Assessing the work of two TV networks when they are covering events in the same sport usually presents an obvious problem. Should one have exciting games while the other draws a succession of humdrum contests, it would be only natural to decide that the more fortunate network is doing the better job—because it can use its hardware more advantageously and build interest with its announcers and interviews as the games continue.
This fall, for the second time, NBC (Championship Series) and ABC (World Series) split the coverage of baseball's most important hours. And now the envelope, please. The winner: NBC, and by a wide margin. That the playoffs were far more dramatic than the Series, which produced only one especially entertaining game, had no bearing at all on this conclusion.
Through the first five games of the Series, ABC showed it still has not learned how to cope with baseball's vital nuances. And it insults the intelligence of viewers in a way no other network does: make lots of noise, show a close-up of Barbara Walters sitting in the stands, get tons of publicity for Howard Cosell, send up the blimps, bring on the clowns, show a fire burning in the night sky.
After not having covered major league baseball since 1965, ABC last year jumped back in with all three feet and hacked things up with poor camera work, cheap research and inane commentary. During its Monday Night Baseball shows this season, ABC improved a lot. Nonetheless, when it comes to matching ABC against NBC, there is still virtually no comparison. ABC is about half as good. Experience has a lot to do with it. After 30 years of televising baseball nationwide, NBC anticipates plays far more knowledgeably. It also has a sense of how different ball parks can dramatically alter the outcome of a game.
During the playoffs the viewer got the feeling that NBC was on top of everything. Its replays were almost uniformly first rate, and they were often shown from several angles. ABC had only two big plays to deal with. It did a superb job on one—Yankee Lou Piniella's jumping catch of Ron Cey's near-home run in Game 4. But the network bungled the other, which came in the sixth inning of the first game, when Dodger Steve Garvey slid home with what seemed to be a vital run in a game eventually won by the Yankees in 12 innings. Tom Seaver, who did an excellent job as analyst for ABC, quickly said that he thought Garvey was safe and that Umpire Nestor Chylak was out of position. The two replays that were punched up showed nothing either to back up or refute Seaver's judgment. Chylak may have blown the play, but not as badly as ABC did.
Perhaps because the Series was rather dull, the expected happened. Cosell intruded on the action. His performances provoked exasperation from viewers everywhere, including Miz Lillian Carter, who declared she does not like him, and NBC's Joe Garagiola—of all people—who asked, "Doesn't Cosell have anything to say except plugs for upcoming ABC shows?" Cosell knows little about baseball as it has been played in the 1960s and '70s, does not particularly care for the game and seemed to be reading constantly from a set of bubble gum cards extolling the virtues of the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers. And, as always, Cosell said some absurdly memorable things. He explained that Buzzy Bavasi, formerly the general manager of the Dodgers, had a great baseball mind, which had been responsible for the Dodgers' "maintenance of excellence." Cosell also said to Seaver, following a good catch by Yankee Centerfielder Mickey Rivers, "He was in full stride as you even began your recital of the replay, Tom."
But even Cosell was no match for Garagiola when it came to spirited shilling. Garagiola plugged everything but one-chair barbershops. He talked so much about Bob Hope, who threw out a first ball one night during the playoffs in Kansas City and also just happened to have a special coming up on NBC, that Tony Kubek, who is normally a good-field, no-quip announcer, finally said of Hope, "I wondered what he did when there isn't a war going on."
All of this was but a small manifestation of how naive baseball is about television. The game still needs the network dollars, though perhaps not so desperately as it once did. Next season its national TV contracts—from which it currently receives $92.8 million from ABC and NBC—will be up for renegotiation. During the past six years the cost per commercial minute during the playoffs has jumped from $18,300 to as much as $75,000, while a Series minute has gone from $75,700 to $145,000. The ratings for the playoffs averaged a booming 34.3 share of the audience during six consecutive prime-time evenings, and Series ratings should also be excellent.
When a sport generates figures like these, it is in a strong position to insist that the game—and not TV celebs and shilling—be emphasized on the telecasts. Even more irksome to fans, however, are those occasions when television runs roughshod over baseball, as it did on Oct. 8. That night's playoff game between Philadelphia and Los Angeles was played in driving rain—weather completely unfair to both teams and spectators. But baseball had put itself into a box to please televison by scheduling the end of the playoffs and the start of the Series too close together. It left itself with virtually no alternative except to play the Oct. 8 game. The huge interest in telecasts has put baseball in a position to tell TV when the games will be played. It only remains for the sport's administrators to seize that power.