Tom Villante, baseball's director of marketing and broadcasting, watched his TV set in astonishment three Saturday afternoons ago as the NBC Game or the Week went off the air—in the eighth inning. He spluttered, "What the hell is going on?"
It was a quite meaningless game between the Cubs and the Mets, and New York was leading 6-4. But mighty Dave Kingman had slugged three home runs, and a fourth would make him only the seventh major-leaguer to hit that many in a nine-inning game.
"My God! I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe it," Villante said last week, still outraged. "They could have committed another Heidi. If Kingman hits the fourth home run and they miss it, it's a definite Heidi all over again."
Villante's reference was to the famous episode when NBC cut off an unfinished, highly dramatic Jets-Raiders game in 1968 to switch to a special about the little Swiss shepherdess. In this case, instead of Heidi, NBC aired highlights, many of them taped, of the National Sports Festival in Colorado. It was not a particularly compelling competition. The fact that Kingman did not get a fourth home run took NBC off the hook but did not excuse the network's bad judgment and insensitivity toward baseball fans.
Moreover, NBC breached its contract with baseball, which stipulates that all games be shown to their conclusion. The following Monday, Arthur Watson, the president of NBC Sports and just one of the many new faces that has recently surfaced as the result of a purge of the network's sports department, appeared at Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office with an embarrassed Don Ohlmeyer, 34, the $400,000-a-year enfant terrible whose name appears under the title of executive producer on all NBC sports programs.
"They apologized to us," said Villante. "They were very embarrassed. It had been Ohlmeyer's decision to cut out of the game. They said they had been wrong. We said we couldn't imagine how they had even thought of leaving the game, let alone of actually doing it. They said it wouldn't happen again. We forgave them."
Forgiving NBC is something Villante is getting a lot of practice at. The Kingman goof followed on the heels of a bizarre sequence in the All-Star Game telecast. On that occasion NBC focused its cameras on Barry Bremen, an obvious impostor, as he worked out with the American Leaguers before the game.
NBC has apologized for this, too, and Villante said ruefully last week, "We still don't know if the network was actually party to the hoax. It's one thing to cover something and another to aid and abet it. We don't know who did what, but we have decided to drop the whole thing."
Villante is a former Yankee bat boy who dreamed of a career as a Yankee second baseman until, during his tryout at spring training in 1950, he met his competition for the position, a brash rookie named Billy Martin. Martin played second, and Villante went into advertising, where he stayed for 28 years until taking his present job 18 months ago.
It has been no bed of roses for Villante. In addition to NBC's goof, baseball's TV ratings are off. On its Saturday Game of the Week, NBC is down to a 6.8 rating this season (compared to 7.5 last year) and a 25.7 share of the audience (compared to 28.6). The ratings of ABC's Monday night shows also have dipped, but much less—to a 12.6 from 12.7—while the share of audience is up slightly, from 23.4 to 24.1.
"I'm not worried about those tiny fluctuations," Villante says. "There's no sign of a negative trend yet."
Baseball negotiated a $200 million, five-year contract with NBC and ABC last spring. That will yield about $1.9 million a year to each team, about double what the old contract produced. (Baseball teams, unlike football teams, also have local TV contracts that produce revenue; the Red Sox, for instance, get some $2.35 million each year from a Boston TV station.) If the ratings drop significantly, the networks will be hurt somewhat, but, in fact, they are probably less concerned about declining regular-season ratings than is baseball, which needs exposure to promote itself and increase gate receipts.
The networks can get by with low to mediocre ratings as long as they are guaranteed the two prime-time bonanza packages: 1) the All-Star Game and the playoffs, and 2) the World Series.
Baseball is trying some new ideas to alleviate its shortcomings in the ratings. Until now, the end of the regular season has been a relative wasteland for the sport on network TV, largely because ABC cannot put on Monday Night Baseball once the NFL season gets under way.
This year, in an effort to get more network exposure down the stretch, Villante and ABC have made a deal whereby three potentially crucial Sunday games (Sept. 9. 23 and 30) will be aired in the afternoon—head on against the NFL games on CBS and NBC.
Villante has launched a study of the factors that may have caused baseball's ratings to fall. "We're interested in trying fresh approaches, in doing new things that will keep baseball healthy," he says.
Still, whatever remedies he may come up with, they won't keep baseball healthy if there is more of the kind of shenanigans NBC has pulled.