ESPN, the 6½-year-old cable network that used to fill its hours with beach volleyball, Ping-Pong and Frisbee-catching dogs, has come of age. In March the network carried 50 college basketball games from conference tournaments and the first three rounds of the NCAAs. Notwithstanding the insufferable and wacky pronouncements of Dick ("Oh, baby! It's T for tournament time!") Vitale, the superlative production work brought those telecasts an impressive (for cable) average rating of 3.1, or 1,147,000 homes. Now ESPN is further proving its worth with its coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs, some 35 games of which are being shown as part of a new three-year, $24 million contract with the NHL.
The NHL telecasts are not without their problems. ESPN is not providing high end-zone shots that would allow us to see away-from-the-puck action. And why no pregame or between-periods clinics to give unsophisticated hockey watchers a proper appreciation of the sport? Why no isolated replays of, say, the top wingers in action instead of repetitious and insipid interviews? In fact, ESPN isn't winning any face-offs at all with its studio and rinkside announcing. Stiff, unsmiling Tom Mees is ineffective in the studio, and game host Jim Kelly seems to be on camera simply to read promos and ask trite questions of his color man of the moment. But the games themselves are well produced, the up-close shots of the NHL's bleeders and brawlers have been eye-openers, and the live cut-ins to other games in progress are a bonanza. This "whip-around" format, initiated by ESPN vice-president Scotty Connal, is one of the reasons why ESPN covers a sport's big picture better than do any of the big three networks. It doesn't make sense for TV to stay put with one game when it can, by satellite, bring viewers to the stirring final seconds of all games currently in progress. Through last Thursday, hockey playoff ratings averaged 1.4. That's not quite up to the number ESPN got for USFL telecasts at this time a year ago, but at least the NHL is not a made-for-television league.
Hockey is part of a much-improved overall picture for ESPN, which currently reaches nearly 37 million cable subscribers, or 42% of the nation's TV households. Only three years ago it appeared to be knocking on the undertaker's door, with estimated six-year losses totaling $100 million. But last year ESPN turned a $1 million operating profit. In fact, if not for $15 million lost on the comatose USFL, ESPN would have made more money in '85 than CBS Sports, the only clearly profitable sports division among the three broadcast networks.
The turnaround for ESPN came two years ago when the U.S. courts deregulated college football on TV and the network began live telecasts of Thursday and Saturday night college games. It was then that advertisers noticed ESPN's upscale audiences. "The original concept of the ESPN viewer," says independent producer and ESPN board member Don Ohlmeyer, "was this lummox who came home at six from driving a truck, pulled up his easy chair, opened a six-pack and sat there watching sports till I a.m. That's no longer the ESPN viewer."
Nor is ESPN any longer the taped-re-play sports channel. Says chief programmer Steven Bornstein, "I was here in the dog days of '80 and '81 when we called schools asking them if they were playing hockey games that night. If they said yes, we asked them if they were televising them, and if they said yes to that, we asked them if they could send us a tape so we could put it on two days later." This year 90% of ESPN's basketball schedule went out live.
Neither can ESPN still be called TV's junk-sports depository. Wrestling and Roller Derby still frequently rear their heads in prime time, but ESPN also is the only place to see prime-time CFA football, dozens of respectable golf, tennis, boxing and auto-racing events and, of course, early-round coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament.
In the average American household, ESPN is responsible for about 25 additional hours of viewing per year, and new subscribers keep tuning in. ESPN got a call a while back from Cary Grant, who wondered where Top Rank ring announcer Michael Buffer obtained his bow tie. For sartorial as well as for other reasons, ESPN has obviously become required viewing for sports fans.