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The '84 Super Bowl was the 11th-highest-rated telecast and the fifth-highest-rated Super Bowl. The Summer Olympics averaged a big 23.5 in prime time for two weeks. The Winter Olympics, however, averaged 18.2. If they had been a sitcom, they would have been canceled after the second night. The seventh game of the NBA finals pulled a 19.3—the highest NBA number ever.
Buried under all these stats is a message for the ad men, for the networks, and for you and me in our family rooms. You say you've been overdosing on trash sports such as Battle of the Network Giants or mixed-pairs bodybuilding? You've been mainlining bowling and anthology shows? The word from the advertisers is "watch 'em while you can." BBDO, the giant New York ad firm, has called for an elimination of gimmicky sports, an end to NFL preseason telecasts, and a one-network policy for college football and basketball.
Network execs seem to be getting the message. "What Pilson said about rights payments is really becoming a mind-set with other sports programmers," says Bill Grimes, president of ESPN, which like the USA Network, is off about 10% in the ratings. "The thinking is, if there is a reasonable limit here beyond which the advertisers are not going to go, then we'd better not make a real bad buy because we're liable to lose our jobs."
But that is just talk. What have the networks done so far that will change our viewing habits?
Well, ABC recently jettisoned Superstars, one of those gimmicky TV souffl�s that had been around since 1975. Trouble is, NBC picked it up. ABC also lopped off its spring Pro Bowlers' Tour, shelved the venerable American Sportsman series and let go a number of production people (among them, one of its two main baseball directors and the producer of its Olympic "up-close-and-personal" shorts). The formerly sacrosanct Wide World Of Sports will be cut back from 90 minutes to an hour in May. Pilson said CBS Sports will reduce its programming by 3% in '85, dropping whole events in some cases and cutting back hours in others.
Then there's hard evidence that TV rights payments already are leveling off. Since last June a number of bowl committees and golf tournaments have renewed their contracts with the networks or ESPN with clauses that protect the networks from lower than expected ratings. There have been reports that the Cotton Bowl took its first pay cut since Texas joined the Union. If this trend continues, something dire may happen. Everybody may start holding the line—leagues, teams, players and agents—and viewers may get their minds off the frivolous news and onto the sports news. Think of it: a sports page without a line about money.
Basically, somewhere out there, there is a societal change toward spectator sports. You can't single any one factor out, but you can state them all. And they are all negative charges, not positive charges.
I got with a group of friends who would gather around the television on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. When we sort of drifted apart, I found the games didn't mean to me as much as the people. It's strange. I'm more interested in what happens in sports than before, but I'm not interested in seeing it happen.
Three principal theories as to why network sports ratings are suffering are making the rounds. Surely you sympathized with that fellow with the shapes and forms swimming before his eyes? All right, that's glut. You have one of those cable systems with 38 channels, half of which seem to carry sports? Fine. That's viewing alternatives. You say you're the father of an 11-year-old who can't understand why Brian Sipe upped and left the Browns? Join the crowd. That's the mystique factor.