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At about the same time Ray Floyd was winning the Masters golf tournament last spring. Bob Wussler, 40, became president of the Columbia Broadcasting System. In the 20 months before he moved up to one of the three most important jobs in American television, Wussler had served as the head of CBS Sports, and that is a fact that should not go unnoticed by sports fans or promoters. Typical of what viewers can expect from the young network president, who henceforth shall be known as Bet-a-Million Wussler, will be the Oct. 22 showing on CBS of last week's controversial Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton fight. Even more significant than CBS' ownership of the rights to the fight, a very formidable piece of TV merchandise that cost the network $1 million, is Wussler's decision to telecast it on a Friday night in prime time immediately preceding the third debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
The selection for the first time of a sports man to head up a major network and his scheduling of Ali-Norton represent two more big steps in the continuing growth of sports on prime time. Nighttime televised sports have already enjoyed a boom in 1976, led by ABC's four weeks of Olympic coverage from Innsbruck and Montreal. Once TV executives doubted that athletic events could compete with doctors, lawyers, comics and killers, but of the 60 top-rated "specials" televised during evenings in the 1975-76 season, one-third were sports shows. TV's history has been consistent on one thing: if something is a success, imitate it and expand on it. These days that is exactly what is happening to televised sports, and nobody expects the trend to be reversed.
Starting this weekend ABC will broadcast one game of baseball's playoffs every night until they conclude. Then NBC is likely to show four World Series games in prime time, including Game 2 on a Sunday night. There had been speculation that Super Bowl XI would be seen in the evening hours on NBC, but NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle rejected the idea. This year's game is being played in Pasadena, Calif., and Rozelle felt that a late starting time would seriously impair newspaper coverage of the event in Eastern time zones and that so-so lighting in the Rose Bowl might make a night game unfair to the participants. Ah, but think of Super Bowl XII. That one is scheduled indoors at New Orleans.
There are important implications for baseball in the Sunday night World Series game. Television's current fascination with sports is not the result of its love of games but of its steadfast loyalty to big ratings and fat bottom lines. Last year's Series between the Red Sox and the Reds was a bonanza for NBC, with five games (two because of rain) in prime time. The seventh game pulled in an estimated 40.6 million households, a record total audience for a program of any kind and 3.2 million more homes than tuned in Super Bowl. Baseball's hope is that on Sunday, Oct. 17 it can draw such numbers again.
A one-sided game, however, could grind the ratings way down and cause embarrassment for the sport. Should Ali-Norton, for example, get a significantly larger number of viewers than the Sunday night Series game, the bottom liners, who hate to give their precious Sunday prime time to any but the highest-drawing "specials," might get upset. I am already upset at baseball's management, because I feel it has naively entered the ratings game and lost dignity for the sport by doing so. Except for ratings, there is no reason for a Sunday night game. I accept mid-week Series games being scheduled for the evening to allow more working people to watch them, but by playing on Sunday night, baseball is abandoning Sunday afternoon to pro football. The image war between the two sports has been a very real one for years and, in this case, baseball has vacillated. Despite its TV triumph of last fall, it has the look of a sport playing scared.
Meanwhile, CBS has the look of a winner, because the Ali-Norton match turns out to be a must-see event for sports fans. Originally the network dickered with the promoters to put the fight on live. This year three Ali bouts against little-known opponents were shown live and had spectacular ratings.
"The asking price to put the fight on live television was $8 million, and we felt that was totally unrealistic," says Wussler. "We paid $1 million to do it on tape and originally scheduled it for Nov. 19. When the fight ended with so much controversy, we got together with the promoters and persuaded them to waive the agreed-to waiting period. We even had hopes of putting it on within a week of the fight, but that was impossible, because the promoters had to protect the theaters that had agreed to show a movie of it.
"I believe there is room for more sports in prime time. This year we will show the climbing of Mt. Everest, a special on Nadia Comaneci, the NBA playoffs and probably some other events. ABC proved with Monday Night Football that sports work in prime time. They proved it again with the Olympics. I don't know what percentage of prime time will be given to sports, but I see it increasing."
A more important question is how much it should be allowed to increase. Now is the time for sports owners to become wary, because television tends to devour its young. Quickly. It costs about one million to put a good movie on TV. A lot of sports events can be bought or hyped up for less than that, and if the ratings work out well, a prime-time sports boom is likely. Sports should exercise restraint to ensure that the boom does not become a bust.