Since it was the biggest prizefight payday in history for the participants, it is fitting that spectators paid the highest price ever—$10—to watch a single televised event at home. As it turned out, that was a steal—not only was it a whale of a fight, but also, in Ohio, a splendid example of that newest of new-fangled developments in TV's Brave New World of the '80s, spectator participation.
The Duran-Leonard fight was served up live to the network of QUBE (pronounced cube), the ultra-complex cable-TV system that is wired into approximately 30,000 homes in Columbus, and is owned by Warner Amex Cable Communications, a corporate amalgam of Warner Communications Inc. and the American Express Company. Outside of Columbus, a fortunate 125,000 viewers in northern Los Angeles, subscribers to National Subscription Television, received the fight live in their living rooms—but none were hooked up with QUBE's unique two-way system, which allowed nearly instantaneous round-by-round polling by parlor-bound spectators as the fight progressed. Of course, these home cable outlets produced no more than a drop in the vast planet-sized bucket of TV spectators. There were more than 300 theater, stadium and grandstand outlets in the U.S. and Canada, with more than a million viewers, plus outlets in 50 other countries where as many as 25 million more watched the fight.
Yet it is probably safe to say that no one had more fun watching the fight than the estimated 50,000 viewers in some 8,000 QUBE homes in Columbus. They had their own special, supersophisticated electronic toy—the famed "QUBE console"—to add to their pleasure. QUBE's one-of-a-kind two-way system has amused and informed Columbus since it was inaugurated on Dec. 1, 1977. To oversimplify considerably, what it amounts to is a neat little electronic package, about the size of a large paperback book, with a series of pushbuttons for channel selection (there are 30 in all), plus five "response" buttons which are used for communicating viewer reactions. When the words TOUCH NOW appear on the screen, viewers push a response button and all of the replies are instantly relayed to a sprawling computer system located at the QUBE studio, a former washer-dryer warehouse just down Olentangy River Road from Ohio State University. The computer takes it all in and, within seconds, flashes the results on the home screen.
In the 2½ years of QUBE's existence, viewers have given instant opinions on everything from one of President Carter's several energy speeches (61% "optimistic," 18% "pessimistic," 21% "confused") to which pair on a series of US magazine covers they preferred (they chose John Wayne and The Incredible Hulk). They have voted and given opinions on whether a Columbus suburb should build a Little League field or a band shell, on whether federal labeling on food and drugs is adequate, on whether city snow removal is efficient. They have watched a contest among bodybuilders and selected the man they would like most to see as "Mr. Columbus."
Admittedly, some of this polling can be useful as a kind of instant electronic democracy in action. But, in the main, it is strictly fun. The Ohioans have participated in a kind of local "Gong Show" in which they voted thumbs up or down for amateur talent, and there have been Gong Shows run by a QUBE character, Flippo the Clown, in which small children can take part in competitions by pushing the response buttons.
Last week the fun was judging the Duran-Leonard spectacular. The first question asked, of course, was who the QUBE people predicted would win. They were far off. Their answer: Leonard (65%), Duran (27%), a draw (8%). And how would the winner win? By a knockout (35%), by a TKO (36%), by decision (29%)—meaning that a full 71% were wrong about that, too. In the round-by-round judging, the QUBEs of Columbus blew it again. The majority gave the fight to Sugar Ray by a combined 145-144 count.
Said Larry Wangberg, general manager of QUBE, "It's fun—a way of blending show business with electronics so people can break the usual passive mode of doing nothing but watching television. The participation element of it is very exciting for them. We're trying to find other ways to use the two-way participation in sports events."
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), the opportunities are still apparently rather limited. QUBE has televised a number of Ohio State football games (at $9 per game in 1978—the highest home-pay price ever until last week's fight). With former New York Giant Coach Allie Sherman as the commentator, QUBE viewers were allowed to vote on some rather inconsequential matters—such as who they thought was the most valuable player and what the score would be after each quarter. As for actually calling plays or second-guessing a coach or a referee, QUBE has not gotten so sophisticated—or so controversial—yet.
However, Wangberg sees the day when a TV audience, such as QUBE's, could actually sit as a functioning judge in certain events. "We might do it for gymnastics or diving contests," he said. "We could instruct the viewers in some of the fine points of these sports, then let them vote and count as one of, say, six or seven judges. It would be instructional, and everyone would be involved."
Such are some of the possibilities for further spectator participation in TV's world of the '80s. And what of boxing? Given QUBE's Duran-Leonard decision, perhaps judging bouts is best left to yet another decade.