It seems that Roone Arledge is at it again, multiplying announcers. As everybody knows, Arledge has been the president of ABC Sports for an eon, going back to the days when Chris Schenkel was a household name. He has been so successful in this endeavor that ABC not long ago placed him in charge of its woebegone news division as well. Since his ascension from sweatdom, I have waited anxiously to see what elements of sports broadcasting Arledge would bring to the news.
I confidently expected he would start off by draping Barbara Walters in a crested grapefruit-colored blazer and then assigning Her a "color anchorman." This fellow would be an ex-politician, preferably a homespun foil for the citified Walters. (I had in mind either Sam Ervin or Vinegar Bend Mizell.) And then, I was sure, Arledge would start buying up news rights. If ABC Sports can achieve glory by purchasing the rights to the Olympics, certainly ABC News can do the same by buying the rights to the Senate. Oh sure, constitutional quibblers would raise a lot of who-shot-John about the First Amendment. But for goodness sake, let's look on the bright side. The poor Senators have been embarrassed to death about hitting up the public coffers for a pay raise, but with ABC rights money, the Senate would have millions to cut up 100 ways, and it wouldn't cost John Q. Taxpayer a dime. If our Senators were getting paid as much as professional basketball players, do you think they would bother any longer with accepting walking-around money from Koreans or putting mistresses on the public payroll? Of course not. TV money has made basketball honest, and we could expect it to serve as the basis for similar moral uplift for our Senators.
But Arledge has failed me. I expected him to put on a little prime-time legislating after the football season: Monday Night Senate! At the very least he could have found time on Saturday afternoons for a subcommittee or two. Didn't Superstars and Demolition Derby start that way? And from there the other networks would have joined in the hunt: CBS INKS COURT NINE TO LONGTERM PACT. NBC SIGNS SECURITY COUNCIL FOR six SPECIALS. (The poor Cabinet, as always, wouldn't get a nibble. It would probably have to settle for a delayed-tape syndication deal, playing Sunday mornings on a lot of UHF stations.)
But instead Arledge has multiplied announcers again. No longer will there be an ABC anchor duo. Now there is a whole anchor corps, à la Cosell, Meredith and Gif-ford. In fact, it's more than a corps; it's a slate, and a better one than the New York City Democrats could put together: one WASP (Frank Reynolds) in Washington; one immigrant (Peter Jennings) in London; one woman (Walters) in New York; and one black (Max Robinson) in Chicago. The victory of style over substance is more complete in news than it ever was in sports.
Poor news. If sports has produced any certainty in announcing, it is that the quality of an announcer's performance declines in proportion to the number of announcers on hand. Arledge foisted this swarm school of broadcasting upon us. To be fair, although Cosell vs. Meredith has long since worn threadbare, just as Archie vs. Meathead has, Cosell and Meredith initially were entertaining as the adversaries in TV's first verbiage à trois. Nonetheless, I am convinced that they would have been even more popular, and certainly less forced, had there been only the two of them: had they been obliged to pace themselves by also attending to the housekeeping chores assigned at various times to, First, Keith Jackson and, later, Frank Gilford.
We could have endured this three-tongued monster had not all the other network lemmings followed Arledge pell-mell into the raging surf. This was brought home to me again the other day when I happened to be switching between an NBC tennis match and a CBS basketball game. NBC employed three tennis announcers—Bud Collins, Nancy Chaffee Kiner and Jim Simpson—to expound on two people playing. And for heaven's sake, one of the competitors was Chris Evert, and the match was on clay. Collins alone could have steered us through with his wit and knowledge, but by putting Collins in with two other announcers, NBC ended up with all three chirping at once. No wonder I hastened to CBS, where Brent Musburger kept trying to sort out Rick Barry and John Havlicek.
Besides paying tribute to redundancy, is there any reason to pile Havlicek upon Barry? No five-man basketball team would use two small forwards in the same lineup. Why would any sane network swamp a three-man panel that way? The result (one could almost hear the director screeching at Musburger to forget the game and identify the voices all around him) was that stilted device of using full names: "John Havlicek, what do you think?" "Thank you, Rick Barry." It began to sound like a Russian novel, where even in the moments of highest ardor people say, "Fyodor Ivanovich, kiss me."
When will Arledge, and the insecure folks at NBC and CBS who parrot him, learn that more is not better in announcing any more than it is in rabbits, supertankers or tract houses? The best sportscasting in the land is still done by local baseball announcers, working alone (or nearly so). They are men who know their sport and don't need cosmetics or crutches. On balance, Arledge has been a positive force in TV sports, but, alas, his prime heritage is that he cheapened sportscasting, trivialized it. Now, it seems, he is going to put the same curse on the news.