It was a Mondaynight in January at the Port Charlotte (Fla.) Bowlerama, and the fourth eventof The Women Superstars preliminary competition was about to be filmed. AltheaGibson, Wyomia Tyus and Diana Nyad completed their warmups while Billie JeanKing relaxed with a few of the 24 other contestants. Although King was notcompeting, her assignment as commentator for ABC Sports presented nearly asmuch of a challenge to her as the three-holed bowling ball had offered MartinaNavratilova. King, who has been TV's version of a missing person since joiningABC amid much fanfare 14 months ago, could only hope that she would perform aspromisingly as Navratilova, who in her fourth game ever rolled a 149.
When King signed atwo-year contract with ABC for a reported $200,000-plus, she became thehighest-paid woman sports telecaster. Since then she has appeared as a colorcommentator on the two broadcasts of L'eggs World Series of Women's Tennis, the1975 and 1976 Women Superstars and as a hostess on a prime-time women's sportsspecial. She also has taped an 11-week series on tennis and a wrist-wrestlingsegment for ABC's Wide World of Sports. These are neither numerous norprestigious assignments for an announcer in her salary bracket, and they haveled to speculation in the TV industry that 1) ABC considers King adisappointment or 2) King is so upset about the infrequency of her appearancesthat she is planning to jump to CBS. Both rumors have been denied, but thereremains serious doubt that King is repaying ABC's investment in her.
She thinks she has."In a way ABC is paying for my past, buying my name, not my televisionskill, because I don't have much," King says. "But ABC invested in meand gave me a chance to learn and grow. I intend to use the opportunitywisely."
How prudently sheused her first year with ABC is questionable. King has not worked in TV enoughto improve substantially her technical skills, yet in her usual ambitious wayshe already envisions a syndicated program of her own as a stage for women'ssports. She also claims that she would like to do more shows for ABC, but shehas not matched this desire with a reduction in other activities. Being anannouncer demands flexibility and a willingness to suffer through tiresome,repetitive filming and taping sessions. King's schedule and impatience make itdifficult for her to meet either of these requirements.
During her firstyear with ABC, King was busy training for and winning her sixth Wimbledonsingles title, playing in and promoting World Team Tennis and struggling tosave her magazine, womenSports. There are scheduling conflicts this year, too.Among other activities, King is ushering in a professional softball league andstill playing for World Team Tennis.
From the outset ABCaccepted the fact that King would continue in tennis, and the network plannedto accommodate her schedule. Her expertise in tennis, after all, was to be thestarting point for her career in broadcasting. That, and her ability to relateto women athletes.
"The athletesrespect and trust her," says ABC producer Don Ohlmeyer. "She offers avivaciousness and a knowledge about women competitors. Too often raw talentslike hers are mishandled by being used on broadcasts to which they cancontribute nothing." So ABC has chosen to emphasize King's assets byplacing her in familiar settings. She will be used only infrequently on otherevents until she acquires the rudimentary skills network televisiondemands.
"But I'm hardlyat the bottom, am I?" King says. "Can you imagine the number of peopleat local stations who would like to and should rightly be where I am now?"Because King has not moved up through TV's ranks, she has yet to adapt to thefrustrations that professional announcers accept as routine. A five-minutepiece may take up to four hours to film and narrate, hours filled with retakes,delays while equipment is adjusted or repaired and just plain waiting. Or rainmay force a postponement and the crew must be free to cover the event onanother day. For example, a change in the filming dates for The WomenSuperstars finals resulted in a part of the production work being scheduled fora day when King was supposed to play doubles in a Virginia Slims tournament.Only after considerable discussion did she agree to switch the tennis date.
Whenever King isable to go on location, she shows a genuine desire to become a realprofessional. And she gives evidence that she could become one. Her concisecomments during the live coverage of L'eggs tennis added significantly to theviewer's understanding of how Chris Evert is able to dominate her opponents sothoroughly. While interviewing the women superstars King remained in thebackground, merely prompting the athletes with questions, because she feels nobroadcaster should upstage her subject. This role may be hard for her tomaintain, especially since her TV career is so closely tied to the exposure ofher name and because she works for a network whose announcers have a tendencyto overwhelm the events they cover.
There is a simplesolution for King's problems at ABC. When she led the revolution in women'stennis a decade ago, her energies were channeled in one direction. "I'mused to working hard, giving 100% to whatever I do," she says. "I don'tknow any other way." Should she eventually decide to expend 100% of herenergy on television, her handling of the microphone could become as sure asher grip on her tennis racket.
BILLIE JEAN QUIZZES SUPERSTAR FINALIST ANNE HENNING