On Sept. 26, 1983, humankind discovered that a four-hour sailboat race could be televised live without automatically being compared to a week watching old men sleep. The occasion was the momentous final of the '83 America's Cup campaign off Newport with Dennis Conner's Liberty and John Bertrand's Australia II tied at three races each. It was only because of viewer phone calls that ESPN, the sports cable network, made a last-minute deal to share a feed with Providence's WJAR-TV, including shots from a helicopter with one camera sent aloft to track the action.
From 2:15 to 5:30 that afternoon, ESPN beamed a stream of pretty but static pictures across the land, notably a panorama of acres of water in which the great yachts had all the size and majesty of bathtub toys. It was Stone Age TV, about as exciting as cave drawings. And yet, ESPN found to its shock and delight that the telecast pulled ratings as high as 4.6, the best weekday-afternoon number the network had ever drawn.
Since then, ESPN hasn't aired a minute of live sailboat racing. And neither has any other network. But for this Cup campaign, ESPN is preparing live telecasts with the commitment of crew-members, money and time it might give to a World Series, a Masters or an NFL playoff, if it could afford such gems.
The America's Cup is a gem, of course, but not in the eyes of big-time TV—ESPN was able to buy exclusive U.S. rights for a mere $650,000. Still, with some $500,000 in transglobal satellite feeds added to the cost of crew and facilities in Fremantle since August, this will be ESPN's most expensive event ever.
Coverage began Oct. 5 with the first of 14 weekly packages reporting on the three-month process of narrowing from 13 challengers and six defender candidates to the two finalists. The weekly shows—all canned wrap-ups of 30 to 60 minutes—have been masterly nuggets of sailboat racing news, education and entertainment. Executive producer Geoff Mason's on-site team has neatly mixed supersalty, high-tech sailing dope for the experts with McGuffey's reader-style explanations for the landlocked ignoramuses. (Mason, 46, a veteran of 19 years of ABC and NBC sports productions, is also a sailor from Marblehead, Mass., who crewed on the America's Cup contender Nefertiti in 1962.)
ESPN's resident expert is Gary Jobson, 36, a boyish-looking but salt-encrusted veteran sailor who was the tactician on three America's Cup 12-meters, including Ted Turner's Courageous in 1977. Jobson works on-air with Jim Kelly, 39, a standard-brand pro with some 20 years of local and network sportscasting behind him. Kelly does seamless intros, transitions and some tack-by-tack play-calling, as well as feeds leading questions to his partner. Jobson's daunting chore is to turn the arcane tactics and technical jibberish into English that is both informative and entertaining. Amazingly, he can do it most of the time, with a delivery that blends a fan's enthusiasm with a schoolmaster's recital of the day's lesson. And, happily, he and Kelly have avoided the pro-American cheerleading that some of ABC's commentators engaged in so irksomely during the '84 Olympics.
This week Mason, Jobson & Co. move into full-time live reporting in huge four-hour bites from gun to gun. They will cover the best-of-seven challengers' series between Chris Dickson's New Zealand and Conner's Stars & Stripes and then the best-of-seven final, which may go well into February. The shows begin at 11:00 p.m. on the East Coast but fall into juicy prime time (8 p.m.) in the West.
The cameras and locations in Fremantle are a significant improvement on the one-chopper, one-lens primitivism of '83. Besides eye-in-the-sky helicopter cameras and wave-tossed water-level coverage, a camera has been installed on Stars & Stripes, and it will add a fierce human dimension with blood-stirring shots of the skipper and crew at work. Jobson and Kelly will be at sea on a press boat not too far from the course. From time to time prerecorded packages of features, profiles, interviews and dockside insights will be dropped into the "action." All in all, it is a worthy experiment, a departure from the easy, routine events that sports telecasting tends to like best.