The local TV sports announcers on the six and 11 o'clock news shows seldom establish themselves as distinct personalities. Most are interchangeable with another scoop of vanilla somewhere else. TV announcers tend to be transients, anyway; they don't live in a city, they work in a market. Besides, in that business, everything outside of the networks is Bridgeport. Aspiring little golden throats dream about growing up to become Dick Enberg or Keith Jackson. They don't dream about becoming Warner Wolf.
Warner Wolf?!!?! Hey, gimme a break! Boo of the week! Swish! Boom! Warner Wolf? O.K., let's go to the videotape!
Wolf is an aberration. As a network announcer at ABC, he bombed, yanked successively off Monday Night Baseball, Wide World of Sports, on which he served as host, and NCAA College Football Scoreboard. But in contrast to this abject failure on the national scale, he has twice established himself as the undisputed premier sports announcer in a major city—first in his native Washington a decade ago and now in New York, where it can be argued that Wolf has become the most prominent personality in local TV. When Wolf switched from WABC to WCBS eight months ago, ABC sued in vain to keep him, and since he joined WCBS that station has jumped ahead of WABC in the news ratings at both six and 11, after years of languishing as runner-up. His contract is up for renewal in a year a half, and because he already makes $400,000 a year for his 40 minutes a week of airtime, there's no telling what he'll command then.
The very things that brought Wolf a cropper on the network help explain his success at the local desk. Because network presentations are invariably highly structured, they straitjacketed the freewheeling Wolf. More important, perhaps, network sports announcing has done the impossible: to lower group journalism to even deeper depths. So much misdirected emphasis in TV today is placed upon how chummily you work with your palsy-walsy colleagues in the booth. Wolf prospers for the very simple, old-fashioned reason that his rapport is, first, with the strangers looking in.
The camera transforms him. He somehow fills the screen and—pointing his finger at you and yours out there—seems to be coming right out of it. In person, though, he can barely manage eye-to-eye contact, and he turns out to be so cute and tiny—under 5'6"—that one has the impression this must be some ingenious child playing Warner Wolf. But on or off the air, he's the consummate fan. His four-minute routines are equal parts Wolf rattling off opinions (which is what a fan does naturally) and Wolf showing action highlights (which is what a fan desires). It's a wonderful mixture he has stumbled on. He even regularly shows pro wrestling highlights—low-lights?—laughing along, perched there upon his two seat cushions.
In this, as in most of his schtick, it's Wolfs breezy bonhomie that sets him apart. Even as a child in Washington, he was irritated that most sports announcers were formal and pedantic on camera. Wolf developed his own style on radio, starting out at a station in Pikeville, Ky. for $40 a week on April Fools' Day, 1961. He scuffled his way back to Washington and was soon doing one of those dreadful call-in shows—"Warner, why don't the Redskins pass more?"—plus radio play-byplay in a variety of sports. "But I was always on TV myself," he says. "Hey, all those years on radio, I'd be talking and looking into that mike like it was a camera. Hey, working on radio was the best thing for me. You gotta be more descriptive, help the listener. The worst television news performers are the ones who didn't start in radio."
Wolfs own showmanship doesn't derive entirely from radio. Both his parents were in vaudeville, his father a comic who was in the trio that succeeded The Three Stooges in theaters when Larry, Moe and Curly went to Hollywood. The elder Wolfs group was called The Gentle Maniacs. Hey, gimme a break. Let's go back to the videotape.
The fact is, Wolf looks at so much tape that he has his own producer (Carmine Cincotta) and his very own tape editor (Tony DiGiovanni) and even his own tape facility, where they spend hours every day eyeballing game tapes from all over the country. Sometimes they have six games going at once, everybody looking for a bit here, a snippet there, so Warner can say "Boom!" or "Swish!" on the air. As off-the-wall as his end product appears to be, it is unlikely that any other TV sports hawker is as well prepared as Wolf or has such an extensive support apparatus.
Wolfs inherent knowledge of sports, combined with effective use of tape, is what grants him license to spout off. Still, his success is more in his presentation than in what he actually says. Opinions are tolerated on television, but only to a point. Wolf succeeded Jim Bouton, who was much more provocative, but in television that translates into "controversial"—something to be avoided at all costs unless it promotes bad taste. So WCBS dumped Bouton and went after Wolf.
As Neil Derrough, the station manager, points out. Wolfs great value is that he can be appreciated on two levels, whether or not you like sports. Warner says, "First of all, hey, you gotta give the information. I'm out there every day, like the newspaper. But if you're accurate and they know you know your stuff, then you can provide some humor, too." Thus saying, the gentle maniac went down to his private videotape sanctum sanctorum to watch six more games in the never-ending search for the elusive highlight.