Earlier this year, Bob Wussler, then president of CBS television, and Jay Michaels, head of Trans World International, a firm that specializes in packaging shows for the networks, were relaxing at New York's 21. Sipping a glass of white wine, Michaels casually said, "Bob, would you be interested in the Heisman as a prime-time package?" Sipping a Coke, Wussler said, "Let me think about it a few days." Forty minutes later, Wussler said, "I've been thinking about it. It goes."
One place the famous trophy probably should not go is on television, but it will do just that next Thursday at 10 p.m. (EST) on CBS, when the Heisman dinner—heretofore a relatively sedate black-tie occasion attended by a couple of thousand people in New York—goes public. Or, more precisely, goes commercial. The award dinner will be carried in TV listings as the 43rd Heisman Awards Show, but it should be called the First Annual Heisman Hype. Trying not to be upstaged by the television blitz will be the top three candidates, led by Texas Running Back Earl Campbell, for the award, which is given annually to the nation's best college football player.
But never mind the athletes. Two of the stars of the spectacular are Leslie Uggams and Connie Stevens. One host will be O. J. Simpson, which makes sense because he is a former Heisman winner. His partner will be Elliott Gould, which makes sense because Burt Reynolds presumably was not available. And on the horizon is a bonanza of Heisman products. Cereal, perhaps? Could it be Heisman Flakes?
Traditionalists will be stunned by all this. The Heisman always has been presented with dignity. Actually, the word stuffy is more like it. The award's sponsor, the Downtown Athletic Club of New York, has treated the presentation dinner as something for itself and a few close friends. "Carnivalize the Heisman?" grumps one ABC football announcer, Bill Flemming. "It sickens me."
December 5, 1977
A lot of people are giving a lot of reasons for the change in the Heisman ceremonies, but to cut through the glop, here's the deal: money. CBS has paid $200,000 for the rights to televise the dinner this year. The Downtown Athletic Club will get $164,000 and Trans World International will receive $36,000. These are not huge bucks for the DAC, which at the height of the Depression spent $56,473.43 on china, but it could really cash in if the show draws good ratings. CBS has options for six more Heisman programs; in each of those years the network would pay $25,000 more than it did the previous year. If the show goes on for seven years, the DAC stands to get $1,578,500 and TWI $346,500.
What about CBS? Obviously, this is a deal in which there is something for everyone. The network has sold the full allotment of advertising, six minutes worth, for $900,000.
For all that loot, CBS will give its viewers entertainment—not sports. In fact, the program is being produced by the CBS entertainment people rather than its sports department. There will be singers and dancers (auditions were held at Radio City), celeb presenters, a comedian. "We want to re-create the total college experience," said producer Bob Wynn when the show was in the planning stage. "Today, yesterday and tomorrow. We might do a thing on how the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi has changed. It will be romance and music and fun and fight songs and pep rallies." There will be no main speaker, only acceptance thank-yous, because TWI executive Howard Katz shudders at the word speech. "What we hope is that the acceptances will be entertaining interludes," says Katz. But what about those who say the show sounds like a carnival? Says Wynn, "If the show turns out carnival-like, I would consider it a huge success."
TWI's big problem was filling the hour. After all, how many times will the folks at home sit still for On, Wisconsin? The solution was to give more awards. For the first time, the 1,050 writers and broadcasters who select the Heisman winner were asked to pick six other honorees: best offensive lineman, offensive back, offensive end, defensive lineman, defensive back and linebacker.
Care has been taken not to go too fast for anyone out there in TV-land. Gould will define the Heisman. Somebody will define football. Instead of showing films of the star players in action, which is one thing most football fans would like to see, the intention is, Katz says, "to explain what a defensive lineman is."
Another of TWI's intentions is to make a bundle. Bud Stanner, a vice-president of International Management Group, TWI's parent firm, has the responsibility for thinking up ways to make even more money off the Heisman. "There's a glut of tennis shoes on the market right now," says Stanner, "but when we get a Heisman brand, that will make them special." He claims he is already dealing with a Florida company that will put the Heisman winner's picture on soft-drink cups. "The more people who are aware of the Heisman, the more valuable it becomes," says Stanner. "When we get Heisman windbreakers, this will remind people all year round." Windbreakers? "Sure, not anything cheap like windbreakers from Taiwan; we might do a London Fog." So far Stanner has refused to get involved with key chains and T shirts, and he is afraid the award might not have quite enough clout for commemorative coins.
No wonder Flemming laments, "I'm sorry the Heisman ceremony can't keep the grace that it had. Was the DAC not satisfied to keep a grand tradition going? Do they need the money that bad?"