ABC wrestles with the hardest form of football coverage and happily survives

December 14, 1970

Upon the conclusion of another season, it is only fair to say that ABC's college unit has the most difficult task in football TV. College games are much faster paced than the pros—an average of 150 plays to 110 per game—and neither the teams nor the players tend to be as familiar. So a lot more is happening and to a lot of people nobody knows. In addition, unless a team like Notre Dame is involved, only a small, geographically concentrated segment of the eight million homes tuned in has a rooting interest; if the game isn't close, the sets go off.

Using the same fellow who writes directions for income-tax forms, the NCAA has made life even tougher for ABC by working out a Byzantine formula that instructs the network as to what teams can be on TV and how often. What this comes down to, essentially, is that VMI and Chattanooga are available when ABC wants Texas and Ohio State. To further complicate things, almost all the games are chosen in March. Finally, and most trying of all from the network viewpoint, the interest in college football is highest where there are the fewest sets and lowest precisely where there are the most—in the Eastern megalopolis, which has more than 20% of the nation's sets and where Temple-Villanova is a big game. This area, not so incidentally, is where the people live who decide what commercial time to buy.

It should come as no surprise, then, to hear that ABC figures to lose a cool $1 million or so on its college football telecasts this year. When the present ABC contract runs out after the 1971 season, college football will be in for a tougher game, but for now, considering the loving and very imaginative treatment that ABC gives the colleges, NCAA Chief Walter Byers should get down on his knees and salaam toward the Hall of Fame at Rutgers every time he sees the network's initials.

ABC's affectionate philosophy of coverage is that a college game is a different kind of spotting experience from that offered by the pros and that TV should try to capture its freer, livelier spirit as well as its accelerated action. While the campus view that ABC presents is a shade of ivy bland, that is fair enough. Those watching at home are, after all, escapists, and it is not the responsibility of ABC to give equal time to the SDS just to prove it is right on in the new college scene.

Unfortunately, the ABC effort has been distorted by all the outside demands. First, the NCAA requires that a phony spot commercial be run for each competing school. With a mail-order voice and stock shots that went out with Good News, this labored bunk goes a long way toward destroying the spontaneity and spirit that ABC works hard to capture. The NCAA makes every college sound like Oxford, and half the time you know there are some players down on the field majoring in alphabet.

Second, the insidious marching-band lobby virtually has forced ABC to devote its whole halftime show to cacophonous gimmickry that long ago became a parody of itself. It is especially unfortunate that ABC forfeits halftime dialogue, because the network puts on an outstanding pregame show, one that is particularly valuable to the viewer who is not familiar with the teams. This year a variety of approaches were tried, always introducing some element or factor unique to the upcoming game. Even the most confused fan could start off with at least a touch of attachment or direction.

Sadly, after the kickoff the viewer gets too little guidance from the broadcasters, Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson. They are so trapped with the necessity to describe every play, all 150 of them, that they seldom have any time for the game as a whole. ABC mimeographs meticulous game plans for its cameras and, considering how fast the action tumbles on, the directors do a superb job of punching in playbacks, which Coach Wilkinson never fails to stay up with. However, this leaves no time to mull over larger questions that the viewer really wants answers to. Some random examples. Against Texas, Oklahoma simply could not complete a pass. Was the quarterback that rotten a passer or was it the Texas defense? Nothing said. Stanford scored at will the first three times it had the ball against Washington, then could hardly make a first down. How come? Answer came there none—just the usual numbing devotion to play-by-play. Like most well-paid TV announcers, neither Wilkinson nor Schenkel has any heart for venturing real opinion or honest criticism. Speaking of old speak-no-evil, Chris Schenkel has attained new heights. Now he sidesteps naming the player who commits an atrocious personal foul when it is obvious to all in the stadium, and Producer Chuck Howard is right there pleading with him to, for once, impart some unpleasant news. But Schenkel's is the telephone-book approach to football telecasting: say a lot of names and thank a lot of people and you will have offended no one. It is a 1950s style, and it conflicts with an ABC effort that is otherwise moving very professionally into the new decade.

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