The attention paid lately to cable television and the certainty that the video cassette is not too far in the future have obscured the rejuvenation of a familiar old form of the media—theater, or closed-circuit, TV. All by himself that indomitable showman, Muhammad Ali, has brought closed-circuit television back to million-dollar prominence, but this alone is a deceptive sign of resurgence. The very reason that closed-circuit TV has never become a broad force is that it has been too content to exist on one attraction—heavyweight championship fights.
Ali's fight with Joe Frazier will break all records and hold them until the night Jack Kent Cooke convinces the Beatles they ought to team up again. But heavyweight championships are exceptional events and should not be given undue weight in the closed-circuit equation. The future lies not with attractions of such massive public interest, but with those that appeal to devoted specialty audiences. The World Cup soccer matches, which drew 500,000 paying theater fans in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, proved that. On network TV, consumed as it is by the rating game, there was no more hope for soccer than for catechism. Theaters and arenas, however, are small enough to support loyal crowds with precise interests. In San Francisco a young travel agent gambled on the World Cup and sold out the Cow Palace twice, with all 14,000 seats at no less than $5. Many big auto races are on closed-circuit now, with the Indianapolis and Daytona 500s drawing 2,000 and more in many cities—and at Broadway prices ($7.50 plus) that prove people do not mind paying if they like something enough. Wimbledon, El Cordobés and the NHL and NBA playoffs (on the nights they are not on network TV) are other immediate attractions for the big screens, which added color in the last year.
Yet the real boom may come on an even more specialized basis—where there is, in a small area, intense interest in an event but not enough seats. So far, only professional basketball and college football have effectively employed closed-circuit TV for local fans. Last spring during the NBA playoffs the Lakers piped the games into eight arenas and theaters in the Los Angeles area and grossed $110,000. LSU sold out three campus locations—4,500 seats—for its football game at Notre Dame. Purdue drew almost as many indoor fans when it played the Irish at South Bend. Although closed-circuit basketball flopped at the University of Kentucky this winter, apparently because of bad timing around the Christmas holidays, some schools are considering selling closed-circuit season tickets for a package of away games. That could be the next big step for closed-circuit sports.
As a device to handle the home sellout overflow, closed-circuit TV long has been of concern to sports promoters and leagues, notably the NFL. Pro football fears that closed-circuit might offer such quality and comfort that fans would rather pay to go to a warm theater than to a cold ball park. The NFL does not exactly encourage its teams to put home games on closed-circuit, even when a game is sold out. Last year, when closed-circuit TV of the Super Bowl was not permitted in the blacked-out New Orleans area, the NFL was sued by Management Television Systems, Inc., one of the leading closed-circuit firms, whose chairman is E. William Henry, a former head of the Federal Communications Commission.
March 8, 1971
MTS has an interesting case, for whereas federal law protects the NFL home-TV blackout, Henry claims there is no legal support offered the NFL in its closed-circuit policies. Indeed, the Government has constantly supported the general notion of public title to the air waves. According to Henry, all that mumbo-jumbo at the close of football games about needing to obtain rebroadcast rights is not, legally, worth the breath wasted. If this theory proves correct, here is a real possibility:
The Jets are blacked out for their '71 conference final at home, a game that will decide the race. Of course, the game does go into the NBC outlet in nearby Philadelphia. With the proper equipment, the telecast could be lifted and brought right into Madison Square Garden, where another 20,000 New York fans could see the game that was being played at Shea Stadium. The lawsuits involved in this one probably would keep lawyers rich until Super Bowl MCXVI.
Henry, the enthusiastic MTS boss, sees only two prerequisites for an event to succeed on closed-circuit TV: "It must be popular in the area and it should not be on home TV in the area." Besides sports, he envisions new specialized theater networks for opera, Broadway shows and college attractions, from Ralph Nader to rock. "We think we can be the answer to Woodstock," he says, pointing out that while the quality of music could be retained, even improved, the crowds could be dispersed and under control. Sadly, a similar use of closed-circuit television may be needed to save high school athletics from its own violence in many cities.
There is almost certainly going to be a more active closed-circuit game ahead, and a large portion of it will be in sports. With the addition of color and improvement of quality, theater sports fans are already catching on: they boo the officials and stand up for the national anthem.