where Indiana and Purdue were #1 and #2 in the nation, and it was on 56.

When March rolled around, the fun continued. Before CBS snapped up the rights to all 63 games of the tournament, the NCAA produced the first round games and allowed local stations to air them as they wished. ESPN was famous for showing a few games live on Thursday and Friday and the rest were shown on tape delay through the night and morning, providing 48 consecutive hours of basketball. 56 did the same thing, giving you two options to find your favorite game.

In addition, the week before, 56 would deal with the preliminary rounds of conference tournaments in a similar manner. They would promote how they were broadcasting 72 hours of continuous hoops. I distinctly remember watching a Big Sky quarterfinal at 8 AM on a Saturday morning on 56. The game was meaningless in the big picture, an elimination game on the road to a 16 seed. I guess it was the voyeur in me that felt privileged that no one without a thousand miles of me could see this game, so I watched it in its entirety. I was also cognizant that I was probably the only person in northern Virginia watching this game. 56 was like the station that read my mind. If I could have programmed a TV station at the time, I would have loaded up on obscure college basketball also.

The reason I am writing this? There is no trace of channel 56 anymore. ESPN, FSN, and regional sports networks, combined with the increasing rights costs for syndicated games put 56 out of the college hoops business a few years back. Now all they offer is foreign programming. There appears to be no record on the internet of just how groundbreaking these guys were. Which is a shame, because there should be an exhibit in the Basketball Hall of Fame devoted to 56. I owe my college basketball addiction to them.