The easiest way to talk about what sport has done to television and what television has done to sport is to talk money. In 1960 it cost $50,000 to buy the rights to the Winter Olympics. In 1964 the price was $650,000, and for 1968 it's costing us $2 million. Last year the NFL completed a two-year deal with CBS that set the network back $28.2 million. For the next two years the figure is $37.6 million. In 1962 a one-minute commercial during an NFL game cost $37,000. Today it's $70,000.
But there's more to it than dollars and cents, obviously. Today there is twice as much sport on national television as there was five years ago, and the relationship has become more subtle and profound. Is television having a salutary effect on sport? Or is it taking it over, changing it and running it?
In recent years, by spending millions of dollars for the rights to sports events, television has become the biggest promoter in history, while at the same time becoming the largest source of information. This sets up a basic ethical conflict that television will have to face soon. Is it going to be strictly an entertainment medium, or is it deserving of journalistic stature?
I believe the gravest danger is the insidious kind of salesmanship that's been creeping into sportscasts. It's bona fide to make institutional announcements if they are identified as such, like the NCAA plug during football games when we superimpose the shield. What bothers me is when we start shilling for an organization, working into our commentary how well balanced a certain league is, extolling the opportunities it holds for youth, the average take-home pay, its liberal retirement plan or, as NBC has been doing, overtly helping to sign kids for the AFL. No one claims CBS owns the NFL, or that it is dependent on the ogres of Madison Avenue, but it's obvious that in addition to reporting football games NBC has to create an illusion of parity with the NFL. This, of course, was what we tried to do when we had the AFL, making, in effect, a silk purse (a high-scoring offense) out of a sow's ear (no defense). It remains to be seen, however, if sheer money can build a sport.
A side effect of the struggle between the rival networks is that the public is beginning to judge the stature of sports events by how much money they command, or what their ratings are. Why this should have any bearing I can't imagine. What difference does it make to people at home that the NFL has twice as high a rating as the AFL? The drama of competition in the arena is becoming secondary. The medium that should be reporting is becoming part of the competition.
Although there are a few sports that are willing to pay for the exposure of television, most of them feel that if the NFL is worth $37.6 million, then they must be worth at least $100,000. Once, for Wide World of Sports, we wanted to show a very brief segment of natives diving off the cliff at Acapulco. The senior diver told us, "There is an Acapulco divers' union to negotiate with, and our going rate for a special is $100,000." We told him the price was a little out of line, and that he'd have to reduce it some or we'd forget about it. "I'll talk to the boys," he said. A few minutes later he returned. "We'll take $10 a dive," he said. He held us to it. He made us pay for all three dives.
If we want to be considered as journalists, we must earn the privilege. But, having earned journalistic status, we should then demand certain basic rights. We have to insist that we name our own reporters, just as our news departments do in covering a space shot. For instance, last year we wanted to use Bill Veeck as a baseball commentator, but the owners wouldn't let us. We should not let leagues or organizations tell us how much we can cover, or what we can cover, or what to do in case of certain occurrences on the playing field.
Much of the published criticism of televised sport is unfounded. People think we're greedy monsters trying to take over sport. Golfers claim they've been disturbed by television cameras grinding behind them. Television cameras have no film. They make no more noise than a light bulb. If we were doing a baseball game in color and asked to change the color of the ball they'd never let up on us, yet last year when the outfielders were having trouble finding fly balls in the Astrodome and Houston experimented with coloring the ball no one said they were tampering with the basic integrity of the game.
The most frequent criticism you hear concerns the timeouts for commercials in football. First of all, if the game has any amount of scoring there's no need to ask for timeouts, but we always talk to the referee ahead of time. If he will cooperate, we ask for the time-outs at natural breaks in the game, such as occur after punts or field goals. Of course, every once in a while you have producers who make dumb mistakes.
We should insist on our right to place equipment where we want to if it doesn't interfere with the progress of the event, and we should be just as insistent on our right to shoot what we want. If we want to show an injured football player writhing on the field we should be allowed to. In the Green Bay-Baltimore playoff game last year Bart Starr got hurt on the first play from scrimmage, and you could barely see it, even on the rerun, although it could well have been the most important incident of the game.