We get so uptight about the way the damned thing is going that we just hunker over to '21' at lunchtime, suck on a few olives and do a face-down in the Caesar salad."
That is the voice of the television executive, sweating out a change in TV sports coverage throughout—well, in parts of—the land. In some areas of the country, most notably the East, a new format has evolved, and management is waiting to see how it is going down with at least two generations of viewers brought up to believe that television's job in relating the sports news was merely to give the scores, tell who hit the home runs and shove a microphone into the winning coach's face for 30 seconds of banalities before turning over the rest of the show to the weatherman. Virtually every station has followed that format religiously since the 1940s, but no more. Overall news coverage on television has changed, and some segments have changed much more than others. Movies, theater and art are the most prominent examples. Broadcasters now actually go to openings, and give a judgment only moments after returning to the studio—once TV was too unsure of itself to do that. And now the "Happy Time," television's name for the sports spot on the news, has also changed its approach. Instead of giving all those scores from all those places involving all those teams in all those leagues, television is trying to present selective sports coverage, plus an editorial point of view, in order to increase both ratings and impact. These days a sports fan will hear some scores, news of a few of the normal, day-to-day franchise shifts and then become aware of a "crawl" (type creeping across the bottom of the screen) saying COMMENTARY. This may turn out to be anything from a diatribe about the morality of sport to an analysis of how dissension is tearing up the old hometown team.
In deciding on this innovation, TV brass had relatively little to go on. The handling of sports on the early and late news programs has always been an enigmatic task for station managers, news directors, anchormen and sports announcers alike. For starters, even the number of people who tune in to news shows solely for the sports is a moot subject—it is generally assumed that only 25% of those watching television news care deeply about sports and that the rest of the audience is more interested in local news and what is happening around the nation. Also, in the early evening, when few sports events are completed these days, the news programs run an hour. During the late evening, when most things seem to happen in sports, the news shows run for only 30 minutes. This time limitation, more teams, more games, more players and different time zones, have combined to make it difficult for television to compete with newspapers and radio as any kind of encyclopedic compendium of sports results.
Despite all this, in most cities the local sports newscaster is apt to be the best-known TV celebrity (excluding the heavyweights of the evening network news shows—the Cronkites, Chancellors, Brinkleys, Reasoners and Smiths) on any news program. The sports newsmen on local stations attain a following that causes the ends of the anchorman's razor cut to bleed. In many cases they climb above the anchormen in pay, even though the top anchors draw salaries in six figures. Bob Hosking, the vice-president and general manager of WCBS-TV in New York, says, "You might think that we get an avalanche of requests to come to New York and do he sports news. That isn't the case at all. Many sports news announcers are so well known in their local areas that they can make a great deal of money doing several different things. Heck, I don't think that we get more than two or three applications a month for jobs in New York."
June 25, 1972
Examples of wealth and fame attained by sports newscasters at their home bases are easy to come by. Wes Wise, for one, moved from a television sports spot into the mayor's chair in Dallas. Salty Sol Fleischman, a venerable announcer in Tampa, was named that community's outstanding citizen in 1969. John Kennelly of WJZ-TV in Baltimore has caused so much controversy among Maryland audiences that people argue fiercely in local bars about what he has said at 6:20 and 11:20. According to Alan J. Bell, the station's general manager, "Kennelly is irreverent and sassy—a fan's fan." Pat Summerall of WCBS-TV in New York has become one of the most respected sports newscasters on television because he writes his own shows, originates many of the ideas for the sports department and can conduct an interview without intruding his own personality on that of the athlete interviewed. Today Summerall is perhaps the top-paid man in the field, working under four different contracts, one with CBS radio, one with WCBS radio, one with WCBS-TV and a fourth as a broadcaster of live events for the CBS television network. He is probably moving toward the $150,000-a-year bracket.
A former placekicker for three National Football League teams, Summer-all is widely considered to be the most proficient of many former athletes who work the Happy Time. Two of the most famous American athletes also at work on TV and still playing are Len Dawson, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, with a highly rated show in K.C., and Rick Barry of the New York Nets who does spots on WABC-TV in New York. WABC-TV also employs Jim Bouton and Frank Gifford; the latter works for ABC network radio and TV as well.
Altogether, there are some 700 sports announcers and they form a strange group of egos, instincts, temperaments and talents. Some try to make the viewer feel that they alone are giving off the hard blue glow of high purpose, others are nothing more than overt shills for the sports event their station is showing next or the local promoter's product.
"I believe you have to concentrate on local sports, and that usually doesn't leave too much time for anything else," says Pittsburgh's Bill Currie. Known for years as "the Mouth of the South"—he did play-by-play broadcasts from North Carolina—Currie is now the sports director at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh where, counting his radio work, he does 33 commentaries a week. Currie went to KDKA because the money was better than he had been making. "Hell," he says, "when I was in the newspaper business I'd change jobs for $5 a week, so you know the way I think. My sports reporting is questionable, but as an entertainer I know I haven't hurt our ratings. My folksy, homespun bit is contrived because this is my purpose; the main thing is to keep them from turning you off." Not all announcers are so self-assured, and among them there is a continuing debate over the roles they play. Are they reporters or readers? Experts or showmen?
"I'll admit that I am a hell of a ham," says Sol Fleischman. "I guess I have always been one. I got hold of a microphone 45 years ago and nobody has been able to get it away from me yet."
On the set Fleischman wears an old blue yachting cap at an oblique angle and sits behind a huge, ornate gold-flecked microphone dating back nearly half a century. Fleischman wears the cap for identification—and also because he is bald. He felt when he moved from radio to TV that he might lose his job because the glow from his head would reflect into the camera; to allow oneself to go bald is a mortal sin for television announcers, and some these days take vacation time to get hair transplants.
Fleischman has a loyal audience of nearly a million viewers of WTVT-TV in Tampa (one of five TV stations owned by E. K. Gaylord of Oklahoma City). He knows how to go after news, and on some of his segments on the early evening Pulse News he gets as many as 15 items into the show. He starts his day in his small office at WTVT surrounded by all kinds of memorabilia, photographs and trinkets. On a bookshelf is a blue volume given him by Gussie Busch, whose St. Louis Cardinals train in nearby St. Petersburg; the title is Everything I Know about Radio and Television by Sol Fleischman, and the book contains nothing but blank pages. Fleischman's desktop normally has a pile of letters from fans, friends and promoters suggesting stories for the show. His phone rings throughout the day, with people offering story ideas, asking favors or telling him just how well or badly they thought he handled his most recent show.
Out of this seeming chaos Salty and his young, energetic assistants, Andy Hardy and Kenny Gonzalez, bring—well—chaos. It is entertaining chaos—and a more effective presentation than some major metropolitan stations seem capable of achieving. Instead of putting together a firm script for the news, as is the practice at most stations, Fleischman likes to wing it. Film crews are assigned to shoot the day's stories, and they will go out after as many as six different events in a single day, sometimes for the CBS network as well. "I have virtually total freedom," Fleischman says. "Sure, we overshoot some things and others just don't pan out on occasion. But most of the time it seems to work for the best." With one-word reminders in front of him he delivers the news. It is indeed brisk, and not always grammatical. No matter. Sol touches the bases, uses the film, gives the scores, tells where the fish are biting, who signed the contracts and who got fired. In some ways it has about the effect a light show would have on an audience of cavemen.
"I got my first job as a sportscaster in an odd way," Fleischman recalls. "I was a drummer with a small musical combo in high school. We used to play at the radio station in downtown Tampa. In those days the station used to broadcast football games from the studio. The play-by-play would come in to the announcer from the press boxes at various stadiums by wire and he would read it off and invent things to make the games more interesting for the listeners. While he was waiting for plays to come in, our combo would play things like Betty Coed and On Wisconsin!
"Well, we were into the second game of the season and the announcer at the time was feeling pretty sick and by half-time he was too ill to go on. The station manager asked if anyone in the combo could handle the rest of the game, and the piano player in the group pointed at me and said, 'Sol has a big mouth and he never shuts it anyway. Why not let him do it?' and I went on. That day I knew that I wasn't going to let go of the microphone!"
Salty handled the play-by-play of the first radio network broadcast of a major league baseball game ever to emanate from the state of Florida. (He also once broadcast a nightclub show live while the back room was being raided by the police for housing illegal gambling equipment. "When I got through, only the band and three waiters were left.") Wherever Fleischman goes—St. Petersburg for a round of golf, Clearwater for spring training, the Anna Maria Yacht Club, where his well-equipped 22-foot Mako sport fisherman is docked—people go chasing after him, yelling his name and demanding his autograph. "I love every minute of it," says Salty.
Sol Fleischman has been delivering his own opinions for years, but it was not considered "commentary" of the formal sort now coming into vogue. Newscasters have always made a point of avoiding commentary of the latter kind because the possibilities of conflict of interest are huge; how far they will now go with it should be interesting to watch. Will a man on CBS, for example, really knock the NFL when the network has so much talent and money invested in Pete Rozelle's playpen? Kennelly, in Baltimore, listened to Don Meredith, Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell do a Monday night pro football game last fall on ABC, and even though Kennelly's station is an ABC outlet, he referred to them as "Larry, Moe and Shemp"—the Three Stooges of old movies. In an industry which seldom criticizes itself, this was an interesting gambit and it drew chuckles from Baltimoreans (the network did not register any objection). On the other hand there is KMBC-TV in Kansas City, where Len Dawson has a loyal following. He and John Sanders, working alternately, have about three minutes of air time on the six p.m. show and another three at 10 p.m. "Frankly," says Sanders, "we gear our sports news to the Chiefs as much as we can because we have Dawson and regard him as a big asset in going after the ratings. Dawson can say things with authority that others can't, but of course there are also certain things others can say which Dawson, as a member of the Chiefs, can't." There are some knowledgeable sports fans in Kansas City who watch Dawson interviewing his teammates and get the feeling that the procedure resembles a Meet the Press show on which Ron Ziegler is interviewing Richard Nixon.
Don Keough, news director for the city's WDAF-TV, has watched Dawson and does not want his station, constantly in competition with Dawson's for second place, to be playing Indian to the Chiefs. "We hired Jack Harry [the sports newsman on WDAF-TV's evening news show] because he is a good reporter," Keough says, "but somebody like the Kansas City Chiefs doesn't want to deal with reporters; they want to deal with cheerleaders. It's our policy that our sports reporters will not be cheerleaders for anyone. We are banking on the idea that viewers don't like to see a television station play patsy to anyone, including the Chiefs."
As news director, Keough has felt at least one of the strong-arm methods used by sports promoters to try to influence television's coverage of the news. Last Thanksgiving WDAF had planned a show on artificial turf, an idea triggered by plans to install an artificial surface at the new $54.6 million Truman Sports Complex. For years Kansas City's Municipal Stadium has had the best-kept natural playing surface in sports, and when word got out that the playing areas at the Complex were to be artificially covered by 3-M, the subject caused more debate in Kansas City than in other areas which have had their ball parks carpeted with fake grass. WDAF felt there was enough intrinsic news value in the subject for a panel discussion in which groundskeeper George Toma was to take part, but when the Chiefs heard about it they were annoyed and forbade Toma to appear. The station decided to stand up to the Chiefs, but the team's assistant general manager and overseer of public relations, Jim Schaaf, was unavailable to WDAF spokesmen on the telephone. So Announcer Harry went with a cameraman to the Chiefs' headquarters, where Schaaf eluded them by retreating into a machine room. Irritated by the episode, Chief representatives threatened to bar the station's reporters from the press box at future games and warned that interviews with Chief players might stop.
WDAF showed Schaaf's retreat to the machine room on its evening newscast, much to the displeasure of the Chiefs, who belatedly produced a reason for their high-handed behavior. The team explained that it had decided on the use of artificial turf, had let contracts and, since work had already started, it saw no reason for a discussion of "a conjectural issue." The station broadcast the Chiefs' answer, maintaining that all it had ever wanted was a sensible explanation of the club's reasoning, and the panel discussion was broadcast without Toma. It was one of the rare occasions when television failed to knuckle under to sports promoters.
Attempting to manage the news is not a brand-new undertaking for the sports Establishment, but Frank Snyder, 33, sports director at WOI-TV in Des Moines, takes it as a compliment. "We've got so much trouble trying to fend off professional promoters, colleges and high schools who want more exposure that we know we must be influencing somebody," he says.
Snyder himself was involved in a pretty good example of how to manage the news last fall. "The Iowa State University athletic department wanted to do something to promote its football team, the best it had had for some 10 years. I was asked how they could get some exposure so that their players would get votes on All-America teams. I told them to send no-sound film to the networks with prepared scripts—that way the guy at each network who narrates the film from the script gets a talent fee. Obviously, he will then push it for video tape feeds to local stations. Sure enough, such feeds on Iowa State were offered by all three networks, and I wouldn't exactly call Iowa State a national power.
"Offer no-sound film and you have it made. I'd say that the local sportscasters should rely heavily on their own film, but the rub is that most local stations have a limited number of filmers. You have to be lucky to cover everything in your area that deserves it."
One of the stations able to follow this precept is WTVJ-TV in Miami. The sports department produces 19 news segments a week: a two-minute show at noon on weekdays plus five minutes for both the six p.m. and 11 p.m. news every day. The department has a staff of nine—reporters, cameramen and soundmen—covering what it believes is most important, and about 95% of its sports news coverage originates in Dade (Miami) County.
"I was with this thing from its inception," says Bernie Rosen, the WTVJ sports director. "When television started in 1949 here at WTVJ the sports show was five minutes in length and consisted of the stories I'd seen that morning in The Miami Herald. Our station had no contacts at all. No one called us. We just duplicated what was in the Herald. Then I decided that wasn't the way to do things. Over the course of many years we've developed our own contacts. We have our own reporters, and now we practically go the other way.
"Sometimes the Herald has good stories, sometimes we do. It's to everybody's advantage and all to the good."
WTVJ shoots as much as 7,000 feet of film a week and seldom uses more than two or three "feeds" a week from CBS in New York. The feeds are a subject of far-ranging debate with many local sports staffs. To many sports newsmen they are often little more than irritating and time-wasting fillers. The most widely heard criticism of them is that they are too New York-oriented.
Al Ackerman, of The Detroit News' WWJ-TV, an NBC affiliate, says, "Who gives a [bleep] about the East! If they ever had a guy like Alex Karras in New York they'd go ape!"
In Milwaukee, WITI's Earl Gillespie, on the board of Career Academy's broadcasting division, has been named Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year seven times. "You've got to have video most of the time or else it's just radio," he says. "ABC feeds us some stuff, but I'm not happy with it. We get next to nothing on the NBA, and ABC is carrying the game on Sundays."
In some parts of the country a strong sports segments on a newscast can be invaluable to a station trying to buck outlets with the major networks in their corners. The most successful of these is WGN-TV in Chicago, the nation's most powerful independent station. WGN's handling of sports on the 10 p.m. news is, overall, the best going. Because WGN telecasts more live sports than any station in the country it can easily edit down the highlights of the sports day and put them on the air so that the fan gets a good look at why a team won or lost.
WGN will use sports in its lead-ins on the nightly news show and sometimes carries 10 minutes of sports on the 30-minute program. "On an ordinary night," says Jack Brickhouse, vice-president of the company, manager of sports and Chicago's best-known sportscaster, "we can give sports an extra break. But not on 'big-news' nights. You have to recognize that important general news is more important than important sports news."
It is a Chicago habit to tune to WGN radio and WGN-TV to find out about sports. Even the seven a.m. television show for toddlers, Ray Rayner and His Friends, carries baseball and hockey highlights to start youngsters out in life with the idea that WGN is where to look and listen for news of sports. WGN-TV does all the Chicago Cub home and most of the road games; WGN radio broadcasts all 162 of them. It shows the road games of the Black Hawks and half of the road games of the Bulls on television and does Bear football on radio. It is the flagship station for the Cubs, broadcasting throughout the Midwest, and every other station in Chicago is restricted by contract from showing more than 90 seconds of Cub action at night. "The other stations monitor our live telecasts pretty closely," says Brickhouse. "We have a game in which one of our guys is pitching a no-hitter and we'll mention it along about the sixth inning. By the eighth they will have camera crews pulling up in front of Wrigley Field."
Brickhouse, who is also a director of the Cubs, admits that he does not hold a stopwatch on the other stations to see how much of a Cub game is being shown. "I have gotten the feeling from time to time, however," says Brickhouse, "that they're pushing that 90-second limit pretty close."
The process of exchanging filmed highlights is still a fairly new item in the sports news business. Stations crisscross on exchanges, and no money ever seems to change hands. The consideration given when a segment of action is picked up is merely a credit across the bottom of the screen or the announcer crediting the other station. During some of the weekends in October, when college and pro football and baseball are in hot competition for more time, exchanges are made in vast numbers.
Indeed, it can look as though there were more cooperation between stations on these occasions than there sometimes is between news and sports directors on the same show.
"There is no doubt in my mind," says Gil Stratton, an announcer at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles, "that there is a lot of built-in resentment, nationwide, among news directors when it comes to sports. They view all sports as one story, not as several stories. Baseball, football and basketball are all one to them. They don't consider politics, business and entertainment all one, but they do sports."
Barry Tompkins at San Francisco's KPIX-TV, the highest rated of the three major stations in the Bay Area, says, "I don't think anybody in the country is doing nearly as much as should be done with sports news on television. Maybe around San Francisco we're as advanced as anybody, but in my opinion there is no best sports news commentator in the country."
Ed Hart, formerly of San Francisco's KRON-TV, looks at the future and sees another development. "Sports fans," he says, "are like opera buffs: very dedicated. I got more mail and reaction than the entire news department. My problem was not what to use, but what to leave out. There is so little time."
In all of the confusion of these efforts to streamline the Happy Time, the most distinct developments so far are the new focus on local sports and the regular use of commentary. Just how well the public is reacting to these shifts and innovations remains to be seen. The viewer, of course, has the final answer at his fingertips. "If the public doesn't like this way of handling sports," one announcer says, "that clicking sound we will be hearing out there won't be coming from crickets."