Midway through the recent Wimbledon Fortnight—after Bud Collins' first "Aaaaah!" long before his final "Ooooh!" and roughly about the time NBC began to play its television game of mirrors—it was apparent which network was No. 1 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The BBC, of course. You see, old chaps, it's really quite marvelous how the British respect their telly viewers. No bloody chatter by the announcers, no fussing or flitting about among six matches in 15 minutes before Johnny Carson comes on. Simply the game, which is a jolly good show in its own right.
Thanks to Home Box Office, which picked up 23 hours of the British Broadcasting Company feed, American viewers were given an elementary lesson in just how excessive U.S. sportscasting can be. One thing the Brits have learned: In TV as in architecture, less usually turns out to be more.
Take the most striking difference—talking heads. The two heard most frequently on the HBO/BBC telecasts, Dan Maskell and John Barrett, must think that gabbing, like rogue bees, is injurious to one's health. They broke their silence for a 12-word comment once every game or so. We got only the pop of ball against racket, the magisterial voice of the umpire and a sense of tightening drama. Left alone, we were sucked into the match unawares.
In fairness to NBC, HBO/BBC takes no commercial breaks, which allows its announcers to save their comments for the changeovers. Still, the level of NBC chitchat was stifling. Collins, a self-proclaimed tennis hacker who has been covering the game for 27 years, annually reclaims his title as the loudest screamer, shrieker and nickname-creator in sports TV. This year Chip Hooper became "Hooperman," and Stan Smith was reintroduced as the "Leaning Tower of Pasadena." Strangely, Geoff Mason, producer of NBC's 24 hours of Wimbledon coverage, said the network "hit its stride" in controlling talk this year. How Collins would sound unleashed is frightening to consider.
NBC also earned demerits for jettisoning Donald Dell—except as a last-minute fill-in on the final Saturday—and for planting the usually impeccable Dick Enberg in the booth with Collins. This year's Wimbledon was the first major sports event in memory that had no expert commentator. And it showed. Enberg, a baseball and football man, often seemed ill at ease. Afraid of dead air, forced to say something, he came up with such nuggets as "skillful play!" and "Martina made Chris work hard on that point."
If the peacock had played HBO/BBC on Centre Court, it would have won only one set: camera work. Throughout the Fortnight, HBO/BBC stuck with that static, high-level shot from up behind the court and rarely showed a replay from a different angle or a tight closeup during play. The fact is, the U.S. sports viewer has been so spoiled by zoom lenses and special effects that foreign telecasts now resemble spinoffs from the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, circa 1958. A subtle but telling difference: As the Wimbledon grass turned white with wear, NBC cut repeatedly to its "lowboy" camera at net level behind the baseline. In the old-fashioned HBO/BBC high-level shot, the ball was almost invisible.
Which brings us to NBC's game of mirrors, the most irritating aspect of its coverage. For once, why won't a network sports division that airs events on tape-delay label its programming straightforwardly? The hand isn't quicker than the viewer's brain. Tell us what's coming up and when. If a match was completed five hours before air time, say so. Don't pretend it's live. For NBC, this year's Fortnight should go down as the Wimbledon of The Big Tease.
One night we tuned in—this hurts—at 12:45 a.m., expecting to see Jimmy Connors, as announced. First we got Tim Mayotte. Then we got Vitas Gerulaitis ("The Lithuanian Lion," according to the Angel of Alliteration). Jimbo's tape didn't come on till 1:30. In newspapers the next morning NBC ran an ad indicating John McEnroe would be shown on its 2-to-5 p.m. show that day. Sorry, Enberg finally said sometime around 4:58, but McEnroe wouldn't appear until after midnight. To make matters worse, NBC didn't report the score of his match. On the final Saturday, following its live coverage of the women's final and the McEnroe-Mayotte semi, NBC presented the Connors-Mark Edmondson semi as if it too were live. In fact, that match ended before either of the other two began.
Recommendations? Enberg should return to baseball and basketball, Collins should bone up on Maskell and NBC should recall Dell and adopt a no-trickery policy. Then we could really enjoy our Breakfast at Wimbledon.