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Tennis is perfect for television. It is played in a small, confined area, and there are only two or four clearly defined protagonists. The camera can get close up, surround them. You can hear the sound of the ball. There is more of a hushed drama to tennis than to golf, more apparent physical agility, and it has the same blue-blood, snob appeal.
Ratings are meaningless here. People judge everything against the World Series. It's like judging a Sartre play against Hello, Dolly! Tennis is never going to do spectacularly well in the size of its audience, but it commands a loyal one. Last year, in the finals of the nationals, you had Santana, a Spaniard, going against Drysdale, a relatively unknown South African. You couldn't conceive of anything more disastrous from our standpoint. We used to feel that if an American wasn't in an event you could forget about televising it. And, furthermore, rain interrupted the match for 40 minutes. Yet the ratings showed no one tuned out. One weakness of ratings is that they don't show the degree of listener loyalty it takes to look at a wet tarpaulin for 40 minutes while two football games are being played on the other networks.
The problem is, people in television get acclimated to thinking only in terms of mass audience. We have a responsibility to other than the super profitable, superduper big events. Tennis deserves great exposure, and we owe it to tennis to see that it gets it.
There's a kind of thinking in television that comes from basic competitiveness. It's easier to get advertisers to buy something they can justify with statistics, no matter how tenuous. Tennis gets a total audience of five million people, and we consider it paltry. Why, that's the total live gate in the NFL for a whole season! It's amazing how we discard enormous numbers of people.
With the exception of the Kentucky Derby, horse racing is not a major sport on national television. The Preakness and the Belmont are afterthoughts, and not as compelling. Almost all the interest in horse racing is in the outcome, not in the sport itself. If we had some means of flashing the results electronically, no one would watch it. There isn't any great appeal to it as a sport, because it's not promoted as such. It's like watching strangers playing roulette—it's not thrilling unless you're involved.
Although one of the most popular sports, horse racing is one of the least understood. We in television have not done enough to bring the real sport to the people. The danger, agility and skill involved are virtually never shown or talked about. I don't think this is a sport we do particularly well. It's difficult pictorially. It would take a tremendous number of cameras to cover it properly, and even then I'm not sure we'd get it. The basic problem is that the horses go by so quickly and it's all over so fast. Furthermore, we haven't found a way to explain emotionally and physically exactly what the jockey is doing, and we can't make up our minds whether to focus on the horse or the jockey.
Curiously, the rerun is vastly more interesting than the live race, because at least then you can watch the race somewhat analytically. As with hockey, color might well be a big help in more successfully televising racing, but one problem will always remain: the race only takes a few minutes to run, and to get your investment back you have to be on the air much, much longer, which means there's an awful lot of padding.
The worst sport we've ever televised is unlimited hydros. We get spectacular pictures, but in five years I don't recall seeing one boat pass another. The most beautiful sport for television is figure skating. You don't want to put it on every week, but you don't want to have coq au vin for dinner every night either. Some sports are overexposed if you see them twice a year.
Skiing is enhanced by its setting. It's a real treat to sit in a living room and watch skiers in the Alps. And there is a gentility to winter sports that summer sports don't have. Most winter sports photograph well, too, and they have a family appeal. These factors and the time of year make the Winter Olympics marvelous for television.
There's an inherent difficulty in taking something that is an individual participant sport and making it a spectator sport, which is the major problem with hunting and fishing shows. The thrill of bass fishing is sitting out in a boat on a warm day with no phones ringing. It is not particularly interesting to watch a man catch a bass, although you might enjoy seeing someone catch a marlin. There's a feeling to bass fishing you can get across in a still picture or by the written word that doesn't translate on film. You tend to remember in highlights, but you can't film in highlights. It's hard to do hunting and fishing well once you get away from danger.