On Feb. 11 Marc Gunther, a reporter for The Hartford Courant, called sportscaster Dave Smith at WFSB-TV to ask his reaction to something he had just heard at the Civic Center: that ABC's exclusive contract to broadcast last week's World Figure Skating Championships there would keep all local camera crews out. WFSB-TV had been assuming that it would be allowed to show snippets of each day's action on its daily news broadcasts. Now, for the first time. Smith learned that his station could be shut out of an event for which the city had been preparing for three years. WFSB General Manager Bill Ryan telephoned ABC, requesting a waiver. "From the beginning we didn't want to steal from ABC Sports but present the news," Ryan said later. "The Worlds is the biggest thing ever to happen in Hartford; next to Governor Grasso dying, I guess it's the biggest story of the year." ABC said no dice; it planned to show action from the championships on its Wide World of Sports program on the two weekends following the event. Without ABC's consent there could be no televising of any part of it anywhere in the U.S.
To clarify its rights, WFSB went to court the week before the championships, and thus began a battle that would raise basic questions: What is news? What is entertainment? WFSB claimed that while the championships were entertainment in Chicago, they were news in Hartford. If sports are both news and entertainment, what constitutional rights apply? Could a network conceivably prohibit still photographers from covering an event?
WFSB's suit was against the co-sponsors of the event, the Skating Club of Hartford, Inc. and The Travelers Insurance Company, as well as the City of Hartford, all of whom had proposed to the U.S. Figure Skating Association that the championships be held in Hartford. The USFSA had in turn presented the proposal to the International Skating Union. The ISU approved Hartford's bid and sold U.S. television rights for one year to Dick Button's Candid Productions, Inc. for $165,000. Button cleared a quick $85,000 by assigning the rights to ABC, the company he broadcasts for, for $250,000.
WFSB's position, attorney Karl Fleischmann told Chief Federal District Court Judge T. Emmet Clarie, was that the station had constitutional rights of access to the championships under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, that the event's magnitude in a city of Hartford's size (136,000) made it news, and that brief excerpts shown as news on WFSB would not, in any case, deprive ABC and Wide World of Sports of any earnings. For the defense, attorney Charles F. Corcoran III replied that a contract was a contract and that "the right to speak and publish does not carry with it the unrestrained right to gather information."
March 16, 1981
On the day before the championships were to begin. Judge Clarie ruled against WFSB and for the validity of ABC's contract and. by extension, for CBS and NBC, whose sports programming also relies on exclusivity. His decision accepted the sponsors' argument that a purveyor of news has no "special right of access to information which it does not yet possess.... The plaintiff has no constitutional right of special access to this event, and the restrictions are not arbitrary in nature." He concluded: "Figure skating is a uniquely visual sport. Newspaper and radio coverage will not diminish its commercial value; television broadcasting could do so. Any approach other than upholding this limited restriction could jeopardize the revenue derived from future entertainment contracts."
WFSB then decided to sign an indemnity agreement offered by the Skating Club to all three local stations. The agreement allowed the stations to film the championships but protected the sponsors from any lawsuits that might be brought by ABC against them in the event the stations violated ABC's exclusivity. By sundown Monday, March 2, all three stations had signed. "I didn't want to," said Ryan, "but I did."
A WFSB crew showed up at the opening day's events on March 3. Excerpts were promptly shown on WFSB newscasts. Next day, WFSB News Director Dick Ahles, two cameramen and three reporters were barred from the Civic Center.
"How come?" Ahles asked.
"The lawyers have asked us not to let you in." he was told.
"Whose lawyers? ABC's? Did ABC buy the rights to the city, too?" Ahles wanted to know.
The barring of WFSB sent everybody back to Judge Clarie's court. By adjournment on March 5, it appeared that he felt WFSB's case was not without merit. ABC decided it had better send in its big guns. Despite a furious snowstorm, a Piper aircraft carrying network brass took off from La Guardia Airport in New York and touched down near midnight at the Brainard airport on Hartford city limits. Next morning two high-powered lawyers, plus Senior Vice-President for ABC Sports Jim Spence, were in court. "Exclusivity, Your Honor, is at the heart of our business," Spence said, adding that if WFSB were allowed back into the Civic Center, "we would be in the posture of presenting a rerun."
In the end, but without specifically dealing with the questions raised by the concept of exclusivity. Judge Clarie reaffirmed the validity of ABC's contract. And so the World Figure Skating Championships came and went, substantially uncovered by local television. The larger First and Fourteenth Amendment questions WFSB raised will most likely be argued before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in New York City.