When Wide World of Sports first aired on ABC 20 years ago this week, there had never been a live sports telecast from Europe (the 1960 Rome Olympics had been covered on film by CBS). Jim McKay, a former Baltimore newspaperman with the countenance of an 8-year-old choirboy, had never traveled across the Atlantic and Howard Co-sell hadn't yet been invented.
That's how it was on April 29, 1961, when McKay stood shivering in the rain at Philadelphia's Franklin Field before the start of the Penn Relays and spoke of the "new and exciting global concept of sports" that the fledgling summer-filler show planned to present. "Each Saturday for the next 20 weeks," said McKay, "we'll be taking our cameras to the scene of the famous sports events all over the world."
Of course, since that damp and hopeful afternoon in Philly, 20 weeks have become 20 years. Wide World of Sports has been aired 1,069 times from 48 different countries, and Jim McKay has logged five million miles. The show has won 44 Emmys, averages close to 25 million viewers per telecast and is seen annually by some 170 million different people. It has also grown up and grown old enough so that it is now one of the longest-running programs on television—in the same class with such gray-beards as The Edge of Night, Meet the Press, Captain Kangaroo and The Lawrence Welk Show.
At the start, there was no indication of what was to come. As it had for years, ABC was running a hapless, hopeless third behind CBS and NBC. There was no such thing as an ABC sports department. Sports programming was contracted to one Ed Scherick, who appointed an eager 29-year-old producer named Roone Arledge to come up with a sports show—any sports show—to fill some gaping holes in the network's summer schedule. In turn, Arledge assigned his young assistant. Chuck Howard, 27, now a vice-president of ABC Sports, to dig up the dates and locations of every sports event on earth. With list in hand, Arledge hit the road and negotiated the rights to a wildly diverse assortment of events, including the Japanese All-Star baseball game, the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo and the Notre Dame spring football game.
April 26, 1981
Not surprisingly, this potpourri of sport didn't exactly galvanize Madison Avenue. Advertisers stayed away in droves until, at last, network executives set a last-ditch deadline: if a certain percent of the commercial spots wasn't sold by 5 p.m. March 31, 1961, the show would be aborted. Dangling spots on the highly desirable NCAA football package as bait, Scherick and Arledge seduced an advertiser here, an advertiser there. But at 4:30 p.m. on the fateful Friday, the quota still hadn't been filled. Then R.J. Reynolds signed up, and Wide World was launched.
The high point of the show that first summer was a historic telecast of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet from Moscow. "We took 20 tons of equipment and 50 technicians there," recalls McKay. "We didn't know what to expect. We had tape machines, something the Soviets didn't have. We were so paranoid we had our guys sleep with the heads of our tape machines under their pillows so the Russians couldn't steal them. Until that show our ratings were very low. Without it we would have been taken off the air on Labor Day and never seen again."
In the two ensuing decades, Wide World has spread itself ever wider. The show has televised no fewer than 119 different kinds of sports and games: barrel-jumping, wrist-wrestling, cliff-diving, bridge, cricket. Sumo wrestling...you name it, Wide World has shown it.
Says Dennis Lewin, Wide World's coordinating producer for the past 10 years, "We've put on a lot of odd sports, but the backbone of the show has always been the major world championships—chess, gymnastics, skiing, boxing, figure skating, almost all of them. And we assiduously avoid the artificial, made-for-TV, events."
Although segments are occasionally trivial, dated, even irritating (viewers are kept in the dark about what time during the show the big fight will begin), Wide World has given America a wider and more sophisticated view of the games people play than any other single mass media outlet. This Saturday, in a prime time, 90-minute special, ABC will present a grand synopsis of what the show has been up to for the past 20 years. Obviously, from Pelè to Vienko Bogatej, the feckless Yugoslav who symbolizes the agony of defeat in his horrendous fall during a ski jump, exposure on Wide World has done a great deal for the participants. But the show has probably given even more to those who merely sit and spectate.