For nearly two years Grandstand—which will certainly be the most expensive sports program of the new television season and may wind up being the most important as well—was known internally at NBC as The Big Idea. It premieres next Sunday at 12:30 p.m. EDT, not accidentally the same day that the National Football League season opens, the NFL's American Football Conference games being a prime NBC draw.
Nobody at NBC will guess at the costs of launching and producing the new show, but the figure is as high as the aim is lofty. "Eventually Grandstand should become the first edition and four-star final of sports broadcasting," says Carl Lindemann Jr., the head of NBC Sports. To achieve this, Lindemann and his chief of operations, Chet Simmons, have been working with what seems to be an unlimited bankroll. The expectation is that Grandstand will become a sweaty money-making brother to the network's successful Today and Tonight shows.
What, television viewers may wonder, will Grandstand do for me that ABC's Wide World of Sports or CBS' Sports Spectacular doesn't?
Basically, Grandstand will wrap itself around live sports events. In the football season, for instance, it will precede AFC games by half an hour, fill the halftime doldrums and after the game, wrap up the day's sporting events. During the winter it will work around tennis and golf with some wild-card options available. "If a tennis match turns out to be dull," says Simmons, "we will pull away from it and go wherever the news is—another event or perhaps an interview with a person in the news."
September 14, 1975
The show's very first half hour will involve some fancy footwork: a quick wrap-up of the scores of major college football games played Saturday night; possibly coverage of the Davis Cup matches between Chile and Sweden in Bastad; action from the Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania; a sequence from the Weisfield Cup hydroplane race in San Diego; a look at developments in the World Football League; and highlights of Saturday's big horse races. Because the first Grandstand coincides with the British Broadcasting Corporation's 20th anniversary of its Grandstand (which is where NBC got the title), an exchange of films has been arranged. The BBC will air highlights of NBC's sports coverage over the past 20 years while viewers here will probably see sequences of major British events since 1955. The first NBC show will also examine the enormously costly rebuilding of Yankee Stadium and the progress of America's most mysterious sports complex, the Hackensack (N.J.) Meadows project. In addition, Tony Kubek will be on hand at the day's hottest baseball game and there will also be short live feeds from six AFC games. All of this, mind you, in 30 minutes.
To get Grandstand rolling, NBC Sports hired so many people that its old fifth-floor space in New York's RCA Building became unlivable. In June the sports department moved to the 15th floor, and still had so many deskless bodies that 10 more offices had to be found elsewhere in the building.
The executive producer of Grandstand is Don Ellis, who was responsible for most of the ideas for The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. "The difference between Grandstand and the other shows," says Ellis, "is to be found in the word live. We will jump around the country and world to bring as many live events into the viewers' homes as possible. We will concentrate on genuine sporting events as opposed to manufactured ones. When we do athletes as personalities we will examine them from sides other than what normally appears on the television screen. Our aim is to make the viewer more aware of what is behind the winner, or loser."
Grandstand's host will be Jack Buck, one of the glibbest in the business. NBC got Buck, who is 51, by giving him a three-year contract at an undisclosed figure high enough to lure him away from his $62,000-a-year job as announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. "There is an unpredictability to Grandstand that excites me," says Buck. "It gives us a chance to do live things and do some investigative reporting as well."
"When we do an investigative report on a subject like violence in hockey," says Simmons, "we are going to ask some hard questions. We will have to buy rights to do events that we don't presently have, but we are not going into wrist wrestling, or 'made-for-television' sports. We've got a problem with tennis because the ratings of our World Championship Tennis shows have been falling—more than a million fewer viewers weekly now than four years ago. But we're not ready to quit on WCT yet. While we dropped hockey, it doesn't mean we aren't going to cover it in some form on Grandstand. And while we didn't buy the rights to American Basketball Association games, that doesn't mean we are not going to do any. We are. There are also some college basketball games which can be moved to Sunday afternoons. Also, there are horse races now on Sundays. The tough time is summer, and we probably won't do the show then. The thing to remember is that these first shows are not what we eventually want Grandstand to be. It will be during the winter and spring that the real Grandstand will emerge."
If NBC can deliver what it promises within the next six months, Grandstand will be extremely rewarding to sports fans. If it doesn't pan out, a lot of people may find themselves back down on the fifth floor.