Over the years TV sportscasting has gone through a metamorphosis, although nothing at all curative. It once relied almost entirely on Golden Throats—professional announcers who spoke in magnificent pear shapes but knew little about athletic events. Then networks recruited the Wooden Throats—former athletes who sounded as if they were talking through a sweat sock but knew every Z-out and crossed T. Today the on-air fraternity has a cast of characters with scarcely anything in common except the desire to appear frequently in front of millions of people and speak for high pay. There is neither a norm nor a mean against which one can measure the variety of performances in the field. They range from the urbane pronouncements of Jack Whitaker to the benumbed labors of Frank Gifford, from the bass beauty of Chris Schenkel's voice uttering simplicities to the rasping blur of Lindsey Nelson's voice uttering banalities, from the sonorous pontifications of Ray Scott to the staccato machine-gunning of Jim McKay to the unabashed Yankee shilling of Phil Rizzuto to unctuous utterances by Bud Wilkinson to the hale heartiness of Tony Kubek to the crisp dryness of Curt Gowdy to the dyspeptic orchestrations of Howard Co-sell. Take your choice. And there are dozens more.
If nothing else, it is a nice living. The average industrious TV sportscaster takes home $50,000 a year, and the really champion moneymakers do far better: Chris Schenkel is in the $250,000-a-year bracket, and Curt Gowdy probably makes $350,000 or so.
With that kind of income, they hardly need sympathy, but the life of a television sportscaster can be a feverish thing. To start with, he is the prisoner of the men in the control truck. What a director or a producer sees or says is what the announcer generally addresses himself to on the air. While grand spectacles unfold beneath his booth, the announcer watches the game almost entirely on a monitor. He doesn't dare call his game from what he sees happening on the field, because if a cameraman blows a shot he will be talking about something Super Spectator cannot see. The announcer is also besieged with a steady stream of notes, cards, scripts and fragments of paper passing beneath his nose—lead-ins to commercials, promotional messages for the network, statistics and background bits and scraps of peripheral interest and advice. He must read these as he speaks. Worst of all, while he is calling the game there is a continuing murmur of advice, information and commands dinning into his ear from the intercom mikes of the producer or director. There is a plug stuck in the ear of every sportscaster. As he cries out in theatrical frenzy, "There goes Simpson across the 40, the 45, the 50!" that tiny button in his ear is alive with the low drone of a director's insistent voice: "Now, Curt baby, mention the crowd size after this run, then do the promo for next week's game and the Ernie Ford show. Then mention that Senator Fudd is sitting on the bench because we want to get a shot of him...."
It is a harried, demanding, ludicrous way to earn a living. To make it worse, the announcer takes the rap as the single most irritating factor in all of TV sport. As Roone Arledge puts it: "Here the poor guy is, talking all during the performance. His voice just has to be annoying because it is an audible intrusion in what is essentially a visual experience. Then there are the enormously divergent levels of sports knowledge in an audience; one guy knows it all and he hates an announcer for belaboring the obvious, the other guy knows nothing and he's upset because he's not told enough."
All right. But there is a real question of substance in that eternal babbling brook of broadcast. Beyond the proliferation of inaccuracies or emphasis on the obvious or rattling dramatizations of patently boring events, there is a numbing tendency in sport telecasts toward the colorless, odorless, bloodless, hapless school of commentary. "The biggest problem with announcers," says Arledge, "is their paucity of viewpoint. The athletes everyone hired were good for their time. They could explain the fine points. But now I think we need more people who can bring some controversy, some personality and some definite opinion into TV sport. Of course, an announcer has to feel free to speak his mind. We've finally eliminated from our network contracts clauses that allowed outside approval of announcers by sponsors or owners or league officials—our guys are responsible to ABC alone. Too many announcers in this business are either hired by the ball clubs and don't dare be critical or they feel they'll be canned on general principle if they go around saying that a team is playing like clowns or an event is not exactly epic. They are always aware that they are being heard all over the world, and they don't want their images messed up by saying something that will hurt someone's feelings. Frankly, I wish there was a lot more bite in the whole business. There are damned few announcers working now who are willing to be abrasive...."
Ah, yes, a reluctance to be abrasive, a need for more bite. Well, broach the subject of abrasiveness and bite with the man who is No. 1 on Roone Arledge's network, Chris Schenkel. Aged 44, a former 4-H Club member from Bippus, Ind., Schenkel began broadcasting sports when he was 16, and he now does everything from pro bowling to the Olympic Games. He is a personal pal of America's industrial captains and top athletes alike. He is cozy enough within the circles of Richard Nixon to have participated in a wee-hours bull session at Key Biscayne where Mr. Nixon reported that one of his lifelong ambitions was to be a sports announcer. His deep voice and diffident on-air manner have carried Schenkel to fame and fortune, but there is still a lot of Bippus showing in the sharp planes of his face and that careful Sta-Comb wave in his hair. He goes to big-city banquets at the Waldorf with America's richest men, all right, but he wears gold cufflinks cut in the shape of Indiana (a gift when he was named 1965's Hoosier of the Year).
What about being abrasive? What about bite? "If you are decent in what you say on the air and not too caustic people will want to invite you into their living rooms as a friend," says Schenkel. "I try to bring that attitude to my broadcasts. I don't try to impress people with how much I know. I don't use my voice to impress people. I would sit down and match my football knowledge with any expert in the business, but I don't think it's up to me to show off on the air."
So Chris Schenkel hears no trumpets calling him to crusades. "I am a play-by-play announcer and nothing else," he says. "My biggest problem is that I talk too much. Even after all these years, I sometimes forget that silence is golden."
There was a time, Schenkel says, when he wondered if a career as a sportscaster was really a worthy way to spend his life. "Like anyone else I worried about whether 1 was contributing anything. But I happened to mention this once to a fellow Hoosier, an FBI man, and he said to me, 'Listen, Chris, if you can get just one youngster to consider a great athlete as his own personal hero, you've done as much as anyone and more than most.' "
Chris Schenkel says he has not again felt seriously troubled about his place in the patterns of mankind. Since he earns that quarter of a million a year and knows peace in his heart and Presidents, too, can one seriously blame him? Or blame who knows how many other envious announcers for being convinced that the bland way is the right way?