SI Vault
William Johnson
January 12, 1970
Or how the networks scheme, plot and concoct in the best espionage tradition as they try to do in their brothers at the bidding table and bring home to their viewers the sporting bacon
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 12, 1970

Adventures Of Superspy!

Or how the networks scheme, plot and concoct in the best espionage tradition as they try to do in their brothers at the bidding table and bring home to their viewers the sporting bacon

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The most stimulating TV game of them all is not a proper spectator sport, for it is fraught with cutpurse morality, unfair play and general dirty-pool derring-do. Such a game shown publicly could warp the moral fiber and soil the security blanket of Super Spectator since he presumably still embraces a cherry-pie belief in American sportsmanship and all-round aboveboardness.

No, the biggest television game is played for keeps in locked executive suites, in dim and very expensive restaurants, on the jump seats of leased Cadillac limousines, with secret recording devices and confidential reports and the planting of damaging information in sensitive places. The object of the game is for one television network to win, wangle, wrest or somehow winkle away from its competitors the rights to televise certain events. Often this can be accomplished through the unvarnished tactic of bidding a lot more money than anyone else. Yet the possibilities for intrigue and originality are endless and irresistible. As Carl Lindemann Jr., vice-president of NBC Sports, says, "This can be a very dirty business." In hot pursuit of games to buy for their networks, the bosses of TV sport—friendly, plain, open-faced, guy-next-door pals though they seem to be in everyday life—are at times transformed into doers of exceedingly sly deeds. And one suspects, since no kind of evil worthy of hue and cry is involved and since the public gets its sport just fine on one network or another, that the opportunity to one-up a foe is part of the pleasure of TV's little family game. In any event, it is a game in which it pays to keep your eyes open.

Consider an afternoon in 1966 when CBS Sports Director Jack Dolph glanced idly out of his office window in the CBS skyscraper and gazed, as he often did "to rest my weary, weary eyes," across the narrow canyon of 53rd Street into an office of the ABC skyscraper—an office occupied by one unsuspecting Barry Frank, Director of Sports Planning for ABC. There, to Dolph's amazement and profound curiosity, he saw sitting at Frank's tweedy elbow one Martin Carmichael, the television representative for the Professional Golfers' Association. Now this might not have piqued Dolph's curiosity or offended his sense of fair play quite so much had it not been true that only hours earlier CBS had made an offer to Marty Carmichael to buy the rights to the PGA tour. As Jack Dolph stared between the skyscrapers—no longer idly—he found that though he could not read lips he had a very clear idea of what was being said. "I'm afraid old Marty was over there shopping our bid," says Dolph. "He spilled our offer and figured ABC would top us by a few bucks, and I suppose old Barry was encouraging that to its fullest extent." Later that same afternoon CBS arranged a confrontation with Carmichael. "Needless to say," recalls Dolph, "Marty was embarrassed and contrite. But ABC got the tournaments, and I believe Barry Frank's office was moved to the other side of the building."

Occasionally, plain misunderstandings can send the best-laid network plans astray. In the scramble for rights to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble, NBC made a lavish presentation of its sport programming to the French committee. In slide and still photo and film and song the network boasted about the glory of its productions: the World Series, the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Super Bowl. When it was all over, the French awarded the rights to ABC. The disappointed NBC group left, and a puzzled Frenchman from the committee tugged at the sleeve of an ABC man and said with genuine bewilderment, "I thought NBC's talk was all right but, please, can you tell me why they keep boasting of their 'Bowel Games.' I thought that showed questionable taste."

The complexities in negotiating for an enormous event like the Olympics can be maddening indeed. During dealings for rights to the 1968 Games in Mexico City, scarcely a day went by without one network executive or another picking up his phone and hearing a low Spanish inflection in his ear: "Señor, I can deleever the Olympeecs teleevision for you." Many of these calls, it was assumed, came from phone booths in Grand Central Station or Brooklyn candy stores and lacked any mark of officialdom. But no one knew for sure who would be the real influential force on the Mexican committee, so nearly every contact had to be taken seriously. At one point NBC hired an "investigative reporter" (euphemism for you know what) to nose out background information and look for enemy operatives.

The NBC man learned almost immediately, to his network's dismay, that ABC had long since established a beachhead: 18 months before serious negotiations began ABC had dispatched to Mexico one James C. Hagerty, an ABC vice-president, a former press secretary to Dwight Eisenhower and a warm acquaintance of Adolfo López Mateos, who had been one of Mexico's most popular presidents. Hagerty quickly reestablished his Eisenhower-era rapport with Mateos, and soon other ABC agents were forging strong relationships with various members of the Mexican committee. All this sad news was reported to headquarters by NBC's man, and by the time Carl Lindemann arrived in Mexico City, "I knew our case was hopeless. The things that went on in those negotiations, believe me, were not in the tradition of the Olympic Games."

NBC eventually bid $2.2 million and CBS did not bid at all. But ABC came in with a thundering offer miles above its competition: $4.5 million. Whatever rapport ABC's Good Neighbor teammates had established, it did not seem to save the network any money.

Among other things that NBC's man had picked up were rumblings that a Maserati sports car had somehow changed ownership in ABC's dealings with a member of the Olympic Committee. This was never proved. In fact, NBC's people did not even trouble to spread such talk beyond their own bailiwick. Thus, it is worthy of note that in a general discussion with ABC's Roone Arledge about the ethics of negotiation, the subject was again brought up. Let it be made clear that in this particular conversation no specific mention was made of the 1968 Olympics, of Mexico, of Mexicans or of Maserati-made automobiles. Arledge was simply asked a broad question about whether or not he had ever offered gifts of money or other wherewithal to gain favor from men who held control of the rights to any events. With his brow knit in a quizzical frown, he replied hesitantly: "Well, do you mean have I ever given something like—oh, say—a $15,000 Maserati to gain an advantage for something like—oh, say—an Olympics?" And he went on to add, very seriously, "No, no, I haven't. But, of course, if it would save a million bucks or so I suppose I would." His example was an enormous coincidence. What else could one conclude?

Hypothetical Maseratis notwithstanding, the idea of including gifts, favors or cold cash in exchange for an advantage in negotiating for events is by no means anathema to TV sport executives (nor, in truth, is it particularly distasteful to corporate captains from almost any corner of American industry). Whether CBS's onetime president, James Aubrey, did or did not pay $50,000 to find out in advance ABC's bid for the NFL rights in 1964 is perhaps moot. The ethics or lack thereof are not particularly surprising to NBC's Lindemann, who shrugs ("This is the way things are"), or CBS's Bill MacPhail, who smiles ("I don't know if the money changed hands, but it was well spent if it did"), or ABC's Arledge. who mops his ever-damp brow ("The rules of this game are not very clearly defined").

As an object lesson in precisely how undefined are the rules of TV's game, consider the past decade with respect to the NCAA football fortunes in the dollar gardens of television commerce. It is fascinating to watch the foliage change with the seasons.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6