In 30 years, "ABC'S wide world of Sports" has reported from 54 countries, Albania to Zaire, and visited 48 states, Alabama to Wyoming (all except Montana and Mississippi). It has gotten Up Close and Personal with athletes from Ali to (Alexander) Zaitsev, broadcast the commentary of experts from (Jesse) Abramson to (Steve) Zabriskie and generally spanned the alphabet to bring you the constant variety of sport. For that matter, it has covered every sport except, well, no, it has covered every sport, archery to water polo.
"You've heard of cyclo-ball?" says Bill Flemming, who along with original host Jim McKay hails from that first 2½-hour show, on April 29,1961, when variety consisted of McKay's broadcasting the Penn Relays and Flemming's doing the Drake Relays (spanning that part of the globe between Philadelphia and Des Moines). Cyclo-ball was motorized soccer, or polo with an attitude. Says McKay, "Demolition derby ring a bell?" And who here has any out-takes from the International Bikini Sports Competition?
"Some horseback riding was involved," says Dennis Lewin, a longtime coordinating producer for the show who is now a senior vice-president at ABC Sports. "The segment, as I recall, required some very sensitive editing." Hey, Kids! Lady Godiva! But, no, the agony of delete.
Wide World's, 30th anniversary show, which aired on April 28, stressed the importance of somewhat more dignified events, those championships from, yes, all over the globe. Among them: a U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet from Moscow that ABC believes thawed the Cold War, innumerable World Figure Skating Championships, the British Open and all kinds of derbys and steeplechases and other high-toned athletic events—the kind of stuff that was its original and lofty charter. Wide World had plenty of those events, sure. But, pssst, baton twirling, anybody?
May 26, 1991
You do not want to take a program that gave us Evel Knievel too seriously—nor do you need to. Over three decades Wide World of Sports has secured its legend in sports television with innovation, excellence and a surprising, and probably unnecessary, elegance. The sophistication of some segments could be unnerving: The Saturday sloth was often disturbed in his anticipation of the ski-flying championships by a historical travelogue on Oslo that was—how else can we say it?—literate. Soon enough, though, the blathering gave way to some spectacular results: ratings and Emmys. Wide World has had it both ways.
It was, and remains, a weird mix of the worthwhile and silly, the kind of show that will patiently nurse lesser-known sports like gymnastics and figure skating to their current prominence and likewise give us the U.S. Air Force rocketry meet, an otherwise unreported sporting event that featured the destruction of drone rockets over Florida by some of our young fly-boys. Yes, this is the show that brought us that moving gold medal ceremony following America's ice hockey victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Could any show have done that better? Keep in mind, though, that Wide World broke away from the Acapulco cliff diving championships to do so.
Is this a hard show to characterize? Well, not really. Wide World of Sports is almost always, whatever its intentions, interesting. And that's a hallmark, or should be, of any program that hopes to produce 2,200 hours of television. "I hated demolition derby," says Flemming, who boasts that he covered 63 sports for Wide World, "but I kind of enjoyed cyclo-ball." There you go.
Pay attention, all you TV programmers, you Wide World wannabes, you networkers looking for a 30-year franchise: Wide World of Sports was not born of any grand design at ABC, which, unlike its two main competitors, didn't even have a sports division back then. The concept was an accident of geography. It seems that baseball was then televised on an individual team basis (each club made its own deal with the networks) with the added restriction that games could not be telecast in any other competing market. ABC might have the rights to Giants games, for example, yet still be unable to broadcast them to half the country. ABC execs explained this to Roone Arledge, then a 29-year-old producer at the last-place network, and asked him to come up with something they could show all America the next summer.
If ABC was light on ideas, Arledge certainly wasn't. He seized on the notion of a sports anthology show. If variety worked for Ed Sullivan, he figured, it would work for him. But where was his Topo Gigio? Arledge was confined to what must have seemed like fringe stuff: anything nonbaseball, nonfootball, nonbasketball. What was left?
"The first thing Roone told me," says Chuck Howard, Arledge's assistant at the time, "was to find out what's happening every weekend." So Howard, posing as an assistant to an NBC radio announcer whom Arledge knew, sneaked into the NBC library (ABC didn't have one) and filled legal pads with a decidedly bizarre sports calendar.
The idea of being associated with the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo did not raise adrenaline levels in the advertising community. Nobody wanted a taste of this stew. Ad sales were so slow that ABC was ready to pull the plug before the first show was aired. Only by piggybacking commercial spots on Wide World with the much more desirable NCAA football, for which the network had national rights, was ABC finally able to sell the show. "It got on the air not because anybody believed in it," says Howard, "but because baseball wouldn't penetrate any more than 48 percent and because somebody held a club over Reynolds tobacco's head."
But would viewers set aside time to watch the Japanese all-star baseball game? Or track and field, swimming and diving, gymnastics and figure skating? There had been no clamor for any of these minor sports. The very fact that they were available to this last-place network indicated their lack of popularity.
Yet Arledge's inspiration was astonishingly simple. You could get away with showing anything—anything!—if you somehow got the audience interested in the people doing it. Says McKay, "The thought was, and from the beginning we were thinking exactly alike, that if these sports could be one of the most important things in the lives of a certain group of people, we should be able to make them interesting for 20 minutes on a Saturday afternoon."
This notion eventually evolved into "Up Close and Personal," the underpinning of all Olympic coverage and much other sports television that has followed. The concept never would have worked if Arledge hadn't hired as his announcing mainstays two of the most uncritical, and we mean this in its positive sense, sportscasters in the business. Flemming seemed genuinely enthusiastic about everything, from the air races over Chino, Calif., to the motorcycles on ice in Moscow ("Four-inch spikes on those tires! And pools of blood in the turns!"). For his part, McKay never met anybody who wasn't "worth a story once in his life."
McKay, above others, recognized the emotional value in nearly every sport he reported. "The World Barrel Jumping Championships up at Grossinger's," he recalls. Goofy, huh? "When this guy broke the 17-barrel barrier, it was like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. He was up on people's shoulders, he was crying, his wife was crying. These things, you always have to remember, are very important to the people involved."
Only rarely has McKay failed to remember that. Once he was at a demolition-derby world championship. "The ultimate minor sport," he says. A driver had just won his second world title in a row, and what are the chances of that in demolition derby? McKay couldn't resist asking (wink, wink) how do you account for such excellence in demolition-derby driving. Says McKay, "He looked at me with great sincerity and answered, 'Well, I go to church a lot.' I felt two inches tall."
Even with McKay and Flemming, the show would never have survived that first season as a summer replacement had it not covered the U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet in Moscow. Ratings had been low, but the publicity that that segment generated allowed a second season, which spawned the famous billboard atop the show. "Oh, that," says McKay. "There had been a different opening that first summer, something about sport in its unending variety. The next year we were running behind when we realized we had to record a new opening, and we hadn't written it yet. So Roone and I quickly did it. It was a back-of-an-envelope deal. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Who knew that would be around 30 years later?"
Today the show alternates between being educational and catering to the lowest common denominator (most TV does not alternate from the latter). For all the fluff that sticks in your mind, the core of Wide World's programming, to be fair, has been the major championships, and some of that programming has been stubbornly noble. When Wide World carried Peggy Fleming's first win at the National Figure Skating Championships, in 1964, it was to a largely Indifferent World of Sports. "She won in a virtually empty arena in Cleveland," says Lewin. "Figure skating eventually flourished because of exposure by ABC. Now, you can't buy a ticket to see skating."
In recent years Wide World has taken similar chances with endurance sports. Now everybody is familiar with the drama of the Ironman, the Iditarod and the Tour de France. But back to that fluff.
Producers quickly learned that the more diverse each show was, the better their chances for achieving high ratings. By offering a Muhammad Ali fight, a chess tournament and a figure skating competition, the producers were really drawing three different sports audiences, even women viewers. Better still, by adding a lumberjack championship, a Harlem Globetrotters game or an antique-car rally, they were drawing every fanatic with a TV. Highest rated Wide World ever? Evel Knievel and the Globetrotters in 1975. In fact, any show with either Knievel or the Globies was a ratings bonanza during the '70s.
"That, I never understood," says Joe Aceti, who directed Wide World from 1972 to '82. "I mean, they [the Globetrotters] did the same tricks every year. We did take them to different places, though."
The Acapulco cliff diving championship was another absolute ratings lock every time it was shown. It was the television equivalent of a swimsuit issue, beefcake division, enlivening everybody's winter afternoon. It wasn't exactly sports, but it sure was fun. "We never expected to do it at all," says McKay. "We were going there to do a water-skiing championship, and Roone called up the hotel where the divers worked, the El Mirador. We thought we'd do the cliff diving as a sidelight. But it turned out these guys were union, even had a shop steward. Anyway, one of the divers tells Roone that there's been all kinds of interest from NBC and Hollywood and that they couldn't possibly work for less than $100,000. That's that. But when we get there, our local contact tells us he's got the cliff divers lined up. For $100,000? 'No,' he says, 'they compromised. They'll do it for $10 a dive.' Of course, they charged us for practice dives."
One bit became so popular that Wide World didn't air it just once a year but every week: the agony of defeat. That poor skier hurtling out of control down the chute? Vienko Bogatej? "It was 1970 and I was in Yugoslavia doing world figure skating," says Lewin. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I was up in my room watching this ski-flying competition from Germany on television, and I see this alltime fall. I rush down to the dining room, McKay is waiting for me, and I say, 'You won't believe what I just saw.' "
Bogatej was not seriously hurt and even tried to enter the next year's meet—yes, it was ski flying—from his hospital bed. Unknown to him, however, his fame had already been everlastingly secured that day by Wide World. "Can you believe, there was a point about 10 years ago when it was thought that shot had run its course," says Lewin. "But it became so symbolic, we had to keep it."
Bogatej will remain the program's only constant, then, because the strength of Wide World has been its ability to anticipate and nurture whatever seems to tickle the viewers from one year to the next. Flemming left the show in 1986; McKay still makes appearances on the show. Frank Gifford is now the studio host.
The Evel Knievel phenomenon eventually passed, as did the demolition-derby phase. The chess craze died, so Wide World no longer trots off to Iceland to broadcast a match. Ali, who provided the show with 29 fights (not including a studio scuffle with Joe Frazier) and high ratings every time, finally departed. Things run their course, and Wide World always finds something new to complement its core events—the Triple Crown, the Little League World Series, the Tour dc France.
The proliferation of cable TV and pay-per-view has made that search more difficult. Wide World can no longer snap up the lumberjack championships for $10,000; the lumberjacks have their own series on ESPN. Nor can ABC expect viewers to sit still for a midget-car dirt race from Terre Haute, Ind. And big fights will never again be seen on Wide World of Sports. Then again, the time may be right for cyclo-ball. You never know.
"We only showed that the one time," says Flemming. He seems to have a tinge of regret in his voice.