Gradually, with hardly any viewers realizing it, the golden age of network sports has come to a close. In their glory days, ABC, CBS and NBC spared no expense to get and put on award-winning shows. Now the business is run by guys wearing green eyeshades. "It's tough around here," says CBS executive producer Ted Shaker. "We're trying to make things look good, even though we don't have the equipment we used to. It's almost like playing a game of mirrors."
The cutbacks have resulted in broadcasts that no longer have the usual network slap, dash and dazzle. Good shows are produced on occasion, but too often what used to look like Tiffany now resembles K Mart. Fewer cameras are being used, often operated by nonunion free-lancers. As the networks pare travel expenses, technicians aren't being given enough time to set up, which is one reason that so many telecasts contain glitches. TV is showing more events than ever, yet second-tier sports that don't come to the networks prepackaged and independently produced—for example, skiing and swimming—are having trouble getting on the air.
Producers who are willing to talk about the problems say they sometimes feel they're waging a losing battle to keep telecasts from looking amateurish. Managers insist that the cutbacks are forcing producers to be more creative, but it's hard to see evidence of that. CBS's solution to filling airtime on the football-less first Sunday of the NFL players' strike was to show a rerun of last season's Super Bowl.
Says Shaker: "I think we're dangerously close to the point of not being able to cover events as well as we should. We're not there yet, but we're flirting with that line." Adds ABC producer Mike Pearl: "It's almost like the airline situation. It's bare maintenance. The only difference is, nobody's going to get killed in our business."
Some of the cost-cutting has been necessary. For one thing, soaring rights fees have only recently begun to level off. For another, sports ratings have been depressed since 1982, and so were ad sales until the market made a comeback earlier this year. While CBS turned a small profit on sports programming in 1985 and '86, ABC was a money loser the last two years. NBC's sports shop made a small profit in '85 but lost money last year. The ad market has improved, but none of the networks will make more than a modest profit off sports in 1987. Because it's expected to take a $50 to $75 million bath on the 1988 Winter Olympics. ABC Sports will finish in the red next year.
Nobody is going to get away any longer with what Terry O'Neil, then CBS's executive producer for the NFL, did during the '83 playoffs when he dispatched his limo and driver from Dallas to Tampa several weeks before the Super Bowl. Cost to CBS: $17,000. Today fancy cars and posh hotels generally are history at the networks. At the Kentucky Derby this year, ABC producer Curt Gowdy Jr. was ready to move his crew from a rapidly declining hotel the network had used for years to a luxury hotel closer to Churchill Downs. Forget it, the figure filberts said. Back ABC went to the fading hostelry, where the hallway lighting had become so bad that Jim McKay began singing the old Simon and Garfunkel line, "Hello, darkness..." as soon as he checked in.
Within the past year CBS Sports has done away with some 15 jobs through layoffs and attrition. ABC Sports, which won't release figures, has reportedly eliminated as many as 50. NBC has cut about 10 jobs from its sports department. Thirty other people have been transferred to NBC's Summer Olympics unit. Will they get their old jobs back following the Games? Don't hold your breath. Many of NBC's Olympics people expect to be out on the street this time next year.
A glittering array of talented and highly paid producers, directors and executives has been let go in the last two years. Among them are former ABC production vice-president Chuck Howard, former Monday Night Football director Chet Forte, O'Neil and Rick LaCivita, who was CBS's top college football producer. Because ABC no longer offers contracts to its producers and directors, the turnover there will probably continue.
Of a network sports division's budget, 75% to 80% goes for rights fees and 5% for nonproduction salaries. The remaining 15% to 20% is spent on production. All three networks insist that the cutbacks have not affected quality. Says CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, "The fact of the matter is, the public doesn't perceive any changes. I do not think the quality of our coverage has been impaired in any way."
Don Ohlmeyer, a former network producer who now runs his own TV production company, says the problem isn't slippage as much as loss of vision: "If you look at a football game today on the network and if you run a tape of a game five years ago side by side, they'd look and sound exactly the same. That's the difference in this business. For 15 years the business was constantly evolving. New technologies were being developed. The cameras got smaller and lighter and more mobile. It's not that quality has deteriorated. It's just that it's plateaued." The evidence, however, suggests it has deteriorated.
Item: To avoid the high cost of union labor, the networks are farming out the production of more and more events to nonunion outside technicians and cameramen. Some of the independent crews are as skilled as the networks', but in a number of cases the result has been a circus of missed shots.
The networks generally assign their own producers and directors to work with the outside crews. Everybody else, from the sound man to the replay man to the guy who runs the graphics machine, might as well be from Jupiter. Without the requisite teamwork, breakdowns occur. What armchair quarterback hasn't noticed missed camera cuts, out-of-sync audio and video feeds, late returns from commercials, misspelled or incorrect graphics and technicians' voices being fed out over the air?
Last month CBS, which in this case was operating with its own technicians, was coming up on a rain delay during its coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament when a disembodied voice, apparently that of a cameraman speaking to the director, came over the air loud and clear. "Hey," the voice asked, "do you want a shot of Neal Pilson and friends getting out [their] umbrellas?" It's bad enough that cameramen feel compelled to earn brownie points with the boss. For us to hear them trying to earn them is downright unseemly.
NBC used outside crews even before the current strike of the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians forced the network to put secretaries and midlevel executives on some of its cameras. NBC has learned that it can survive without the unions. The productions might not sparkle (a game in Boston this summer ended in a pickoff play at second that the cameras all but missed and consequently no replay was shown), but the games are on, and viewers don't seem to be whining.
Item: CBS has gone from using nine cameras and six tape machines on national NFL games to eight and five, respectively. Regional games have gone from five and three to four and two. On important NBA games, CBS has dropped one camera and one tape machine from its total of six and four. CBS has also cut back on the number of telestrators (the gadget used to draw diagrams on the screen) and Chyron graphic generators (the gadget that flashes data on the screen) on NBA telecasts.
During an NBA game last April, the network was showing a replay when Mike McGee of Atlanta punched Boston's Kevin McHale. McGee was ejected, but CBS never came back with footage of the incident. Would an additional tape machine have caught the fisticuffs? Almost certainly, but a machine costs $2,400 per game to operate.
Item: NBC showed all four of its 1987 CART auto races on tape delay. Reason? A clause in NBC's contract with NABET stipulated that events produced by outside technicians could not be aired live. (The network made the decision before the NABET strike.) NBC was determined to save money by using nonunion technicians. Moral of the story: Commitment to economy clearly outweighs commitment to live TV.
The races were packaged and produced for NBC by CART So, in effect, the network got a free high-speed ride. Says one exec who asks not to be identified: "I think what you may have five or 10 years from now is no [network] staff at all. You may have an executive producer I in charge of the sports division] and one or two coordinating producers [responsible for individual sports]. Everybody else you'll hire on the weekends. It's just a natural progression. You can see it happening."
On the whole, the CART races were well produced. However, because the budget was tight, the broadcast booth was not atop a tower, which would have afforded an unobstructed view of the track, but a few feet above ground level. Hence, the announcers could see the cars for only two seconds each lap.
Item: At the Pan American Games in August, CBS had only one network camera crew to cover 27 sports and 26 televised hours of competition. "It's tougher now," says one producer. "It used to be that the quality of your coverage was the first priority. Now, going in, you're given a dollar figure."
Item: ABC, which shot perhaps 70% of its own pictures at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, will rely primarily on the Canadian feed during the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Although the argument can be made that the Canadians are adept at covering winter sports, in its glory days ABC would have been ashamed not to provide the lion's share of its Olympic coverage. For its part, NBC expects to rely on the Korean world feed for 20% of its 1988 Summer Olympic coverage.
Item: To save money, the networks are slapping events on the air with little attention to scene-setting or to familiarizing viewers with the competitors. This summer CBS's Pan Am Games and NBC's World Track and Field Championships had few up-close-and-personal visits with the athletes in their home countries. Travel costs have made such short features prohibitively expensive.
Also revealing is ABC's whirlwind use of network crews on last season's college basketball games. The cameramen and technicians typically arrived at an arena to set up at around 2 a.m. on the day of the game so the network could save on expenses. They then caught a few hours' sleep, returned to the arena to televise the game, broke down the equipment and flew home so as not to run up costs the following day.
One horror story involves the Dodgers-Giants Monday night game on ABC July 27th. The crew began constructing the booth two hours before the game and was still soldering wires and setting up systems five minutes before airtime as play-by-play man Al Michaels looked on in dismay. In the rush, communication between the production truck and the adjacent videotape truck was lost until the fourth inning. The producers had to pass messages to one another in a kind of improvised Morse code by banging on the walls of the trucks.
Item: This year NBC did away with backup games for three of the four Saturday doubleheaders it aired during the Game of the Week. The move saved the network about $125,000 per week. Once the backup telecasts were canceled, however, NBC had to be sure that its primary games didn't get rained out. The solution was simple: Carry games played under domes or in sunny Southern California. The May 16 doubleheader was typical—Chicago at Houston followed by Baltimore at California. These days the location of the game means more than its significance in a pennant race. The second half of NBC's final doubleheader, on July 25, featured the Cubs at the Dodgers. At the time neither team was contending for a division title.
Another effect of the cuts is that a lengthening list of secondary sports is struggling to find airtime on the networks. For a while this year, it was questionable whether any network would buy the rights to next summer's U.S. Olympic trials in track and field, swimming and other sports. ABC eventually purchased them for $3 million when NBC, which is carrying the Summer Olympics two months later, refused to go higher than $2.5 million. Once upon a time, the network owning rights to the Olympics wouldn't have dreamed of not televising the U.S. trials. The trials, however, didn't come to the networks prepackaged and presold, and that, as we shall see, can be critical.
As soon as the accountants took over, something called "sponsor-funded programming" became the new religion. Within the last two years or so, sponsors not only have struck dozens of deals with organizers to attach their names to events, but they also have bought huge chunks of airtime so the networks will mention them dozens of times within the noncommercial body of the telecast. For example, two years ago, NBC aired the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl without mentioning Sunkist, which had paid the bowl committee to have its name attached to the game. Why wouldn't NBC play ball? Because Sunkist had not bought 30% of NBC's ad time. Last year Sunkist anted up, and, glory be, the network suddenly started calling the game the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl.
A flood of events now arrives at each network's doorstep presold and, in many cases, outsider-produced. Do the networks love it? Absolutely. They can focus their sales staff on selling the major revenue-producers, such as football, baseball and basketball. Do the events' independent packagers love it? You bet. They can make a profit when the networks frequently can't, because they find it easier than the networks to bypass union crews. Do the sponsors love it? Sure. Not only is the company's name seen and heard throughout the event, but at the conclusion, a company exec gets to hand out the winner's check on air as well.
Item: At the end of the Shearson Lehman Brothers tennis tournament in May. ABC ran three minutes into network and affiliate news time so that Shearson vice-chairman Hardwick Simmons could present an oversized check to the winner, Andres Gomez. "We felt it was important to Shearson. which supported the telecast and the event at a significant level," says ABC programming chief Bob Iger.
"It used to be that the ratings were directly related to the profitability of a show," says Sean McManus, a vice-president with a sports packaging house called Trans World International, who until last month was NBC's vice-president for sports programming. "That's no longer the case. I don't need to get good ratings for some of my tennis or anthology events to make a very healthy profit."
During the golden age, viewers perceived of an event as being major simply because it appeared on a network. Not anymore. Quick now, when was the last time you cleared time to watch the Mercedes Horse Jumping Championships (CBS)? Or the Pizza Hut All-Star Softball Classic (NBC)? Or the McDonald's High School All-American Basketball Game (ABC)? "We used to be governed by our feelings of what people would be interested in watching," says CBS sports programming vice-president Peter Tortorici. "Now you put aside your instincts if the choice is between an event that's sponsored and one that isn't."
Item: NBC jettisoned the Pepsi Invitational track meet in 1985 when Pepsi refused to buy airtime. NBC also canceled the Bruce Jenner track meet in '85 because it wasn't sponsor-funded. Another NBC event that went dark is the World Bobsled Championships, a staple on SportsWorld from 1983 through 1985. What do the networks show in their place? Made-for-TV events like the Subaru NFL's Fastest Man competition, which aired this August.
Item: Last winter CBS didn't cover the World Speed Skating Championships, even though the network owned the rights. The event was held in Heerenveen, the Netherlands. "They didn't want to pay to send a crew out," says George Howie, president of the U.S. International Speed Skating Association. Europe was too far to go for taped footage, which would have constituted only one segment of an anthology show.
Item: CBS once was a showcase for World Cup skiing, airing five events plus highlights in 1984. It has not televised a downhill competition in two years and has no plans to carry any this season. NBC, which televised two downhills in 1985, has broadcast none since then. ABC, which included some low-rights-fee world championship skiing events on Wide World of Sports last winter, is down to two World Cup shows. Without a sponsor that will guarantee the purchase of airtime, World Cup skiing is about to fall off the chair lift.
As unfunded second-tier events leave the networks, only to be replaced by made-for-TV, sponsor-supported specials like Minolta Presents The Stakes Game tennis, which ABC will carry Nov. 28-29, the disappearance of the anthology shows could be just around the next commercial. Says former CBS and ABC exec Barry Frank, senior group vice-president of Trans World International: "CBS has cut back so far that it almost doesn't have an anthology series anymore. It wouldn't surprise me if it did away with it [Sports Saturday/Sunday] entirely. ABC preempts Wide World a lot. ABC never would have done that three, four, five years ago. Wide World was a rock. Now if you bring ABC a sponsored tennis event that's going to get a 2 rating, who cares? It's 'Let's take the money and run.' "
The prophets of doom might still be proved wrong if advertising revenues continue to improve. ABC's Iger says Monday Night Football was able to sell all of its commercial time at "a price that's palatable." (Of course, if ratings suffer during the strike, advertisers will get rebates.) Monday Night's improved sales, which Iger attributes to a more attractive schedule and the elimination of ABC's four odd-night games, has had a domino effect, benefiting NFL sales on CBS and NBC as well as college football on CBS and ABC.
So, the bottom hasn't fallen out of TV sports yet after all. But you wouldn't know it from what you see on the tube.
THE WIDGET OPEN
The networks are partial to events whose sponsors guarantee to buy commercial time. The names of seven such events are represented by the rebuslike diagrams. For the titles, turn the page upside down.
1 Mercedes Horse Jumping Championships
2 Pizza Hut All-Star Classic
3 McDonald's High School All-American Basketball Game
4 Canon-Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open
5 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl
6 Schlitz Malt Liquor Professional Boxing
7 AT&T Tennis Challenge