The recent announcement out of Tampa that major league baseball had signed four-year contracts totaling $92.8 million with both ABC and NBC so far has caused more discussion in television executive suites than among the game's fans, who, at best, seem bewildered by what it all means. In truth, it means very little this season, because NBC is still working on an $18-million contract that gives it exclusive rights to all Saturday afternoon and Monday night major league games as well as the league playoff games, the All-Star Game and the most lucrative plum of all, the World Series.
But in 1976 ABC will take over Monday night baseball and will begin alternating with NBC in coverage of the All-Star Game, the American League and National League playoffs and the World Series. Thus, for the first time baseball will be working with two networks on a national level, and the competition between NBC and ABC for awards, ratings and advertising revenues will be heightened. NBC, which started Monday night baseball on a steady basis three years ago, now will have to share the major league's top attractions with ABC, the network that once denigrated the sport with supercilious statements and innuendos. What fan can forget Tom Moore's pronouncement when he was president of ABC: "The season should consist of only 60 games, all of them on weekends."
Under the new contract, negotiated by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, baseball's revenues from network television will jump roughly 30%, and each club will take in $200,000 more a year, increasing its total income from the networks to $950,000 per season. Baseball owners are impressed by such figures, and they are apt to remember them when Kuhn's contract comes up for renewal sometime this year.
Originally, NBC had intended to cut back its Monday night telecasts in 1976 from 15 shows to 11 because it felt the ratings, a decent but not overwhelming average of 7.4 million homes, could be bettered by other programming. But ABC's overall evening ratings can use all possible help, and the network was willing to commit itself to 16 Monday games in 1976 and to 18 in each of the following three years. Moreover, the All-Star Game, the playoffs and Monday night baseball give ABC's Roone Arledge prestigious additions to a 1976 sports program that already features the Winter Olympics, the Summer Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, the U.S. Open, PGA Golf Championship, the British Open, and Monday night pro football. And, lest we forget, the XII Demolition Derby from Islip, Long Island.
As interesting as the maneuverings over baseball telecasts may be to media insiders, the fan may be more affected by the probable departure of The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola, the cheerful show that so brightens NBC's Monday nights. (Garagiola will have an hour special about the forthcoming season this Sunday afternoon on NBC-TV, a show that has been in preparation for more than a month.) His close association with NBC is the reason why Garagiola's World is likely to disappear when ABC takes over. "I don't know where our show stands for '76," says Don Ellis, its producer-director.
Ellis has received little publicity for the work he puts into Garagiola's World, but he helps make it a sensitive, humorous and topical lead-in to the Monday night games and the World Series. To get ideas for the show, Ellis sees as many as 100 ball games a year, in minor league parks as well as big-league stadiums.
"I grew up in Worcester, Mass.," Ellis says, "and became a Red Sox fan out of self-defense. The Yankees would always beat the Red Sox in the big games, and you had to care. In junior college I flunked everything but speech, but I knew that I wanted to go into television. I worked as a guide at NBC in New York, then in the operations department, and then as an associate director. I worked quiz shows, variety shows and soap operas. I can't even remember the names of most of them.
"But I also had the chance to work major news events, and 10 years ago I went into sports. I've done golf, baseball, football, basketball, just about all of them. What I like about working with Garagiola is that his personality cuts across all kinds of audiences. People respond to him, they like him. And we have had complete freedom from NBC to do what we want on the show. Baseball is not a one-dimensional sport. There's a toughness to the game that comes out of the players facing a crisis almost every day. There are a lot of stories in baseball.
"There are still so many things that can be done with athletes to make them more interesting to a viewer. Take a look at women athletes as they are seen on television and ask yourself what you really have been told, or shown, about them. Not one-tenth of what you should have been."
In baseball, Ellis says, Garagiola sees things others don't. "He knows the feelings, the little hurts that players experience. One of the most rewarding things about doing The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola is that some players watch it intently. They ask questions about it, and that shows me they are deeply involved in what we are trying to do."
The new contract, assures that game coverage won't diminish after this season, but it will be a genuine loss if the Garagiola show folds. Fortunately, we still have a year left to savor it.
NBC'S RETREAT LEAVES ELLIS AND GARAGIOLA WONDERING