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We get so uptight about the way the damned thing is going that we just hunker over to '21' at lunchtime, suck on a few olives and do a face-down in the Caesar salad."
That is the voice of the television executive, sweating out a change in TV sports coverage throughout—well, in parts of—the land. In some areas of the country, most notably the East, a new format has evolved, and management is waiting to see how it is going down with at least two generations of viewers brought up to believe that television's job in relating the sports news was merely to give the scores, tell who hit the home runs and shove a microphone into the winning coach's face for 30 seconds of banalities before turning over the rest of the show to the weatherman. Virtually every station has followed that format religiously since the 1940s, but no more. Overall news coverage on television has changed, and some segments have changed much more than others. Movies, theater and art are the most prominent examples. Broadcasters now actually go to openings, and give a judgment only moments after returning to the studio—once TV was too unsure of itself to do that. And now the "Happy Time," television's name for the sports spot on the news, has also changed its approach. Instead of giving all those scores from all those places involving all those teams in all those leagues, television is trying to present selective sports coverage, plus an editorial point of view, in order to increase both ratings and impact. These days a sports fan will hear some scores, news of a few of the normal, day-to-day franchise shifts and then become aware of a "crawl" (type creeping across the bottom of the screen) saying COMMENTARY. This may turn out to be anything from a diatribe about the morality of sport to an analysis of how dissension is tearing up the old hometown team.
In deciding on this innovation, TV brass had relatively little to go on. The handling of sports on the early and late news programs has always been an enigmatic task for station managers, news directors, anchormen and sports announcers alike. For starters, even the number of people who tune in to news shows solely for the sports is a moot subject—it is generally assumed that only 25% of those watching television news care deeply about sports and that the rest of the audience is more interested in local news and what is happening around the nation. Also, in the early evening, when few sports events are completed these days, the news programs run an hour. During the late evening, when most things seem to happen in sports, the news shows run for only 30 minutes. This time limitation, more teams, more games, more players and different time zones, have combined to make it difficult for television to compete with newspapers and radio as any kind of encyclopedic compendium of sports results.
Despite all this, in most cities the local sports newscaster is apt to be the best-known TV celebrity (excluding the heavyweights of the evening network news shows—the Cronkites, Chancellors, Brinkleys, Reasoners and Smiths) on any news program. The sports newsmen on local stations attain a following that causes the ends of the anchorman's razor cut to bleed. In many cases they climb above the anchormen in pay, even though the top anchors draw salaries in six figures. Bob Hosking, the vice-president and general manager of WCBS-TV in New York, says, "You might think that we get an avalanche of requests to come to New York and do he sports news. That isn't the case at all. Many sports news announcers are so well known in their local areas that they can make a great deal of money doing several different things. Heck, I don't think that we get more than two or three applications a month for jobs in New York."
Examples of wealth and fame attained by sports newscasters at their home bases are easy to come by. Wes Wise, for one, moved from a television sports spot into the mayor's chair in Dallas. Salty Sol Fleischman, a venerable announcer in Tampa, was named that community's outstanding citizen in 1969. John Kennelly of WJZ-TV in Baltimore has caused so much controversy among Maryland audiences that people argue fiercely in local bars about what he has said at 6:20 and 11:20. According to Alan J. Bell, the station's general manager, "Kennelly is irreverent and sassy—a fan's fan." Pat Summerall of WCBS-TV in New York has become one of the most respected sports newscasters on television because he writes his own shows, originates many of the ideas for the sports department and can conduct an interview without intruding his own personality on that of the athlete interviewed. Today Summerall is perhaps the top-paid man in the field, working under four different contracts, one with CBS radio, one with WCBS radio, one with WCBS-TV and a fourth as a broadcaster of live events for the CBS television network. He is probably moving toward the $150,000-a-year bracket.
A former placekicker for three National Football League teams, Summer-all is widely considered to be the most proficient of many former athletes who work the Happy Time. Two of the most famous American athletes also at work on TV and still playing are Len Dawson, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, with a highly rated show in K.C., and Rick Barry of the New York Nets who does spots on WABC-TV in New York. WABC-TV also employs Jim Bouton and Frank Gifford; the latter works for ABC network radio and TV as well.
Altogether, there are some 700 sports announcers and they form a strange group of egos, instincts, temperaments and talents. Some try to make the viewer feel that they alone are giving off the hard blue glow of high purpose, others are nothing more than overt shills for the sports event their station is showing next or the local promoter's product.
"I believe you have to concentrate on local sports, and that usually doesn't leave too much time for anything else," says Pittsburgh's Bill Currie. Known for years as "the Mouth of the South"—he did play-by-play broadcasts from North Carolina—Currie is now the sports director at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh where, counting his radio work, he does 33 commentaries a week. Currie went to KDKA because the money was better than he had been making. "Hell," he says, "when I was in the newspaper business I'd change jobs for $5 a week, so you know the way I think. My sports reporting is questionable, but as an entertainer I know I haven't hurt our ratings. My folksy, homespun bit is contrived because this is my purpose; the main thing is to keep them from turning you off." Not all announcers are so self-assured, and among them there is a continuing debate over the roles they play. Are they reporters or readers? Experts or showmen?
"I'll admit that I am a hell of a ham," says Sol Fleischman. "I guess I have always been one. I got hold of a microphone 45 years ago and nobody has been able to get it away from me yet."
On the set Fleischman wears an old blue yachting cap at an oblique angle and sits behind a huge, ornate gold-flecked microphone dating back nearly half a century. Fleischman wears the cap for identification—and also because he is bald. He felt when he moved from radio to TV that he might lose his job because the glow from his head would reflect into the camera; to allow oneself to go bald is a mortal sin for television announcers, and some these days take vacation time to get hair transplants.