Publish date:


Among America's prestigious sporting events, none takes up as little time as the Kentucky Derby, which is usually over in two minutes. As an occasion for network television coverage—CBS carried it from 1951 to 1974, ABC the last three years—the Derby presents a problem: the broadcast rights stipulate that the show must last an hour. Those who have to cope with filling 58 minutes of non-racing air time often feel as if they are trying to put a saddle on a mouse.

But the network's challenge is trifling compared to the one taken on by two Louisville stations, WHAS-TV, a CBS affiliate, and WLKY-TV, an ABC outlet. Between them they carry 13½ hours of coverage from the track on Derby Day. Each station goes on the air at 11:30 a.m., with WHAS, which has been doing Derbies for 25 years, staying on until 6:30 p.m. and WLKY until six.

It is something of a surprise that the stations get into the Kentucky Derby. Of all televised sporting events, none would seem to have stronger reasons for imposing a local blackout, since Churchill Downs has almost inexhaustible crowd capacity. This year 124,038 paid between $10 and $120 to see Seattle Slew win, and they bet an average of $71 each. From the wagering alone, the track grossed $1,115,750; when admission, concession, parking, program and souvenir profits are added in, the Derby makes the Super Bowl and World Series seem like slim pickings. And those profits would almost certainly be fatter if Louisvillians were not able to sit at home and see all the action.

Even though promoters understandably love blackouts, they are anathema to television, which hates to miss an opportunity to pick up more viewers. Until Congress legislated against blackouts of all sold-out pro football games, most NFL contests were not televised in the cities where they were played. Baseball and NBA playoff games have been blacked out from time to time. The Indianapolis 500 is not shown in that metropolitan area until 24 hours after its conclusion, and the promoters of the Atlanta 500 black out the state of Georgia for the event. Even last week's WCT tennis championships were not shown in Dallas, where they took place. The Derby not only does not black out ABC's telecast of the race, but it also allows the entire day's festivities to be shown on not one, but two stations. For such privileges, it might be assumed that WHAS and WLKY pay a very high price. In fact, they pay nothing.

Lynn Stone, the president of Churchill Downs, says, "There isn't any doubt that our television coverage on Derby Day is unique in American sports. When we worked with CBS it allowed its affiliate, WHAS, to do Derby Day. When we signed with ABC, it agreed to the same deal for WHAS and added its local station, too. From the track's viewpoint, we haven't noticed any ill effects. Maybe there are some, and we have overlooked them."

Racing fans certainly haven't overlooked the two Derby Day telecasts. In the late morning and early afternoon hours, it seems that everyone not on his way to the track is looking at a TV set. According to the ratings, WHAS, which in 1976 outdrew WLKY three to one on Derby Day, has attracted as many as 170,000 viewers from a population base of 900,000. The total may actually be far higher, because the ratings do not account for people watching in hotels, at bars or at parties in private homes, which would seem to account for most of the populace early on Derby Day. Although the prices for commercials are nowhere near those charged by the networks, the money does roll in. A 30-second spot early in the WHAS telecast costs $150, and there were 27 of those in the first hour. As the day goes on, the scale goes up to $175, $225, $350, then to $800 for the Derby itself and back to $300 for the wrap-up show.

Chuck Hall, 48, is the writer, producer and director of WHAS' Derby Day show, an assignment he has had since Proud Clarion won in 1967. Beginning on the Sunday before this year's race, Hall put in 81½ hours of work over a six-day period. He wrote a 46-page script, made certain that all the major prep races leading up to the Derby had been acquired on an exclusive basis for his station and then struggled with the logistics of keeping almost 50 people and tons of equipment on the move at Churchill Downs.

"What usually takes five minutes on a normal day requires 25 on Derby Day," Hall says. "You can't use trucks or golf carts. The talent and technicians must become foot soldiers. This year minicams helped us. We start planning the show early in February, and by the time the Derby is over I figure we have put in enough hours to add up to a solid month of work. Our aim is to cut down on the yak-yak as much as we can, and we do that by making more than 70% of our show live."

Among the better pieces of yak-yak this year was an interview with ABC News' co-anchor person Harry Reasoner, who was asked how it felt to work with America's most famous newswoman. Reasoner answered, "It must be almost post time." Another interview was with Hall of Famer and Derby regular Stan Musial, who was asked what he was doing in Louisville. "Looking for bats," said The Man.

"The main thing you have to remember about doing the Derby for a station in Louisville is that you can't fool anybody," says Hall. "They know too much. We stick to the Derby, to its great history and its spectacle. The people here know that the Derby is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon."

So, too, are WHAS' and WLKY's non-stop broadcasts.