There are three things that seem worth reporting about the winter and spring sports television seasons. The first is that while Superstars may still be drawing decent ratings, the show is not being talked about very much, which probably means that its dance is coming to an end. Second, it can be said that basketball, as a television property, reached—or maybe exceeded—the saturation point. NBC regularly hit us with a college game on Saturday, occasionally favoring us with two of them, and on at least a half a dozen Sundays as well. Third, although the NHL was on the air twice a week—Monday evenings and Saturday afternoons—hockey on the tube continues to be problematic.
Except for Minneapolis-St. Paul, NHL 78 plays in every city with an NHL franchise, and in a lot of other markets as well. In all, 50 outlets, many of them UHF, carry the games, making them available to about 60% of the population.
Hockey fans may be a dedicated lot, but there aren't that many of them and the game has never generated great mass interest. In a recent Harris Sports Survey, only boating had lower fan interest.
Both CBS and NBC have taken a shot at hockey and come up empty in the ratings. Three years ago NBC made a costly effort to build interest in Sunday afternoon hockey opposite pro basketball on CBS. Southern stations resisted clearing time for the games, and the league rarely made good games available to the network while irritating the broadcasters by cooperating in the most minimal way. And as always, there was the problem of how to keep the audience from switching channels during the time between periods, which only seems like an eternity but is actually just 15 minutes.
For the most part NHL 78 has done well in that respect, using bright interviews and vignettes about the players, along with film clips of highlights of the previous week's games. For the majority of stations carrying the Saturday show, NHL 78 has further streamlined things by eliminating the first period on its Saturday broadcasts, picking up the game live at the start of the second after showing taped highlights of the first period. This makes for a tidy, if somewhat truncated, two-hour package.
In some cities—notably Boston, New York and Philadelphia—NHL 78 ratings are fair enough although they do not approach pro basketball's numbers. But at least the situation is better than it was last season when the NHL strung together its own network and the ratings were awful. Seldom, in fact, have ratings been lower for any sport: a 1.2 rating for Monday night games, 1.1 for the All-Star Game and 1.9 for four Stanley Cup games.
At the moment, the most unusual station on the NHL 78 roster is Miami's WPBT, a public broadcasting outlet with one of the biggest audiences in the country for a PBS station. Before and after the games—and between periods—WPBT tries to talk people into donating money so that the hockey telecasts can continue. Of course, none of the commercials that go with the broadcasts are shown, and neither are the between-periods interviews and highlights. "Folks, it is costing us $30,000 to put these games on," a WPBT announcer told viewers recently, "and if you don't help us pay for them, we will not be able to bring you the Stanley Cup games. We haven't paid the bill yet, folks. You can use your Master Charge or Visa cards. You people from Canada who are in Florida this winter can help out. People are standing by to receive your calls."
The man in charge of NHL 78, which is co-produced with the Canadian Sports Network's Hockey Night in Canada personnel, and responsible for its slicker format, is Carl Lindemann Jr. Formerly the head of NBC Sports, he was the man who had to drop hockey at that network because of poor ratings. "The response has been good so far," Lindemann says. "I believe the games are catching on. I think we have added some new elements."
Under Lindemann, NHL 78 not only is airing more attractive matchups, but also is attempting to put in perspective what is going on in the league and its mystifyingly named divisions. The highlights have occasionally been dazzling; one of the best this season was a film clip of Montreal's Guy Lafleur displaying his uncanny skating and stickhandling. NHL 78 has also explored such oddities as why certain clubs seem able to beat certain others consistently—the Buffalo Sabres' ability to knock off acknowledgedly superior Montreal, for example.
Bob Williamson, the vice-president and general manager at New York's sports-oriented WOR-TV, is pleased with the results of NHL 78. "We could have carried both the Saturday and Monday games," he says, "but I felt the Saturday format was a bastardization of the game. But we couldn't be happier with the results of the Monday night games. ABC found out that there was a big Monday evening audience for sports when it started doing pro football. Between the end of football and the start of baseball there is a void on many Mondays and the hockey show is finding an audience in our market. We are getting a 10% share and that is excellent. What surprises me is that the NHL 78 games are out-rating both the New York Ranger and Islander games we carry on our own."
A rousing Stanley Cup series, generating big ratings in big markets, is what the NHL and Lindemann are hoping for in their quest for a network contract. It may be a long way off down a hard road, but amazing things do happen on TV.