How times do change. Four years ago the idea of putting sports on the air during television's prime-time hours elicited, at best, snickers from network programmers. Oh, they'd admit that certain things "would play"—a World Series game, the NBA finals, Monday Night Football, the Orange Bowl. But night after night? No way. As anybody who has been viewing the opening two weeks of this TV season knows by now, that kind of thinking is dead. Sports have become almost as endemic to prime time as bionic creatures, private eyes, Rich Little and old Elvis movies.
This week's listings included six hours of boxing on successive evenings. On Tuesday there was CBS's The Night of the Champions, featuring the welterweight title bout between Carlos Palomino and Everaldo Costa Azevedo. On Wednesday NBC presented A Night with the Heavyweights, involving Ken Norton, Jimmy Young and Ron Lyle. Their involvement, however, did not go so far as fighting each other. Instead, they were to pick on guys named Lorenzo Zanon, Jody Ballard and Stan Ward, and that is as good an indication as any that NBC thinks fights are such a surefire success that any pairings will do. CBS obviously feels the same way. Two weeks before The Night of the Champions the network handed out a release about the undercard that read, "Michael Spinks replaces his injured brother and fights Ray Elson."
The two nights of boxing mark only the beginning of things. During the next few weeks there will be more fights, including Muhammad Ali-Earnie Shavers on NBC Sept. 29, which will bring the number of bouts on TV to 12 during a 20-day stretch. "We bought the rights to A Night with the Heavyweights and Ali-Shavers because we feel that there is a very large audience for boxing," says Al Rush, NBC's executive vice-president of sports. "We're sure there's an audience for Ali, because when he fought Richard Dunn last year we drew the highest ratings ever for a fight. When we did the Ken Norton-Duane Bobick bout, it also got a tremendous response, though the fight lasted only 58 seconds."
To get A Night with the Heavyweights, normally conservative NBC had to deal with Promoter Don King, who has been the target of severe criticism since his U.S. boxing tournament was suspended in April by ABC amid charges of fixes, kickbacks, hyped rankings and falsification of fighters' records.
"Before we bought A Night with the Heavyweights from King, we thought it over very carefully," says Rush. "Our conclusion was that, while there were all sorts of allegations against King, he has not been found guilty of anything. We were not putting on a tournament. We were putting on one night of boxing, and Don has had a perfect relationship with us."
King's relationship with ABC caused the network great embarrassment and spurred it to employ Attorney Michael Armstrong, the man who headed up New York's "Serpico" investigation, to look into the boxing tournament. The 327-page Armstrong Report, which was released last week, describes enough nefarious goings-on to keep Charlie's Angels busy for a couple of years. And the Armstrong Report may have uncovered only the tip of this iceberg, because the 10 attorneys, five law students, legal assistant and private detective who did the investigating did not have subpoena powers. As a result, they could not answer some of the most pressing questions about the tournament, including what King's personal involvement may have been in the hanky-panky that resulted in its going off the air. Nonetheless, one of the investigators' conclusions was: "If DKP [Don King Productions] must rely upon people who have been shown to have been involved in irregular or unethical conduct in connection with the Tournament, or upon persons whose primary business is to manage or book fighters, then we believe that DKP cannot be relied upon to produce a national tournament that can meet the standards set by ABC."
If King's operation was not good enough to meet ABC's standards last spring, it is hard to believe that it now measures up for NBC's telecast this week or for ABC's presentation of the King-promoted Norton-Young fight scheduled for Nov. 5. The suspicion is that ethical considerations may have had little weight in NBC's and ABC's decisions to put on these fights. Once again, ratings may have taken precedence. The numbers show that fans are fascinated by boxing, and the networks want to cash in. Because King is one of the few promoters capable of putting together a full card, NBC and ABC continue to do business with him. They made their decisions to do so long before the Armstrong Report appeared, and during a period when it was thought that King himself might be more severely censured by the investigators than he was. Even last week, after the promoter's organization had been strongly criticized in the report, NBC busied itself with a defense of King. The fights must go on.
And they may go on and on, because once a sport makes a splash in prime time, it has a tendency to reappear and reappear. Witness the case of the evening World Series game in 1971 that begat five by 1975. The Series is a once-a-year event, but boxing could be aired once a week if the networks want it that way. And they may, because fans are still attracted by the novelty of fights being shown in the 8-to-ll p.m. period. Before that feeling of newness wears off—as it soon will—it can only be hoped that boxing and TV will remember the fate of The Friday Night Fights and resist the urge to inundate the screen with second-rate bouts.