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IT HAPPENED again last Sunday, as it happens countless times each year, almost always on weekends. That's when transplants call relatives back home, or those raised here ring up escapees now residing in "the big city." And as the conversation unwinds, itinvariably is punctuated by a "Wow, did you see that?"

The "that" is the spectacular play at the most dramatic moment of a sporting event that will bind the rest of the country in conversation well into the work week.

And the answer from here is "no," because we didn't get the game or tournament here. That's because our network-affiliated television stations prefer to show paid programming or old movies that weren't any good when made and that, unlike wine, do not improve with age.

Now at first blush, this may not seem like a catastrophe. But we're talking about more here than just a Western New Yorker's right to follow a bouncing ball. We're talking about that intangible, yet real, quality that everyone in the area spends so many sleepless nights contemplating -- the NATIONAL IMAGE.

That's right, it's our national image at stake. Sure, we can send the Bills to the Super Bowl. (That was carried here, wasn't it?) And some day the Chamber of Commerce may convince the world that we don't shovel snow in July.

But all of that good gets undone every weekend when the rest of the world ponders why we aren't watching the same events Western Civilization is watching, and asks, "Geez, what kind of hick town is that?"

This past weekend it happened to be a premier tennis match that Ch. 7 did not carry. But Chs. 2 and 4 have also been guilty, and the sport could be anything.

One might think station pride would be involved. After all, there may be some who pick their local news station on the basis of which affiliate pre-empts the least. The logic is that if you can't trust a station to look at a premier sports event on one hand, and a shill for the fabulous food fixer on the other, and decide which is the quality programming, how can you trust them with something as important as the news?

But even if they don't care about themselves, shouldn't the city's stations care about Buffalo's image? Do they really want to keep us disconnected from the global village, doomed to life on the outskirts of normalcy -- and forced to admit it to the world every weekend?

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