The Sporting Life

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC might not be celebrating a 50th anniversary if not for sports. That’s not hyperbole, it’s just “telling it like it is,” in the words of Howard Cosell, who was adept at both.
The network’s brazen snatch of college football away from NBC in 1960 was instrumental in extending the reach of what was then disparagingly known as the “Almost Broadcasting Company” because its roster of affiliates was smaller than NBC’s or CBS’s. Think current-day UPN and WB.
College football, wildly popular in smaller markets, which ABC didn’t penetrate, helped close the gap. The introduction of Monday Night Football in 1970 was driven by a similar dynamic. ABC’s Entertainment Division was reluctant to allow an incursion of sports into prime time. However, Howard Hughes was threatening to launch a fourth broadcast network-an unheard of idea back then. Roone Arledge, the visionary who built ABC Sports into the industry’s innovative leader, convinced his bosses that if ABC didn’t give the National Football League a prime-time showcase, Mr. Hughes would and an untold number of ABC affiliates would jump ship.
But it wasn’t as if ABC’s local partners would have walked away from a juggernaut. The season before Monday Night Football premiered, ABC had only one series, Marcus Welby, M.D., among Nielsen’s top 10. A myth has grown around Monday Night Football that it was an instant ratings blockbuster. The fact is, Monday Night Football didn’t crack the top 30 in its first season and didn’t make it into the Top 10 for the first time until 1982, the season before Howard Cosell retired.
Moreover, while ratings have been in a free fall in the multichannel era as they have been for all prime-time shows-Monday Night Football is far more potent competitively than it was in the heyday of Howard and Dandy Don Meredith. Buzz is another matter. In the early years, bowling alleys and movies closed rather than remain open to empty houses, which suggests Nielsen was missing something. Business and social meetings were shifted. When Monday Night Football came to town, it was like a combination of the circus and the Rolling Stones. Keith Jackson (and after him Frank Gifford), Mr. Cosell and Mr. Meredith were given more keys to cities than astronauts were.
The selection of the halftime highlights became a national cause celebre. Cities whose teams weren’t included treated the snub as if it were a municipal slight. Mr. Cosell, who provided the bombastic voiceover of the previous day’s big plays-the first time they were seen by many fans-was held personally responsible for a team’s being overlooked. Dennis Lewin, who produced Monday Night Football for seven years, said it was a bad rap.
Either he or Don Ohlmeyer would select the games to be spotlighted, “But we would let everyone think Howard did it.” The ruse worked. Honky-tonks across the country staged raffles for the right to throw a brick through an old set when Mr. Cosell appeared on screen. This was the mild response. In some wild and wooly locales, the raffle winner would get to shoot out the screen, Elvis style.
ABC is responsible for another expansion of televised pro football for which it is not given credit. In his book Roone, Mr. Arledge wrote it was he, trying to break into the NFL rotation, who suggested the concept of Sunday doubleheaders to then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Mr. Arledge said Mr. Rozelle then took the idea to CBS, which used it to trump ABC’s bid.
The absence of the NFL also led ABC to become the first network to carry American Football League games, an essential for the upstart challenger. Who knows what the football landscape would look like today but for Mr. Arledge’s gamble. He would have to wait for the payoff, however. By the time the AFL forced a merger with the NFL, the new league’s games had been spirited away by NBC, shutting out ABC. Worse, Mr. Arledge had to sit and watch the first Super Bowl on both NBC and CBS.
As much as ABC has been instrumental in making pro football America’s most avidly followed sport, it will always be thought of as the network that made the Olympics a television event. ABC didn’t invent Olympics coverage but it elevated it to grand spectacle, and like Monday Night Football, brought it into prime time.
Alas, the first Olympics to get such exposure were the Munich Games in ’72, notorious for the terrorist attack on the Olympic village, which resulted in the deaths of 11 members of the Israeli team. It fell upon Jim McKay, personally chosen by Mr. Arledge to anchor coverage of the hostage situation to the dismay of Mr. Cosell, to mournfully tell the world, “They’re gone.”
The versatile, low-key Mr. McKay was the antithesis of Mr. Cosell stylistically. But if he were producing the sinking of the Titanic, Mr. Lewin said, they would be his first two choices to cover it. “Howard would get to the bottom of exactly what happened and Jim would find out something about every family on the ship.”
ABC has added almost as much to the lexicon of sports as to its coverage. No phrase in the sporting world resonates or is lifted more than “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” If there is a close challenger, it could be “Up close and personal.”
Visual innovation has been a trademark of ABC. Slow motion was introduced to football after Mr. Arledge noticed the technique in a Japanese movie. He also changed the philosophy of covering sports. Until he got involved, networks brought the game to the viewer. Mr. Arledge turned that around, emphasizing bringing the viewer to the game with shots of the crowd, the sidelines and the cheerleaders.
Some of Arledge’s innovations were made out of necessity to avoid embarrassment.
Crowds were so sparse in the early days of the AFL that he instructed his directors to avoid shots of empty stands as much as possible. This often necessitated video contortions, such as extremely tight shots of the competitors and pans of the grass. Like many of his ideas it came to be copied, and not only by rival sports divisions.
There is an anecdote in Roone about Pope John Paul’s visit to his native Poland. Communist officials, reluctant to show to the world the millions of cheering countrymen who greeted the religious leader in the communist nation, came in extremely tight on the pontiff. Back in the United States, Mr. Rozelle noticed and quipped, “That’s AFL coverage.”
No, it was ABC Sports coverage.