I'm not sure I can say this without using a lot of extraneous exclamation points and a few tired jokes, but the fact is that you can't discuss the subject of television sports very long without acknowledging that one of the most popular games on the tube is bowling. Yes, bowling. The Pro Bowlers Tour on ABC is in its 19th season on the air and possesses a long list of what TV types call "positive stats."
After NCAA football, the PBA show is the second-longest-running live sports series; its ratings, which have always been among the highest in weekend sports television, have rarely been better than they are this year. Through last weekend, bowling had a 9.1 rating (the percentage of the nation's TV-equipped homes tuned in to the PBA show) and 24 share (the percentage of those actually watching television who were looking at bowling).
The Pro Bowlers Tour has won head-to-head ratings wars with, among others, golf, tennis and pro and college basketball. Bowlers like nothing better than to dig out the figures for the Saturday last spring when bowling went up against the Masters and major league baseball and won the ratings battle with something to spare. The numbers: Pro Bowlers Tour (ABC) 8.9, Baseball Game of the Week ( NBC) 7.4, the Masters ( CBS) 6.6.
In addition to the winter tour on ABC, NBC is picking up a few summer tournaments, and ESPN, the all-sports cable network, will telecast some of the other stops on the summer PBA tour. In all, 36 bowling tournaments will get national airtime this year.
Much of bowling's popularity can be attributed to the ingeniously simple game concept that was devised by ABC. The format is built on a king-of-the-hill principle that ensures there will be sudden-death drama on every show. In midweek action at each tournament five bowlers qualify for the weekend's television showdown. The show opens with the No. 5 finisher meeting the No. 4 man. The winner goes on to play the No. 3 qualifier and so on, setting up a final between the survivor and the No. 1 man, who already has earned 50% of the tournament's first prize by finishing first in the qualifying play.
It is a glorified game show, and game shows, of course, have always been a favorite on daytime television. A viewer doesn't need to know anything about bowling or previous competitions to get caught up in any one show. There's the drama of the No. 5 man trying to knock off the finishers ahead of him, combined with the suspense of waiting for the appearance of the No. 1 man. There's a sudden-death denouement every 18 minutes or so, and the whole thing is packaged into a comfortable hour and a half that includes a bowling tip. Neat.
The concept, introduced by ABC's Ned Steckel when he took over production of the show in 1967 (PBA viewing audience jumped 21% with the new format), works so well that it's a wonder golf and basketball haven't come up with their own king-of-the-hill formulas. How about a shootout in which 32 golfers go one-on-one at 16 different holes, then the 16 survivors play eight one-hole matches, and so on, until there is a final showdown played between the last two survivors? Ridiculous, you say. Maybe so, unless the format cured golf's ratings ills.
To be sure, bowling has gone far out of its way to accommodate TV, but there was little else it could do. It had always suffered from lack of acceptance in some areas because of its seedy, beer-bar image.
The sport has smoothed up its act for national TV to the point where the show has become almost antiseptic. There's no drinking or cursing or radical dress, no T shirts that advertise Acme Plumbing. The tone may be a bit dull, but it's also thoroughly professional, an impression that's buttressed by excellent camera coverage by ABC and an engaging announcing team that features the comfortable old face of Chris Schenkel and one of the most expert analysts on television in Nelson (Bo) Burton Jr.
Directors Jim Jennett and Larry Cavalina alternate quick shots of the contending bowlers to play up the tension, and the slow-motion replays zeroing in on the expressions of the participants as they body-English balls down the lanes are among the most entertaining in sports TV.