Ed Sullivan will soon be gone from your living room screen, and Lawrence Welk and Red Skelton, too. TV is not a business where long-term survival is endemic, and soon only Gunsmoke and Bonanza will remain among the oldtimers—and, incredibly, Wide World of Sports, the patriarch of ABC programming that celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.
Merely to endure so long in television is an accolade of sorts, but Wide World commends itself to viewers for more substantial reasons. It has won four Emmys; it was the first to use the satellite for sports; it was the first to beam a program of any kind out of Russia via satellite; it pioneered the use of such video wonders as stop action.
Beyond that, Wide World takes its title seriously. It really makes the only effort on television to cover the broad spectrum of sport, the rest of the field consisting of coverage of popular rites that happen to be athletic contests—the Super Bowls, World Series and Triple Crowns. But nearly all forms of communication do a poor job of covering the full range and fervor of sports. During spring training, for example, daily newspapers faithfully array hundreds of Grapefruit League box scores for stultifying weeks on end, at the expense of just the sort of thing that Wide World gives us: lumberjacking, wrist wrestling, barrel jumping, cycloball—yes, cycloball—Jeep Derby, air racing and Eiffel Tower climbing.
Now really, are we the better for having witnessed barrel jumping instead of the Phillies-Pirates game from Bradenton, Fla.? A fair question, but with all our so-called respectable, traditional sports sickli'ed o'er with the pale cast of greed, there is something marvelously pristine about seeing people doing anything for the sheer sport of it. So the answer is probably yes.
April 25, 1971
This is not to say, of course, that Wide World traffics only in athletic innocence (auto racing and skiing, two of its staples, are among the most commercial of all sporting entertainments). But the mere fact that the show has given some exposure to previously unknown games suggests that it might be changing attitudes among sports fans themselves. In other words, commercials follow life follow art. As recently as 1960 CBS was able to purchase the television rights to the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics for a paltry $50,000. By contrast, the U.S. rights for the 1972 Winter Games went to NBC for a staggering $6.4 million. The fact that Wide World had given exposure to Winter Olympics-type events 115 times by the end of 1970 has probably had something to do with this growth.
Wide World was the inspiration of Roone Arledge, the ABC Sports president, who—before deciding to give the show a go-ahead—dispatched a staff subaltern to sneak over to the NBC microfilm newspaper library to see if there were enough sports to go around. Assured there were, Arledge then almost saw his idea stillborn when advertising support failed to materialize. Then a cigarette sponsor came in minutes before the final Friday afternoon deadline, and Wide World creaked onto the air.
It was nearly canceled in its first season, but jet transportation and video tape made the show work by giving it immediacy and pace, and sponsors came aboard. Ratings rose, and word of the show's solvency soon got around; at one point the famous divers of Acapulco were asking $100,000 for a performance. Arledge hung up on them, and the head diver called back immediately to offer a compromise: $10 a dive. Also, the Eastern States Table Tennis Association once asked Wide World to submit a sealed bid for the rights to carry its championship.
Jim McKay, the host of the program since its birth, is doubtless a factor in all this. His homey, breathless, less-than-expert approach turns off aficionados, but he figures that the bulk of his audience is not made up of pros. And so, McKay says, "I imagine I'm talking to a family where the father is pretty knowledgeable, the mother knows nothing and the kids are in between." McKay (his real name is McManus, but CBS changed it so he could host a show for them called The Real McKay) is 49 now and he has traveled 2.5 million miles on the job, personally reporting most of the more than 100 sports that Wide World has carried from 42 states and 34 countries. He is diligent and resilient and works hard to establish a working understanding of every sport, qualities that earned him the only Emmy ever given to a TV sportscaster. Where he falters is in being too effusive. He tries to accord every cycloball champ the same serious respect a heavyweight king rates, which is civil enough but cloying.
Except for occasional interviews with major sports celebrities—Namath, Ali, etc.—by Howard Cosell, Wide World intentionally limits itself to coverage of events. The success of the show proves the wisdom of this approach, but it may also indicate that the viewers are ready for something a little more sophisticated—like a companion show that might be called Underworld of Sports, on the personalities and issues in athletics.
Lest anyone out there doubt that America's sports viewer is sufficiently sophisticated for such fare, it should be noted that no audience deserves to be underestimated that has learned to love and nurture Demolition Derby for a decade.