Two years ago when NBC launched Grandstand, its weekend sports program, the show was intended to be a dramatic departure from the patterns of American television. Grandstand was supposed to cover the entire spectrum of sports, and in a lively way, for example by shifting from a humdrum game to faster action elsewhere. It was also to include investigative reporting, on-the-spot summations and previews, up-to-the-minute scores and discussions of controversial subjects. Although Grandstand sometimes did its job well, it never developed the flexibility of coverage originally promised, and the format sometimes left the announcers looking as if they were groping through a London fog. Still, given a chance to breathe and mature, Grandstand might eventually have been a success.
However, time was not on Grandstand's side, and NBC recently announced that the show will go off the air in January. The failure of Grandstand is another case of a program that tried to attain quality, ran into problems and was beaten down by poor ratings. But the show's plight has a deeper significance. It is going off the air not only because of its own apparent shortcomings, but also because of the lack of pull—at least on TV—of some of the sports with which it was paired. During the pro football season Grandstand did well in the ratings, although certainly not quite as well as its CBS counterpart, The NFL Today. But when the football season ended, Grandstand's audience dwindled, a result of the show's frequent dependence upon tennis and golf, which attract limited numbers of viewers. After the Italian Open, Grandstand drew only 5% of the sets turned on at the time.
Of the three networks, NBC tends to be the least splashy; it seldom, if ever, can be accused of the hypes that ABC and CBS engage in to peddle Trashsport, with its made-for-TV events such as Superstars. But this winter NBC made headlines when it bought the rights to the Moscow Olympics for $85 million, and in the next few weeks it will make more news with the announcement of plans for a weekend sports show similar to ABC's Wide World of Sports and CBS' Sports Spectacular, those potpourris that offer mostly taped, edited coverage of events instead of live action. It is difficult to believe that fans and sponsors will come running to another such show, but Chet Simmons, who replaced Carl Lindemann Jr. in March as head of NBC sports, thinks they will. In an attempt to prove it, Simmons will use NBC's money to give big-dollar days to several sports.
Two that will not get the big bucks will be golf and tennis. The only tennis tournament NBC is committed to during 1978 is Wimbledon. "I keep hearing that tennis is going to get itself together and present a united front," says Simmons. "I also keep failing to believe it." The network will also telecast four golf tournaments in '78, but of those only the Bob Hope Desert Classic figures to be on NBC the following year.
To replace the country club sports and tap in on the money ABC and CBS have been making during the non-football months, Simmons says that NBC's as yet unnamed replacement for Grandstand will "go after things that the others haven't done." Aside from ring-a-lievo and quoits, it is hard to remember any sports, big time or small, indoors or out, that have not been shown on Wide World or Sports Spectacular. Nonetheless, Simmons says, "There will be no guys going over Niagara Falls or jumping over buses on motorcycles.
"Naturally, some of the events we'll show will be ones that lead up to our Olympic coverage. Track and field, gymnastics, volleyball, things like that. And they'll be shown from all over the world. It's often the case that the Olympics come on and American fans know nothing about foreign competitors." If NBC spends a lot of its money on Olympic sports, that would be good. But two years of taped hypes for the network's telecasts of the Moscow Games would run counter to NBC's tradition of presenting relatively low-key—but generally first-rate—presentations of live sports events. That would not be so good.
Happily, NBC is not planning to abandon live coverage of college basketball and major league baseball, but Simmons casts doubts on the future of even these sports on the tube by damning them with faint praise. "College basketball will help us," Simmons says. "While it didn't do as well as we had hoped last season, we think it can still contribute a great deal. We still have baseball for two more years, and we expect to keep doing it, though in recent years the Saturday afternoon games have dropped in the ratings."
And as those of us who saw promise in the Grandstand idea are finding out, ratings remain the name of the game. This means we will see more of the money-making big events. In 1978 pro football will increase its schedule to 16 regular-season games. In 1980 NBC may show as many as 150 hours of the Moscow Games, while ABC is considering telecasting 46½ hours of the Winter Olympics. All of this is just fine. Less valid may be the idea being promoted by television that baseball go to an expanded playoff format. Worst is the networks' unanimous commitment, now that NBC is planning its new show, to sacrifice live coverage of games, in-depth reporting and the like for canned presentations. Surely Grandstand could be kept around at least as a Sunday evening show that would wrap up the week's events and give the scores of the real games.