With virtually no fanfare, on Jan. 11 CBS began inserting a series of 3½-minute films entitled Red Auerbach on Roundball into the halftimes of its telecasts of NBA games. The segments present Auerbach, general manager and former coach of the Celtics, explaining the major points—and quite a few of the minor ones—of basketball as it is played in the NBA. Judging by the first four shows, Red on Roundball promises to become one of the brightest and most informative additions to sports programming in a long time.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the segments, 28 of which will be shown by the time the NBA playoffs are concluded this spring, is that it has taken television so long to get around to doing them. Although basketball may be familiar to more Americans than any other sport, TV long has shied away from discussing the intricacies of the pro game in favor of treating it as merely a series of one-on-one contests. In its two previous seasons of NBA telecasts, CBS had begun to rectify that situation, first by hiring a reporter, Sonny Hill, to cover the league on a full-time basis, then by putting cameras and microphones on team huddles to allow viewers to see and hear coaches at work. Even though these attempts to present the game's technical side were often unsuccessful, they indicated that CBS was on the right track.
Auerbach is the perfect man to broaden CBS' approach. He is a superior teacher with a booming voice and a latent talent for acting. And his knowledge of his game is unexcelled.
Pro basketball has fared poorly as a televised sport since it first appeared on the air 22 seasons ago. It was unceremoniously junked at the conclusion of its original TV contract with NBC in 1962 because of woeful ratings. ABC gave the NBA another chance in 1964. Even though the rights fees paid by the networks to the NBA have escalated from more than $500,000 in 1964 to $9 million this season, television has persisted in presenting the pros as a bunch of guys running more or less aimlessly around the court in shiny underwear.
February 9, 1976
Auerbach is undertaking a difficult task in attempting to alter the impression TV has created by: 1) striving to educate CBS' average audience of 14 million viewers about the complexities of the pro game; 2) attempting to teach young players how to improve their games; 3) subtly introducing fans to an all-star team of pros, selected not by the usual criteria of scoring but on the basis of how well Auerbach feels they do—or did—in the game's other important facets, such as picking and passing.
Even though the players get only $300 to appear—a piddling sum for the NBA's high-paid stars—and filming sessions have taken as long as four hours, Auerbach has rounded up many of the best pros. In fact, it is the host, not his guests, who seems most bothered by the lengthy shootings. "We have three cameras going most of the time, and sometimes a fourth," says Bob Stenner, producer of Red on Roundball. "First Red walks the subject through what he is attempting to show the audience—and he often does that two or three times. Then we go to work until we shoot it right. The first show we did was with Jo Jo White on dribbling and the functions of a guard. The more times it took, the more Red got frustrated, because he is a perfectionist, but when he saw what came out, he was pleased. We don't want to gimmick these segments up by using film footage of game situations. There will be times when we may have to, perhaps when we show Tiny Archibald on penetration. But the basic things like Bill Russell on rebounding and Rick Barry on foul shooting will be clean and without action footage."
Although the decision not to use game films is essentially a sound one, viewers may have trouble getting accustomed to Red on Roundball, which is being staged in an empty gym where the sound is hollow and the backgrounds dark. And since Auerbach is speaking extemporaneously, his narration is in the same gruff tones that he used as a coach. "Some people feel that Red is too loud," says Stenner. "I don't think so. That's the way he talks. Red's an animated man, and that's the aspect of him we want to capture. We'd lose that if we had him do a voice-over in a studio."
This is the final season of CBS' three-year package with the NBA, and contract negotiations this week may determine whether the network's efforts to make pro basketball telecasting more informative and enjoyable continue. The last time the league's TV rights were up for bidding, the competition was fierce between ABC, which had previously televised the games, and CBS. When CBS won, ABC went to court in an attempt to retain the rights. Competition may not be as strenuous this year. ABC's ratings are good without the NBA, and CBS has not made a bundle on its pro telecasts. The network has gotten low ratings mainly because its color men the last two seasons, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson, have been something less than brilliant, especially in comparison to their ABC predecessor, Bill Russell. This year's color announcer, former Referee Mendy Rudolph, has been a modest improvement. And the contract negotiations will be further complicated if the NBA asks, as it is expected to, for the new deal to include a weekly Monday night telecast. Under those circumstances, the only certainty for viewers is that they will be able to watch Auerbach get to the heart of pro basketball—at least for the rest of this season.