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TV's oldest program leaves the air, to the cheers of some, the yawns of others and, perhaps, to the benefit of boxing itself

At a little past 7 p.m. (P.D.T.) last Friday the bartender at The Third Base in San Francisco answered the telephone, and a reporter asked, "What are the people watching on television right now, and what are they talking about?" Slowly the bartender looked up and down his bar, carefully examining each face with the fascination of a tourist visiting Madame Tussaud's waxworks for the first time. "They're not watchin' nothin'," said the bartender, "and they ain't talkin' about nothin'."

At 9 p.m. (E.S.T.) Mrs. Bowdry Poer, standing with her husband, her four children and 5,000 others in the Friendly Shopping Center at Greensboro, North Carolina awaiting a fireworks display, was asked if she would miss the telecasts of the Friday night fights. "Oh," asked Mrs. Poer, "have they been boxing on television?"

At 10 p.m. (E.D.T.) in the mid-town New York restaurant which bears his name, Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight champion, was sitting on a bar stool with his back to a darkened TV screen. "I'm glad the Friday night fights are gone," said Dempsey. "Most of 'em weren't any good anyway, and they were helping to kill the fight game." A few blocks away, Willie Pep, one of the first two men ever to appear on a telecast fight (he beat Chalky Wright in Madison Square Garden on September 29, 1944), sat in his uptown New York bar contemplating another dark screen. "No fights," said Willie Pep, "no fights! Sixteen years we've had fights on television almost every Friday night, but not tonight. Well, my television set won't be turned on. I don't care what's on television. A lot of people come in here to watch the fights. Many of 'em wondered why there were no fights tonight. The TV can just sit there and look at the people who are not looking at it."

After more than 600 Friday night fights the National Broadcasting Company has canceled the longest continuing sports program on television. NBC called it quits because, as one executive put it, "Anything we broadcast is our responsibility, and we felt we had adequate reasons not to continue the fights."

The ratings were down

Those adequate reasons were undoubtedly that the fights had slipped badly both in quality and in ratings. At one time the ratings indicated that one out of every five home television sets were tuned in. And there were few bars across the country which didn't automatically turn on the fights for their customers on Friday. "Some people never knew who was in there," says Detroit Bartender Kayo Morgan, a former bantamweight fighter himself. "They just knew white trunks or black trunks and bet one would beat the other." Recently, however, both home and bar viewers have become disenchanted.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, bar patron Robert Gausmon said, "I was getting fed up with the fights anyway. In my opinion, too many were fixed." Said another, "The greatest contribution television can make is not to put on the fights."

In other sections of the country, however, there were many who missed both the fights and the bar conversations they inspired. "You might say I am real unhappy about it," said a lady customer in The Television Bar in Dallas. "I used to be able to judge 90% of the winners just by looking at their legs." A tavern keeper in downtown Dallas said, "Many traveling people used to come in on Friday just for the fights. They used to strike up friendships and sit around for a while. Tonight they came in, drank a beer and left. My business fell off at least $40." A customer at the Egyptian Lounge said, "It was something to look forward to for us working boys. You know, on the weekend you can afford to spend a little money on beer and sandwiches and sit around and gripe about the referees after the fight is over. It was a lot of fun."

NBC replaced boxing in New York with Moment of Fear, which one Brooklyn girl described as "a worse program than most of the fights." All over the country, sports fans found the pickings very poor indeed. In Los Angeles, for example, there was an underwater adventure film in which the hero swam through two tunnels to save a 6-year-old girl trapped in the air shaft of a mine; there were also a travelogue about railroading in Canada, a spy thriller in which Nazi war plans were transmitted to American forces by a deaf mute using hand signals, three rerun westerns, a 1944 movie starring Tallulah Bankhead, the Little Rascals and a Saints and Sinners spectacular.

The former sponsor of the fights, The Gillette Company, will join with Miles Laboratories when the telecasts are moved to Saturday evening beginning October 8. But, as one TV advertiser put it, "The Friday fights were a habit for most Americans. Television itself is a thing of habit. Boxing's audience used to be a good market for an advertiser, but it slipped. The real prime buys now are the World Series [which Gillette also sponsors], the January bowl games, pro football on Sundays and some NCAA Saturday football games." Gillette and Miles are betting they can change the Friday night habit.

Though millions of Americans may be indifferent or even oblivious to the passing of this Friday feature, for countless others it means altering a well-established routine. This is especially true in those areas where the television set has become the prime source of entertainment.

As for boxing itself, the results should be largely beneficial, if only because promoters now must realize that a succession of shoddy mismatches will not satisfy even a captive audience. Says Jack Dempsey, "Now we should see the return of something like normal in boxing. Now fighters will have to be brought along slowly, on their merits, in small clubs. And people will begin going back to the boxing arenas in person. In the long run, this will help boxing very much."