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It's Bottom-Line Time
William Taaffe
October 12, 1987
The TV networks are cutting costs in sports programming, and inevitably the quality has begun to deteriorate
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October 12, 1987

It's Bottom-line Time

The TV networks are cutting costs in sports programming, and inevitably the quality has begun to deteriorate

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Rights fees paid by the networks to air the Olympics and major pro sports have soared. The illustrations show the cost of the various contracts, which in the case of the pro sports range from two to five years. The occasional dips in those sports are the result of shorter contracts, which sometimes have smaller total value than the longer preceding pacts. But in every case per annum value of a contract exceeds that of the previous contract.



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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.

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