"Licensees and networks are hereby notified that, effective October 16, 1974, they will be required to disclose clearly, publicly and prominently during each broadcast of an athletic event, the existence of any arrangement whereby announcers broadcasting that event may be directly or indirectly, chosen, paid, approved and/or removed by parties other than the licensee and/or network upon which that event is broadcast."
The preceding legalistic language was brought to you in August by the Federal Communications Commission. Essentially it requires sportscasters whose livelihoods are controlled by the team they cover to declare that fact to the fans. Among the 80 U.S.-based NFL, NBA, NHL and major league baseball clubs, 24 have their own hired hands broadcasting their games on TV or radio or both. The FCC's ruling presumably was designed to help separate the team-controlled shills from the journalists who are under obligation to no one except their stations. The new stipulation may help do that to some extent, but as discerning fans already know—or will find out quickly—it is not always possible to tell a shill by his "disclaimer."
Baseball will be first to feel the impact of the FCC's action, during NBC's presentation of the World Series. "Our lawyers are working on it," says NBC Vice-President Chet Simmons. "We have a strange contract with baseball under which each competing team is allowed to assign an announcer to our Series broadcasts. Now what are we up against? Supposing we get one announcer who is paid by a team and another who is not?"
That problem is minor compared to others suggested by CBS Vice-President Bob Wussler: "Let's say that early next April 1 might want to do a show about the forthcoming baseball season. Everybody knows that Vin Scully of the Dodgers would be a perfect guy to narrate the program. Maybe I would think about using Scully with the disclaimer. Maybe I wouldn't use Scully at all because of it. And numerous situations exist where announcers employed by teams also do news for a station. If a guy is out announcing a baseball game in the afternoon and stumbles across the fact that three players in the bullpen are using dope, do you think that's going to show up on the 10 p.m. news?"
One deceptive aspect of the rule is that it implies that an announcer paid by a team is automatically a shill. Scully is indeed paid by the Dodgers, but he is also the best reporter covering any team in any sport for radio or TV. "I criticize bad play by the Dodgers and Walter O'Malley never says a word," Scully says.
But few team-controlled announcers work under the conditions Scully does. "We don't want people to falsify information, but we're selling a product like Wheaties tries to sell theirs," says Minnesota Twins Vice-President Billy Robertson. One of the Twins' announcers receives half his salary from the team, although the money technically is paid out by the club's advertising agency. That broadcaster is Larry Calton, whose application for the Minnesota job included promising Robertson, "If I don't put a million people in the ball park, I'll give you back half my salary."
At least Calton will have to admit his connection with the team over the air. Other, even more blatant homers will not, among them Detroit Lion radiomen Van Patrick and Bob Reynolds, who are often seen wearing team blazers. As things stand now, they will escape having to make a disclaimer because their livelihoods, at least theoretically, are controlled by a station.
It is hardly startling that a regulation as haphazardly effective as the disclosure rule was prompted by a hazy dispute between an announcer and his employer. The broadcaster was Shelby Whitfield, once a play-by-play man for the Washington Senators. In 1973 a book entitled Kiss It Goodbye was ghostwritten for Whitfield. In a chapter called "Radio Moscow Has More Freedom," he charged that Senators' Owner Bob Short told him not to say it was raining when it was, to eliminate National League scores from the broadcasts and not to bring up the fact that Washington left runners on base.
"I don't think a man broadcasting your games should be deprecating the product, and the best way to make sure he doesn't is to see that you're in a hire-and-fire situation," Short says. "Whitfield would be giving out National League scores when we had the bases loaded and Frank Howard up with a 3-2 count. He said I directed him to tell people it wasn't raining when it was. Well, I wouldn't have done that, but I also know he wasn't being paid to be a weatherman. We were trying to sell tickets and beer. I don't see what effect that new FCC disclaimer will have. It's just a political thing. If you're going to listen to a Shelby Whitfield, what does it mean that there's a disclaimer at the end saying he's paid by Bob Short?"
Although he disagrees with Short on the question of tickets and beer, Bill King, the radio voice of the Oakland Raiders and one of pro basketball's best and most forthright announcers even though his salary is paid by the Golden State Warriors, concurs with Short about the FCC ruling. "It doesn't matter so much who's doing the hiring as it does what's in the man behind the mike," King says. "Out of all this uproar comes this innocuous little announcement that allows the FCC to say, 'This is truth in advertising. We're protecting you.' "
Well the commission is giving some protection. The question is: How much?