The revolving door at CBS Sports has whirled again, and yet another president of the division has appeared on the 30th floor of Black Rock, the network's Manhattan skyscraper. He's the seventh guy to hold the job in seven years, and that would seem to indicate that the long-troubled Black Rock jocks are still in bad shape, are still flailing around in search of a leader who can straighten things out. But, no, this switch is happening at a time when CBS Sports is perhaps in better shape than it has been in a decade or more.
First, let's introduce the new man—Neal H. Pilson, 41, a tall, polished Yale Law School grad. His athletic credentials include varsity basketball at Hamilton College and a love of ice hockey. He coached his son's hockey team for six years and plays for the CBS six. Immediately before taking over as sports president on Nov. 23, Pilson was something called—get ready—Senior Vice President, Planning and Administration, CBS/Broadcast Group, in charge of Strategic Planning, Personnel, Research and New Ventures. Before that, Pilson worked in CBS's Department of Sports Business Affairs, where he had a hand in drawing up various rights contracts, including the agreements with the NFL and the NBA. If God and/or William S. Paley (they're interchangeable at Black Rock) are willing, Pilson would like to spend a little time in grade before the CBS Sports door revolves again. "I'm dealing with a five-year perspective on this job," he says.
And why, when others have sailed in and out so quickly, should Pilson anticipate such longevity? The main reason is the portly, bearded, rumpled fellow who just shambled out the door, Van Gordon Sauter. A former newspaperman, CBS censor and failed on-air anchorman, Sauter, 46, has enjoyed one of the oddest successful careers in all network television. His latest job change was no more predictable than the others. Sauter had spent precisely 16 months and 11 days as CBS Sports President when he was given one of the brightest jewels at Black Rock: the presidency of CBS News.
It's no secret that CBS News is plagued by an overall sense of inertia, low morale, lack of direction, confusion over what to do without Walter Cronkite, confusion over what to do with Dan Rather. Sauter is known as a trouble-shooter, a reputation he enhanced at CBS Sports. When he arrived to run that $300 million-a-year operation on July 11, 1980, CBS trailed ABC and NBC in almost every aspect of sports programming. There had been a mini-scandal in 1977 involving fraudulently promoted "winner-take-all" tennis matches in which the losers got a lot of the "all." CBS had lost the rights to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to ABC. It had seen a steady drop in its golf ratings. Its anthology show, Sports Spectacular, had become so full of trash events that Sauter himself characterized it as being "neither sports nor spectacular."
A mess. And more amazing, the man who was supposed to straighten it all out has always admitted that he cares little about sport. Sauter's disinterest dates back to his early teens when he was briefly bent on becoming a professional boxer—until, he says, "I discovered girls and realized that lust was a meaningful alternative to pain." His attitude never changed. Recently, Sauter said of sport, "It's all so inconsequential. I can't believe articulate, sensitive, intelligent people take it so seriously."
Obviously he took something very seriously at CBS Sports, because in the brief time he ruled Sauter turned the operation around. By juggling some of the half-dead NFL announcing teams, he brought the network's pro football telecasts to life. He got the feisty bunch on The NFL Today to stop exchanging punches in barrooms and pouting on air. He introduced some fairly trenchant journalistic pieces into the limp format of Sports Spectacular. Most important, thanks to some abominable judgment on the part of NBC, he landed a piece of both NCAA football and NCAA basketball. Those who worked for Sauter at CBS Sports view him, plainly, as a media messiah.
His is a hard act to follow. But Pilson will be operating with a different set of priorities. Whereas Sauter charged in, bruised egos, rocked boats and generally disrupted the status quo not only at CBS but in TV sports generally, Pilson's job will be to make these changes work—and make them pay. Sauter in his baggy corduroys and Top-siders will now be replaced by old-fashioned, three-piece, bottom-line management. The fun part may be over, but the real game at CBS Sports is just beginning.
Pilson now has a vested interest in sports.