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."