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It was a Monday night in January at the Port Charlotte ( Fla.) Bowlerama, and the fourth event of The Women Superstars preliminary competition was about to be filmed. Althea Gibson, Wyomia Tyus and Diana Nyad completed their warmups while Billie Jean King relaxed with a few of the 24 other contestants. Although King was not competing, her assignment as commentator for ABC Sports presented nearly as much of a challenge to her as the three-holed bowling ball had offered Martina Navratilova. King, who has been TV's version of a missing person since joining ABC amid much fanfare 14 months ago, could only hope that she would perform as promisingly as Navratilova, who in her fourth game ever rolled a 149.
When King signed a two-year contract with ABC for a reported $200,000-plus, she became the highest-paid woman sports telecaster. Since then she has appeared as a color commentator on the two broadcasts of L'eggs World Series of Women's Tennis, the 1975 and 1976 Women Superstars and as a hostess on a prime-time women's sports special. She also has taped an 11-week series on tennis and a wrist-wrestling segment for ABC's Wide World of Sports. These are neither numerous nor prestigious assignments for an announcer in her salary bracket, and they have led to speculation in the TV industry that 1) ABC considers King a disappointment or 2) King is so upset about the infrequency of her appearances that she is planning to jump to CBS. Both rumors have been denied, but there remains serious doubt that King is repaying ABC's investment in her.
She thinks she has. "In a way ABC is paying for my past, buying my name, not my television skill, because I don't have much," King says. "But ABC invested in me and gave me a chance to learn and grow. I intend to use the opportunity wisely."
How prudently she used her first year with ABC is questionable. King has not worked in TV enough to improve substantially her technical skills, yet in her usual ambitious way she already envisions a syndicated program of her own as a stage for women's sports. She also claims that she would like to do more shows for ABC, but she has not matched this desire with a reduction in other activities. Being an announcer demands flexibility and a willingness to suffer through tiresome, repetitive filming and taping sessions. King's schedule and impatience make it difficult for her to meet either of these requirements.
During her first year with ABC, King was busy training for and winning her sixth Wimbledon singles title, playing in and promoting World Team Tennis and struggling to save her magazine, womenSports. There are scheduling conflicts this year, too. Among other activities, King is ushering in a professional softball league and still playing for World Team Tennis.
From the outset ABC accepted the fact that King would continue in tennis, and the network planned to accommodate her schedule. Her expertise in tennis, after all, was to be the starting point for her career in broadcasting. That, and her ability to relate to women athletes.
"The athletes respect and trust her," says ABC producer Don Ohlmeyer. "She offers a vivaciousness and a knowledge about women competitors. Too often raw talents like hers are mishandled by being used on broadcasts to which they can contribute nothing." So ABC has chosen to emphasize King's assets by placing her in familiar settings. She will be used only infrequently on other events until she acquires the rudimentary skills network television demands.
"But I'm hardly at the bottom, am I?" King says. "Can you imagine the number of people at local stations who would like to and should rightly be where I am now?" Because King has not moved up through TV's ranks, she has yet to adapt to the frustrations that professional announcers accept as routine. A five-minute piece may take up to four hours to film and narrate, hours filled with retakes, delays while equipment is adjusted or repaired and just plain waiting. Or rain may force a postponement and the crew must be free to cover the event on another day. For example, a change in the filming dates for The Women Superstars finals resulted in a part of the production work being scheduled for a day when King was supposed to play doubles in a Virginia Slims tournament. Only after considerable discussion did she agree to switch the tennis date.
Whenever King is able to go on location, she shows a genuine desire to become a real professional. And she gives evidence that she could become one. Her concise comments during the live coverage of L'eggs tennis added significantly to the viewer's understanding of how Chris Evert is able to dominate her opponents so thoroughly. While interviewing the women superstars King remained in the background, merely prompting the athletes with questions, because she feels no broadcaster should upstage her subject. This role may be hard for her to maintain, especially since her TV career is so closely tied to the exposure of her name and because she works for a network whose announcers have a tendency to overwhelm the events they cover.
There is a simple solution for King's problems at ABC. When she led the revolution in women's tennis a decade ago, her energies were channeled in one direction. "I'm used to working hard, giving 100% to whatever I do," she says. "I don't know any other way." Should she eventually decide to expend 100% of her energy on television, her handling of the microphone could become as sure as her grip on her tennis racket.