When the 1978 pro football season arrives, the face that helped send The NFL Today into first place in the Sunday ratings race will be gone. The departure of Phyllis George from CBS Sports for a career on the entertainment side of TV offers a unique opportunity to get a line on how the networks view the role of women on sports telecasts. Do they want women sportscasters in the George mold—that is, beautiful, effervescent women who don't know zilch about sports—or do they want them to be as knowledgeable as the better men sportscasters?
The three network sports departments claim they want the latter. "Show us a qualified woman sportscaster and we'll show you a woman we want," they say. Furthermore, they point out that female experts are already doing color commentary on gymnastics, golf, tennis and women's college basketball, although they acknowledge that so far no woman has contributed much more than a pretty smile on telecasts of the big three of TV sports—baseball, football and professional basketball.
It is not that someone out there at a one-lung radio station or a 10-kilowatt television outlet is being overlooked. The networks, they say, are scouting the boondocks for a woman sportscaster as zealously as Bear Bryant or Adolph Rupp ever did for a halfback or a forward. Not only is there a shortage, but according to Barry Frank, former executive vice-president of CBS Sports, women are to television sports what Jackie Robinson was to major league baseball when he broke the color barrier in 1947. Employing a female as an expert on men's sports will not be a wholly popular move, simply because viewers are not prepared for it.
Despite their protestations, the networks continue to hire women who, they admit-know thimblefuls about sports and to put the few women who know something about sports into meaningless roles.
The trials of Barbara Mogan are typical. She is currently Miss America's backup as well as the former Miss Indiana, and her only connection with sports—a tenuous one at best—is that she was a dance major at Indiana University. Like Phyllis George, Mogan was hired by Bob Wussler, the head of CBS Sports, possibly to be a second Phyllis George. When Wussler left his job in April, what to do with Miss Indiana and finding a replacement for George were passed on to successor Frank Smith.
After what one CBS official called "the greatest talent search since Scarlett O'Hara," 17 women, including Barbara Mogan, were picked to try out for George's job. The trials might have been better suited for a role in A Chorus Line. The network's own Christine Craft was the only one in the lineup with any real sports know-how; the others were more accustomed to modeling and acting. When it was all over, Craft had not made it, nor had Barbara Mogan. Indeed, a winner was not selected, said CBS.
Houston sportscaster Anita Martini saw the situation this way: "If Miss Indiana had gotten on the air and was terrible, she could have ruined things for me and other women sportscasters. If she was good, she couldn't help us either, because then the network talent scouts would go after Miss Kansas or somebody like that."
The situation is much the same at the other networks. ABC points pridefully to Andrea Kirby, who gives college football scores and does some segments on Wide World of Sports. But ABC also signed Cheryl Tiegs, the country's top model, to an estimated $2.5 million contract and introduced her on a tennis tournament and a Kentucky Derby Special. Cheryl Tiegs is not exactly a Vin Scully.
The departing George sympathizes with the predicament of the well-informed woman sportscaster. "Being considered as only a pretty face started to drive me crazy," she says. "However, when a woman is too assertive or too knowledgeable, they don't want her."
No one is more aware of this than Jane Chastain, currently a sportscaster for KABC in Los Angeles. She was hired by CBS in 1974 but lasted only a year and a half. "At my first NBA game, the producer told me not to talk to any athlete or coach but to act impressed with how tall and how sweaty the players were," she says. For a 12-year veteran in the business, the assignment seemed ludicrous. It also seemed to indicate what the networks want from a woman.
NBC hired Regina Haskins, a sportscaster from Sacramento. Instead of using her to interview or analyze, the network had her extract game predictions from a robot on a pro football show.
"Women sportscasters have to be even more knowledgeable than men," says NBC Sports President Chet Simmons. "When men make mistakes, viewers accept that, but women need to be perfect." Still, the executive producer at NBC Sports, Don Ohlmeyer, thinks things are looking up for female sportscasters. "In the past, women succeeded on local television because of their aggressiveness. They clawed to open doors. On the network level, whether you are a man or a woman, you have to be liked as a person. The next group coming along may not need to be so aggressive, and thus may be more acceptable to the male viewers."
The transition already is apparent on national network news. Says Martini, "Why can women talk about wars, riots and presidential trips and not be able to talk about sports? Why is there such a sacred bond between men and sports?"