If you are enough of a college football fan to have watched all the games ABC-TV ran through your living room last week, you are now probably dizzy, comatose or badly in need of medication to wash away all the hashmarks burned into your eyeballs. During the seven-day period ending last Saturday evening, the network sent an average of 160 plays per day your way in games involving 10 of the top 20 teams. You have heard enough marching bands to put a headache poultice on a granite statue and caught glimpses of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and even the Commander in Chief himself.
By televising the Penn State-Pittsburgh and Notre Dame-USC games during prime evening hours, ABC had expected to pull its ratings for NCAA football up to the level of a year ago. Early indications are that these gains failed to materialize, and that is most unwelcome news for Chuck Howard, producer of ABC's college football telecasts for the past nine seasons and second in command at ABC Sports.
When one is No. 2 to Roone Arledge, the sound of the trumpet is often muted, and Howard has worked largely without notice since coming to ABC in 1960. A 1955 Duke graduate who broadcast the Blue Devils' basketball and baseball games as well as editing the sports pages of the school paper, Howard has produced many of ABC's major sporting telecasts, including coverage of the Munich Olympics, nine U.S. Opens and many memorable college football games.
Even among his detractors—and Howard has gained more than a few in his role as Vice-President in Charge of Program Production—he holds a deserved reputation for broad knowledge of almost all sports. This understanding has undoubtedly enhanced his technical skill in projecting the color, pageantry and joy of fall football afternoons from College Park, Md. to College Station, Texas. Despite his disclaimer that "I'm not losing sleep over the ratings," Howard is almost surely distressed about the apparent absence of a late-season increase in the size of his audience. The TV industry has been looking at ABC's low overall Saturday ratings and questioning the network's non-sports programming decisions. A surge by college football would have made it, and its producer, look particularly good in comparison.
Howard had maintained since the college telecasts started on Sept. 7—before most students were even back on their campuses—that the ratings would equal those of last season. After 1968 the college ratings began going down, and in 1973 they slid 9% to an average of slightly more than 8 million homes per game. (Pro football ratings, except those for Monday night productions, also dropped in 1973.)
Howard had reason for optimism because the lower ratings early this season did not necessarily indicate a continued drop in interest in the college game. When baseball races tighten, as they did this fall, televised football suffers, particularly when the enthusiasm for baseball is sustained through World Series. This year ABC also had to contend with a balmy autumn that kept potential viewers outdoors, and with the NCAA decision disqualifying highly ranked Oklahoma from appearing on television at all.
With its final game of the season (the Hula Bowl, Jan. 4), ABC will have broadcast about 80 hours of college football in a format drastically changed from a year ago. One new element is the use of two "college age" reporters, Jim Lampley (25) and Don Tollefson (22), to bring fresh "insights and dimensions" to the shows. Sometimes the reporters were insightful. Sometimes they hit new dimensions in dullness. Most often they were restricted by the fact that there are so many plays in a college game that they did not have the air time to say much at all. The idea of using young sideline reporters is still worth pursuing, but the reports must be newsier, sound less like General Hospital And be delivered with some verve.
The use of an assortment of coaches as guest experts, instead of staying strictly with resident Coach Bud Wilkinson, proved only that some coaches are good commentators and some are terrible. Too many of them pulled their punches. They knew that sooner or later they would be playing one of the teams they were talking about and coaches never like to say anything that a potential opponent might hang up on a dressing-room wall. Still, Pepper Rodgers' view of alumni is worth repeating. "A good season for the alumni is when the team goes 11-0 and the coach gets fired at the end of the year," he said. Certainly, the most forceful statement delivered by any coach—or anyone else—came from Wilkinson three weeks ago when he blasted the NCAA and the bowl committees for selecting teams for postseason games before the conclusion of the season.
Another major change this year was the dropping of Duffy Daugherty as a regular member of the broadcasting crew. Daugherty, a marvelous after-dinner speaker, was as hilarious on the air as a test pattern. Switching from Chris Schenkel to Keith Jackson as the primary play-by-play announcer also has been an improvement and surely placated a growing army of Schenkel detractors. But already the Jackson-haters are mustering, which only proves that the main thing to remember about telecasting college football is that to become involved in it is to mix in matters of high passion and deep loyalties. At the very least, ABC deserves praise for bravery.