When network executives watch televised sports they do not care so much about who won or lost as how well—and how often—Andy Sohngen, or a man like him, stops the game. And Andy, a staff member at WIIC-TV in Pittsburgh who moonlights as an on-field stage manager for NBC, CBS and various independent networks and stations, has stopped some dandies. In 1971 he put the brakes on the first prime-time World Series game as well as the legendary Feast of the Immaculate Reception in which Franco Harris' catch of a deflected pass gave the Steelers the American Football Conference championship over Oakland. This July Sohngen was responsible for the extended delays between innings of the All-Star baseball game at Three Rivers Stadium, and two weeks ago he played the same role at the National League playoffs in Pittsburgh.
Sohngen and his counterparts often are called game stoppers because it is a vital part of their jobs to insure that time is made available for putting commercials on the air. "There isn't any doubt there is a lot of money riding on me," Sohngen says.
The nature of a particular sport and the price that sponsors pay to televise it determine just how much pressure falls on Sohngen. The cost of a commercial minute during a normal Sunday NFL game on CBS averages $70,000, while similar time on ABC's Monday Night NFL games commands $100,000. An NBC Stanley Cup minute can be bought for a piddling $20,000. Sixty seconds on normal Saturday baseball goes for $19,000, but the price escalates to about $31,000 for weekend playoff games. The All-Star Game sells at $94,000 per minute, weekend World Series games, $80,000, and those Series contests played on week-nights, $130,000.
The men wearing red caps who used to deliver TV time-outs have gone the way of the original Mouseketeers, partially because the guys who wore the hats back in the days when Mr. Ed was a yearling were pretty bad at ducking the debris pitched at them by fans irate over the delays television was causing. Broadcasting people now claim that they "never stop games," but anyone who accepts that probably would believe that Satchel Paige soon will turn 21. Sohngen's tasks are the same as those of any stage manager before broadcasts. He gets bands to rehearse, lines up players to appear on interviews and makes sure the phony coin toss works. When only a handful of American League All-Stars showed up the day before this year's game for batting practice, he used Little Leaguers as stand-ins for them so that NBC could get a dry run on player introductions, an important part of keying the entire production.
Once games start, Sohngen's job is to work in all those commercials. During baseball games he sits in a semi-dugout next to the visiting team's bench. When it is time for a commercial he stands up to remind the third-base ump to hold off the action until the advertisement is over. Baseball commercials are normally fairly easy to fit in when teams change sides each half inning. At the end of the fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth innings 90 seconds are needed instead of the usual 60, to put on station breaks and added advertising. At Sohngen's signal the third-base umpire reminds his partner behind the plate to go through a ceremonial stall. The ump at home walks slowly out and meticulously dusts off the plate, tells the batter to go back and rub some pine tar on his bat and has the catcher adjust the straps on various pieces of his equipment. During the All-Star Game 90-second breaks occurred after every inning, and Andy did quite a bit of standing.
The National Football League allows three one-minute TV time-outs to be taken in the first and third periods and four during the second and fourth, the extra ones occurring at the two-minute warnings. The stage manager must obtain approval for these time-outs from game officials, and Sohngen uses an elaborate set of hand signals from the 30-yard line. "You cannot get a television time-out until each team has had the ball once," he says. "And when you get a team like the Cleveland Browns, which uses a ground game most of the time, you have a heck of a time getting the commercials in. Sometimes you don't."
Genuine time-outs, touchdowns, injuries and field goals often make TV time-outs unnecessary. Last season the average NFL game included only two of the strictly commercial variety.
"Because there are so many breaks in the action basketball never presents a problem," Sohngen says. "But hockey used to be trouble. I can remember doing one game in the early days and a guy in the seats upstairs, God bless him, kept throwing eggs down onto the ice. Every time he threw an egg, we took a commercial. Now we have the officials wired, and buzz them. In tennis you tap the guy sitting up in the chair [umpire] on his rear, and he slows things down the next time he gets a chance.
"The funniest of all, though, was wrestling. For years we had one-hour shows shot in studios, and when it got close to commercial times I'd stand, put both hands on my belt and pull it up and down. That meant a pin, and it worked every time." TV obviously had a stranglehold on wrestling, and while it may not control other sports as much, it has them in at least a half Nelson.