About the only way to avoid animal shows on television these days is to leave the set turned off. They seem to be coming at us from every continent and archipelago. Most are cheaply produced and merely hope to catch an audience of children and a few adults in that half-hour gap between the nightly network news and prime time. But while quantity, not quality, is the rule, there is an exception on Sunday afternoons now that The American Sportsman has returned for its 11th annual winter and spring run on ABC-TV.
Sportsman is much more than an animal show, of course, although that is the way the public often thinks of it. Whatever they call it, the number of devotees has become impressive. Last spring The American Sportsman ranked fourth among sports series on television, with an average of nearly 7 million homes tuned in each week, easily beating CBS' National Basketball Association telecasts (5.1 million) and NBC's National Hockey League games (3.1 million).
Sportsman began its current run with a program on wolves stalking caribou in the Canadian Northwest and has also shown Bing Crosby and Phil Harris hunting Canadian geese. Coming up are Dick Butkus going for Pacific sailfish and actress Margot Kidder in a beautifully photographed essay on hang-gliding. The celebrities enjoy themselves so much that they go out of their way to be booked on Sportsman although their only reward is usually a trip into the outdoors and a shotgun or some fishing equipment.
Producer-Director Neil Cunningham won't discuss his budget in detail, but Sportsman is obviously an expensive and demanding task. On the average, a single segment takes about eight weeks to produce and may cost as much as $150,000. Ideas for shows come mainly from Cunningham, Writer Pat Smith and Host Curt Gowdy. Working from a list of about 50 possible programs, they shoot from 15 to 22 a year. In some cases an excellent idea might have to wait two or three years before the right person is found to fit it.
In its 11 years Sportsman has gradually changed from a strictly hunting-fishing program to one with a wider perspective on how mankind uses and abuses wildlife and the outdoors. Cunningham feels the show now has a responsibility to treat environmental problems, even though he long ago found out that a vocal portion of his audience prefers only hunting and fishing.
The American Sportsman is shown in the middle of Sunday afternoon, when, some television executives believe, a large part of the audience is in a "beer haze" and does not care about quality programming. If that is the case, it is too bad, because Sportsman is done with flair, a sense of humor and, at times, a subtle suggestion of outrage over man's treatment of his environment. One of the forthcoming segments deals with elephant poaching in Africa, and the realism is shocking. Next week Sportsman will show Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, diving among sharks in a program that may be the best of this year's series. The photography, some of it shot at night with surprising clarity, and the reactions of both man and fish are haunting.
"With the possible exception of Australians, no other people have the outdoor heritage Americans have," says Cunningham. "We now somehow seem called to the outdoors more and more. Today's teen-agers seem to enjoy the outdoors more than youngsters of the recent past. Because of affluence, there are more opportunities to get to the outdoors today, and the youngsters know how to treat it."
When he was young Cunningham's enjoyment of the outdoors was considerable, even though he was brought up in the New York City borough of Queens, where the deer and the antelope seldom play. In the summers he visited a friend in upstate Dutchess County. "I would get up in the mornings and walk into the woods and look and listen," Cunningham says. "I'd spend the entire day out there. Did that for a lot of summers. My friend's father was a chef at the Advertising Club, and in the fall we would drive up in a 1939 DeSoto to hunt deer, something we weren't much good at. It took us four years to get one."
For six years Cunningham worked with Fred Friendly on the excellent CBS Reports commentaries. Friendly is regarded as one of the geniuses of broadcasting, mostly for the programs he did with Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s. "With Fred nobody was ever left out of a project," says Cunningham. "You were part of the decisions and encouraged to voice an opinion. It was a great way to learn the business."
Cunningham left CBS in 1969. "I was one of those guys whose contract was up at the wrong time," he says. "Bud Morgan was producing Sportsman at the time and he asked me if I would like to do some things for it. I thought it was time for a change and joined him. In 1973 I became the producer of the show. Now I don't get the chance to go into the outdoors nearly as often as I would like. I have a boat and was on it only eight times all last year. There is nothing that takes you away from the pressure cooker like getting out in a boat and drifting. I'll go out with the intention of staying for just a couple of hours and not come back until dark."
By staying indoors more than he cares to, Cunningham has brought the best of the outdoors home to the rest of us.