Out on the ice the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins crunch each other in pursuit of Lord Stanley's Cup and down in the basement of the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the National Broadcasting Company's remote truck rocks with cheers and hoots as the TV crew pumps the game out across the country as well as it has ever been done on the tube—with better camera work, less blather and more savvy than any crew before them. Yet for NBC's first-rate hockey staff these are uncertain times. Nobody in the industry seems to want to discuss the future of the two-year-old marriage between the network and the NHL. There is reason to believe that the union is headed for splitsville and that NBC may elect not to pick up its option for a third season of hockey. The problem, as always, is ratings, which have turned out to be not as high as some people had anticipated. This despite the fact that NBC hockey is one of the esthetically bright spots of sports programming.
The particular virtue NBC brings to its NHL coverage is top-to-bottom expertise, unmatched anywhere in TV coverage of team sports. The crew of 40 was handpicked two years ago by the executive producer, Scotty Connal, a 45-year-old former NBC page, and remains on hockey from the first TV games in January until the conclusion of the Stanley Cup in May. A good many members of Connal's troupe are hockey players of one caliber or another themselves; before every broadcast they like to have a game in whatever rink they are broadcasting from. Connal once played for the New York Rovers and hockey continued to absorb him when he wasn't busy covering political conventions, space shots or presidential elections.
"I'll admit that I'm a hockey nut," says Connal. "Our crew consists of people who have a definite feeling for the game. That's why we can do what we do. We try to anticipate what might happen. We try to find out everything we can about the players as individuals and about their styles."
Connal is quick to allow that TV hockey has problems. "Some people have no conception of ice hockey and, to be candid, I sure would hate to have to learn the game by watching it on television. The fact is that in the NHL the same people go to all the games. You can go to Boston Garden and see the same people in the same seats for 10 years. Many of the fans we are trying to reach have never had the opportunity to experience an NHL game." There is hope, he thinks, in the large group of youngsters playing hockey in this country. "They're dedicated to the game," Connal says, "and they are going to become tremendous fans in a few years."
The three announcers who do the games for Connal and NBC—Tim Ryan, Brian McFarlane and Ted Lindsay—lend solid credibility to their subject. Ryan and McFarlane have both broadcast hockey in Toronto, where it is the No. 1 sport, and Lindsay's candor is refreshing. Lindsay, of course, was the game's premier leftwinger with the Detroit Red Wings in the late '40s and the '50s. His career record shows 379 goals scored, more than 30 hours spent in penalty boxes and 760 stitches taken.
The isolation shots NBC gives its audience are another plus. "When the puck goes into the net," says Connal, "I want to see what caused the goal—the defenseman missing the check or the scramble in front of the net. Hockey fans are just as sophisticated about their sport as baseball or football fans are about theirs. We feel that the producer and director should know every bit as much about games and teams as the announcers do. One of our top cameramen is Ray Figelski, who flies in every week from California. Ray plays hockey and loves it. He can somehow stay a skater's step ahead of the action because he knows the game."
Connal and his crew have developed some pretty sophisticated techniques. For instance, when they want to get a commercial on the air, the producer pushes a button that activates an electric cummerbund around the waist of the linesman. A mild shock registers on the official's stomach and he starts to look for a point when the action slows down. The interruptions are not as long or as obvious as they are in pro football.
NBC's current position on future hockey telecasts was succinctly stated last week by Carl Lindemann, Vice President, Sports: "We do not care to talk about it at this time." The reason for such standoffishness is, as stated, that this is the final year of the two-year, $6-million-per-year contract with the NHL, and NBC must decide soon about the one-year option. There is no doubt that some station managers in the South and Southwest don't care for the game, no matter how skillfully broadcast, and would not be disappointed if the option is not renewed. As it is, of NBC's 218 outlets, only 180 take hockey.
In the ratings game, NBA basketball (a CBS presentation) outdraws hockey by about two to one (30 million viewers to 15 million) but this year both sports have declined in terms of numbers because ABC has injected Son of Wide World of Sports into its Sunday afternoon programming.
Once Stanley Cup play is concluded, NBC and the NHL will sit down and the network will decide what future hockey may have with it. It will be a pity if their answer is "none."