Nothing in the foreseeable future will change the main problem confronting the Public Broadcasting Service when it turns its hand to sports. Because of its constant shortage of funds, PBS cannot now—and probably never should—bid against the major networks and the top independent packagers for the rights to televise big events. Yet by using plenty of imagination, PBS attracts a sports audience that the networks do not get. In fact, by the time the summer is over, PBS will have shown its viewers three major items of unusual sports television, and the reaction to them, which is expected to be overwhelmingly favorable, could shake enough grants loose from large corporations so that PBS can present much more of the same.
Mobil Oil already has assured the producers that it is going to back a 1977 season for The Way It Was, the excellent combination of nostalgic films and interviews that has become the best half-hour sports show on television. In May, thanks to a $200,000 grant from E.F. Hutton & Company, Inc., PBS will show the first one-hour program in a 10-part series called The Olympiad. Written, produced and directed by Bud Greenspan, an independent maker of TV documentaries who always has to struggle to get air time for his shows, The Olympiad is a haunting look at people in search of excellence. The reviews of this series are going to be so good that they will embarrass network executives who have consistently rejected Greenspan's programs. And during March PBS presented Super Bowl, a look at football's premier event, which was co-produced by a couple of outfits called TVTV and Great Balls of Fire in association with WNET in New York.
Public television has dabbled on the outer edges of sports for years, and it has carried a few major events. PBS helped spread tennis on TV, and because that coverage served as the starting point for Announcer Bud Collins' career (page 40), there are those of us who cannot thank PBS enough. Still, of the sports programs public TV has broadcast, none has had the impact of The Way It Was, which is nearing the completion of an immensely successful second season. About 220 stations now carry the show, some of them running segments two or three times a week.
Many of this season's shows have been better than those of a year ago, since Gerry Gross Productions, makers of The Way It Was, had more lead time to work with. Each program takes approximately a month to research and put together, and those of us who admit to being TWIW loons (not mere freaks) are invariably frustrated as we look for errors or distortions in the shows.
Gross is a 50-year-old trivia buff who realizes that sports fans are difficult to fool. Thus, he drives his five-person staff hard to ensure that no bloopers creep in. One of the reasons for this is that Gross once worked with Bill Stern, the celebrated sports announcer of the 1940s who often came on the air with a theme song that began, "Bill Stern, the Colgate Shave-Cream Man is on the air/Bill Stern, the Colgate Shave-Cream Man with stories rare...." So rare, in fact, that he sometimes sacrificed veracity in order to keep the melodrama oozing out of radios and onto living-room rugs. This approach so startled Gross that not only has he insisted on total accuracy for TWIW but he also has completed a movie script about Stern. David Janssen has asked to play the starring role.
"The reactions to The Way It Was really interest me," says Gross. "Naturally, we get a lot of ideas for the show because, although sports fans are deep into nostalgia, they tend to remember games differently than they actually were. Baseball, football and boxing draw tremendous responses, not only from viewers but from the athletes who were involved in the events we use. Because athletes today are less reticent about discussing the good or bad things they once did, they can now add to the history of sports. When we did the 1947 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers in which Al Gionfriddo made his great catch against Joe DiMaggio, an odd thing happened right on the set of the show. DiMaggio and Gionfriddo had not seen each other in the intervening 28 years. Joe had obviously lived with the memory of the catch for a long time and had often been questioned about it. He asked Gionfriddo, 'Al, if you hadn't gotten your glove up, would the ball have been out of the park?' When Gionfriddo said, 'Yes,' Joe smiled. He thought he knew it all along, but he had to ask."
A fortnight ago Super Bowl finished its two-week-long run on PBS stations across the country. TVTV and Great Balls of Fire took 42 people to Miami to tape the show with low-cost, portable equipment, and they ended up with 110 hours of unedited video tape. Because the objective of the show—to take a look at the Super Bowl and the nonsense attendant to it—was certainly a good one, I had high hopes for Super Bowl, particularly after the job TVTV had done with Gerald Ford's America and other off-beat productions. But the show jumped around too much, possibly because those 110 hours of tape turned out to be too many for the producers to handle. Still, it was not entirely unworthwhile, and its producers should be encouraged to use their special vision to take another, more disciplined look at sports. Perhaps after Greenspan's The Olympiad has completed its run on PBS, TVTV and Great Balls of Fire could show us some of the things at the Montreal Games that otherwise will go unseen.