If CBS-TV had played in this year's U.S. Open, it would not have made it past the quarterfinals. In a sense, CBS proved itself the Yannick Noah of the airwaves—its game fundamentally sound and sometimes brilliant, its words for the most part gracious and well chosen. But like Noah in the quarterfinals, CBS was inconsistent, and its 34 occasionally dreary hours of coverage contained some momentous lapses.
None of these errors, it should be noted, was committed by Brent Musburger: He and producer David Winner were the class of this year's show, transforming CBS's late-evening highlights package into a nightly tour de force complete with live interviews of the day's star players.
CBS also deserves kudos for its straightforward coverage of the Open and general lack of glitz. No flashing lights, video clutter or meaningless graphics telling us that Jimmy Connors has gotten his first serve in 76.4714% of the time against Ivan Lendl while wearing mauve clothes in the month of December. Best of all, the CBS announcing crew of Pat Summerall, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe and Virginia Wade is unsurpassed. A major reason: They've stolen a page out of the BBC and HBO book by not talking during points. Ah, silence, golden silence!
CBS's shortcomings turned up mostly when Frank Chirkinian, the network's executive producer for golf and tennis, took direct command of the afternoon coverage. Whenever a featured match finished early and CBS was left with time to fill, Chirkinian resorted to a familiar crutch: the button on the tape machine. This happened with regularity, but let's take the first Saturday as an example. Chirkinian "filled" for upwards of two hours with taped matches, one of which was two days old and involved Guillermo Vilas, at that point no longer in the tournament. Disgracefully, this being America's most prestigious tennis tournament, CBS had no cameras in fixed position on any of the outer courts. It's possible the network would have been unwilling to show subordinate matches live, even if the cameras had been available to do so. In any case, the network did choose the ancient-history tapes. Neither did Chirkinian have features on lead players ready to roll when the time came to fill. Just hit that tape button. Zzzzzzzzz.
CBS's production was particularly suspect on Labor Day, when Bill Scanlon upset John McEnroe. This was the important story of the tournament at the time, but Chirkinian assigned first-string announcers Newcombe and Trabert to cover the concurrent Mark Dickson-John Lloyd match. There was no way he could have known that Scanlon-McEnroe would turn into the tournament's major upset, but he should have been aware that Scanlon had beaten McEnroe twice before and given him a rough time at Wimbledon this summer. Moreover, the upset made coverage of the postmatch McEnroe press conference imperative. Forget it. Chirkinian stayed for a couple of questions and then cut to the final game of Hana Mandlikova's victory over Zina Garrison. CBS even failed to broadcast McEnroe's whinings later on tape—one time those machines could have been put to very good use—nor did it provide viewers any real sense of the bad blood between Scanlon and McEnroe.
Maybe a brushup course in Basic Journalism 101 was in order. CBS all but forwent shots of graphics listing the draw, which would have given viewers an idea of likely matchups later. Chirkinian does deserve applause for his "no-talk-during-points" edict, but he also should have banned chitchat at the moment players started arguing with umpires. At least one exchange between McEnroe and the chair was lost entirely, thanks to old-fashioned unadulterated jabber.
Finally, a few words about two CBS tennis maladies: 1) the Big Question Syndrome; and 2) Mystery Guest Disease. For two weeks when anybody from CBS interviewed Martina Navratilova, the poor woman would be asked something like "Martina, are you putting any pressure on yourself to win this thing?" Asked repeatedly, it became a cliché, even another crutch, not unlike the tape-machine button. Then there was Chirkinian's policy of using guest commentators on occasion. Why he couldn't leave the foremost announcing team in tennis alone is anybody's guess, but first Slew Hester, chairman emeritus of the Open, popped up in the booth, and then Mike Lupica, the New York Daily News columnist. Lupica, whose credentials as a tennis writer were probably unknown to most viewers west of the Hudson River, came across as something of a wise guy. Newcombe and Trabert seemed discomfited by his presence. Lupica's contribution? Proof that a line that's sardonic in print often comes across as nasty, not funny, when spoken on the air.