Given the current trend in television, it is possible to conceive a schedule completely dominated by sport—which would not be all that bad, considering the present state of programming. One would awaken not to the Today show but to Locker Room, and wend one's way through jock soap opera (As the Ball Turns), jock newscasts and jock-sit-coms (I Love Slugger, Umpire Knows Best). Prompting this Utopian fantasy is the rush of sports programming coming our way in 1972 from the three major networks and a handful of enterprising independents. All told, the medium will be giving us about 1,250 hours of the sporting message this year, breaking down to 24 hours per week.
We have the Olympics to thank for much of the surge—36 hours of it from Sapporo on NBC and 67 more from Munich next summer on ABC. But television will also be making its first big move into tennis, hooking up to the recent explosive growth of the game. Unfortunately, along with the increasing impact of sport on television come new intrusions by the medium on the games themselves—at least two night contests are now planned for the 1972 World Series, for example, so that TV can cash in on the bigger nighttime audience.
With the exception of one apparently unlamented "canned" sports feature, Pin Point Bowling, every sports attraction will be returning in 1972—among them Wide World of Sport (which has its eye on some new projects, including the Fischer-Spassky chess matches), The World of Sports Illustrated and Gold Classic. The only real question mark at year's end was NCAA football, whose TV contract with ABC expired in December. After negotiation, ABC has landed the package again in '72, but with some of the old hamstrings on scheduling gone.
Tennis comes in a couple of new wrappings. Lamar Hunt's 32-man World Championship Tennis troupe is providing the talent for both a canned series on CBS—a courtside version of the match-play golf show—and for a series of eight live matches on NBC starting Feb. 20. The CBS feature, 15 shows in all, will be taped in secret during an elimination tournament in March, then aired on a one-a-week basis from May 21 to Aug. 27. NBC's series is the sort to warm the heart of any network time salesman. Lamar Hunt brought the package to NBC 75% pre-sold to Shell Oil, American Express and half a dozen other sponsors. All NBC had to do was sign on the dotted line—and deposit the checks. "That's the trend and a good one," said one network spokesman.
ABC, which passed NBC in the ratings race this season, has an energetic and innovative sports lineup to thank for at least part of its progress. It has been an article of faith for years in the industry that Monday night was a key to ratings throughout the rest of the week. By snaring and holding a major portion of the Monday night audience with its pro football series, ABC gave itself a consistent leg up on its rivals during the fall. The Cosell-Gifford-Mcredith team averaged a solid 36% share of the audience, matched by CBS with its Here's Lucy but trailed by NBC's Monday Night at the Movies. ABC says it has no plans for a Monday night pro basketball series this spring, despite the bullish returns on pro football. One reason is that basketball's demographics—the audience profile—are not as rich as pro football's. The network did carry one Monday night game, the Knicks vs. the Bucks on Jan. 3, but the 16% share left something to be desired. On the other hand, the Sunday, Jan. 9 game between the Bucks and the Lakers is sure to score high in the ratings. Too bad for ABC it can't find a similar attraction each week. In all, ABC leads the networks in total sports programming once again: 470 hours vs. 320 for NBC and 262 for CBS. Last year's figures were, respectively, 325, 250 and 247.
No clearer proof exists of sport's impact on the tube than the way it is beginning to preempt regular programming. NBC will be knocking off the last half hour of its Today show for a week during Sapporo, and nine sessions of Johnny Carson will be scrubbed for the same icy extravaganza. One difficulty plaguing ABC's Munich coverage will be the time difference between the U.S. and Germany. ( NBC gets a much better break with the bigger time spread between here and Japan.) Some events from Munich would hit U.S. viewers at such awkward times as 2 a.m. EST. ABC will get around some of this with taped delays.
Like gypsy cab drivers scrapping for rainy-day fares, the TV independents are finding the sports leftovers slimmer pickings each year. Outfits like the Hughes, Coliseum and Century Golf networks depend more on their wits than their pocketbooks to come up with salable properties. A good example is the Coliseum Sports package of seven NCAA collegiate basketball games that kicked off with UCLA against Notre Dame last month. Hughes and Century have managed to latch onto more than a dozen PGA tour events (but not the "slam" tournaments, which remain with the networks). In all, Joe Dey and the Tournament Players Division have 27 events on television this year—the largest lineup ever. Alas, the one Joe wanted most, the Match Play Championship, has yet to find a 1972 home.
It is the kind of year to gladden the heart—even if it does weary the eyes—of the most relentless sporting animal.