When it was announced in May that Bill MacPhail, vice-president in charge of CBS' ailing sports department, had resigned for health reasons, the television industry could hardly believe it. Unlike most network jobs, the post of sports director turns over about as often as the expressions change on the faces of Mount Rushmore. During the TV sports boom of the last 15 years, only four men have held the job for any period of time: Tom Gallery of NBC (1952-63); MacPhail (1961-74); Carl Lindemann of NBC (1963-); and Roone Arledge of ABC (1963-). Gallery's and MacPhail's backgrounds were somewhat similar; both came to TV from major league baseball. Before taking over sports, Lindemann was, among other things, associate producer of The Kate Smith Hour. Arledge, as anyone at ABC will tell you, was born in a manger.
Conjecture in the broadcast and sports industries over who would be MacPhail's successor began to take on overtones of the $64,000 Question until it was finally disclosed that 37-year-old Robert Wussler had landed the job. The most common response to that announcement was, "Who?"
Wussler's background and experience clearly were not picked up while taking the waters at Toots Shor's, which helps explain why he was a new face to the sports crowd. He has been with CBS since shortly after graduating in 1957 from New Jersey's Seton Hall University, a school once described as "a campus surrounded by a gymnasium." Except for a few days as CBS' associate producer at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, his major credits are in news, hard news. Along the way he has had a hand in the coverage of some events that were big even by Super Bowl standards, such as all 27 manned space flights in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo series. He won his first of three Emmy Awards in 1969 for CBS' coverage of the slaying and funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Wussler is 6', smokes cigars, has six children—including two sets of twins—and says, "I am not a sports buff. I'm a sports fanatic, a distinction I share with millions of Americans, and one which describes what I think is a perfectly acceptable form of social behavior in 1974. Television sports programming has many of the most significant attributes of news broadcasting, but it also has a very positive aspect that the regular news does not always have in the events it reports. I believe that by using more news techniques in sports television we can raise coverage to a level it has never enjoyed before. It is not just a world of games, it is a world of people. That is a story we have not really even begun to tell. Television has not brought forth the truth about the subject of sports."
September 1, 1974
The harshest truths immediately facing Wussler at CBS do not lie simply in ratings, where the network is running third, but in image, where CBS' once-preeminent status is badly tarnished, and in profits, which do not exist. For years CBS has maintained that it breaks about even in covering sports, not necessarily a bad situation except that ABC has been making money and enhancing its image at the same time. "One of the problems with CBS sports in recent years," a detractor said last week, "is that they would send 30 guys out to cover something and 15 of them would be in charge of party hats."
This spring CBS lost the telecasting rights for future Kentucky Derbies to ABC because Arledge was faster afoot, tendered a higher bid and promised to help promote the Derby with earlier racing shows. That left CBS with the two hindquarters of the Triple Crown, while its rival had the race everyone really wanted to watch. During the 1973-74 NBA season CBS was universally panned for its telecasts, which were considered far inferior to the ones put on in previous seasons by their New York neighbors in the ABC building. Even Wussler says, "I saw what we did with the NBA and we were about half as good as ABC was."
Wussler intends to change all that. For starters, he will try to perk up the low ratings of the NBA coverage by airing the early-season telecasts—which last year went almost unnoticed on Saturday afternoons—on Sundays in pro football-basketball double-headers. "We don't intend to be competitive in the world of sports television," he says. "We intend to become No. 1 in sports television, and as quickly as it can be accomplished. To those who ask how we propose to do that, I say only one thing—watch!"
Among the things Wussler would like people to watch and recognize are CBS announcers. "I intend to make them anchor people," he says. "CBS has two announcers, Jack Whitaker and Pat Summerall, who are known. I want at least five who are well known. We have too many guys who seem to drop out of the sky in parachutes. I'm going to have 12 reporters who are out and around and on top of stories."
Wussler also is looking for a woman announcer, is seriously involved in the international bidding for the home-run hitting contest between Henry Aaron and Sadaharu Oh and believes that box lacrosse might have a chance as a TV sport. "We do not propose more gimmickry, we don't propose to turn sports events into talk shows, and we don't wish to make ourselves bigger than the events we're covering," he says. "We will apply more creative imagination and more honesty to the inherent drama of sports."
For those in the sporting media, the biggest drama of all will be seeing if Wussler can pull it off.