Perhaps The Superstars season is over on television for this year, but how can one really tell? Those who maintain that the hockey, basketball and baseball schedules are too long should note that The Superstars has gone from one show in 1973 to 10 this winter and has become the ultimate in Trashsport, those made-for-TV events.
The last time I watched The Superstars it was in the first phase of its "world competition" from Callaway Gardens, Ga., having already gone through U.S. male superstars, women superstars, team superstars and goodness knows what else. Despite the sameness of the telecasts and a scoring system that even Buckminster Fuller could not understand. The Superstars draws decent audiences because TV has hyped Trashsport to the hilt to suit its own purposes.
Television sports departments love shows like The Superstars; they fit into any time period and can be used to bulk out an afternoon's programming. And without doubt. The Superstars is a skillfully done filler. It is so well done, in fact, that one show looks exactly like another. The entire product is so homogenized that a few minutes after it goes off, you can't remember what you watched. All you are left with are vague images of a lot of guys diving through tires, riding bicycles, climbing walls and lifting weights.
The success of The Superstars on ABC begat CBS' Challenge of the Sexes, as mindless a piece of treacle as can be imagined. A male and a female athlete compete in a sport, with a handicap usually given to the woman to make things more or less equal. Each time I force myself to watch Challenge, an old radio show comes to mind. It was called, I think. The Adventures of Squeaky and Sputters and played weekday mornings as children were getting ready for school. The highlight of the show was the dressing contest during which a "Magic Electric Eye" would look out through radio sets to see who was getting dressed faster, the boys or the girls. As I recall it. Squeaky would sing a ditty that went: "Oh, this is the dressing contest, let's see who'll win. When I give the signal, we'll all begin." The Magic Electric Eye was turned on, and Squeaky and Sputters would keep score. "There's a boy done, and one girl," Sputters would announce. Somehow the boys always seemed to win two dressing contests, and the girls two. Naturally, there would be one tie.
Trans World International, an amalgam of entrepreneur Mark McCormack's jock clients and his television crews, is the outfit that originated The Superstars (it now also does Challenge, its spin-off, Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes, and Battle of the Network Stars), using an idea thought up by figure skater/color announcer Dick Button. To show how far such foolishness can get you, Barry Frank, who used to be in charge of Trashsport for McCormack, is now head of CBS Sports.
All of which goes to disprove the theory that Trashsport was invented by ABC's Wide World of Sports to bewilder viewers whenever Wide World scheduled a prizefight as part of its Saturday programming. For years many of us played a maddening form of dial roulette, switching from a live event on another network to ABC to see if the fight had appeared yet. According to Wide World host Jim McKay, it was always coming up "momentarily." That usually meant a very wide world of wrist-wrestling matches and demolition derbies would be telecast before the fight, which was almost always crammed into the last minutes of the show. Thus, although it didn't invent Trashsport, Wide World played a major part in its evolution.
Nowadays just about anything goes on Wide World or CBS' Sports Spectacular. It is not unusual to see a circus or a bunch of guys diving off rocks in Acapulco on these shows. This winter Steve McPeak did a high-wire climb in Rio de Janeiro on Sports Spectacular, and Evel Knievel seems to be on TV more often than Cloris Leachman. (Lord, deliver us from Evel.)
Yet I get a feeling that Trashsport has peaked. While the ratings do not support me (The Superstars, for example, drew an average audience share of 31% this winter), early indicators of a move away from Trashsport have started to surface. All three networks have returned to live boxing in a big way, because Muhammad Ali and the U.S. Olympic team have shown that the sport can attract big audiences. A decade of demolition derbies has probably been enough, and dare-deviling can only go so far. Not long ago CBS aired a prime-time program called Evel Knievel's Death Defiers, and I detected something in it that might mean even Evel's shows may be numbered. He was supposed to soar on a motorcycle over a pool full of sharks in Chicago's Amphitheatre. Instead, he smashed up during rehearsal. After Announcer Jill St. John told of the accident at the beginning of Death Defiers, she immediately added, "We'll have a report on Evel's injuries right after this commercial."
Real sport can still grow on television; its inroads into prime time—from 136 hours to 235 in the last three years—have been stunning. Anyone who watched the recent NCAA basketball championships on NBC should have come away with the feeling that, while all televised sport cannot be quite that exciting, the possibility for high drama always exists when TV puts its cameras on genuine competition. With Trashsport, the sameness and artificiality are numbing, and the people who produce, market and promote it have bored us just about up to here. After all, we outgrew Squeaky and Sputters years ago.
McPEAK'S HIGH-WIRE ACT WAS A "SPORTS SPECTACULAR" LOW