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When Summit High took on Montclair High in lacrosse on a cold, dreary day last April, only a few loyal parents and friends showed up to watch. But they weren't the only ones to catch the action. Thanks to TV3, a division of Suburban Cablevision of East Orange, N.J., 100,000 other viewers could see the game in their living rooms. Suburban subscribers also could pick up the Belleville-West Essex football game, the Roselle Park-Cranford wrestling matches and the Montclair-Columbia girls' volleyball game. All told, between September and June, TV3 broadcast a total of 140 local high school and college athletic events in 13 different sports.
While Suburban offers programming on 36 different channels, it's TV3 that captivates viewers. "When a lot of people first subscribe, they don't know what TV3 is all about," says Greg Vandervort, the station's director of local programming. "Most sign up for the movies or Madison Square Garden games, but once they see their high school or the big Saturday football game in the area, TV3 is what makes them keep the service."
Depending on the season, TV3 devotes up to half of its 30 hours of weekly programming to area athletics. Filling the hours is never a problem, for schools will do a good deal to get air time, including changing starting times (sound familiar?) and playing in any kind of weather. "One day last April we were doing a baseball game, and it was pouring rain," says Bruce Beck, TV3's sports director. "One of the coaches came over and told us he was going to reschedule the game for the next day. But we said we were booked and wouldn't be able to televise them. So they played in a driving rainstorm. Everybody got soaking wet, including our crew."
Some high schools shoot their games themselves, and then send the tapes to Suburban in hopes that it will show them. A few schools are even remodeling their gyms to accommodate TV3. Says Beck, "We tell them, 'Put in a few more lights or add a couple of feet to the press box to make it comfortable for our cameras, and we'll be over all the time."
Concentrating on local sports makes good sense financially for a small cable operator. To get two hours of programming he simply sends a truck and a crew to a field or a gym and starts shooting. TV3 utilizes a number of college interns, which also helps keep costs down. When TV3 covers a game, usually no more than four or five members of the 10-person crew are paid employees. The median age at TV3 is 26, and many of its 18 full-time staffers are alumni of the intern program.
But far and away the single biggest bargain for Suburban is the software—that is, the events themselves. Unlike major-college and pro teams, which command ever larger sums for rights to their games, high schools and small colleges don't charge a penny. "Right now they really couldn't ask us for money," says Vandervort. "We're providing them with a service."
Nevertheless Suburban doesn't stint on equipment. Its three remote production trucks cost more than $350,000 apiece. "What we've tried to do by using more expensive and sophisticated equipment than most cable companies our size is get our broadcasts up to network standards," says Vandervort. "People who are used to New York television aren't going to watch something that looks like home movies."
Despite the youth of its staffers, there's nothing amateurish about TV3's sports coverage. In 1977, '79 and '80 Suburban won the National Cable Television Association's award for excellence in sports programming. TV3 has at least two cameras and two announcers at each sports event. The latter are generally former coaches or referees, and several days before a game TV3 supplies them with loose-leaf binders crammed with information. If an announcer's on-camera delivery isn't up to par, station staffers attempt to improve his performance.
Beck and Vandervort would like to distribute their college sports program to other cable systems in the same area. They also hope to obtain hardware that will allow them to carry, say, a Summit-Montclair game in the northern section of Suburban's system while they're airing another game in the southern end. "We think that local coverage' is a fantastic vehicle for promoting sports in our towns," says Beck. "And there's nothing like it for the parents. More important, though, it's great showing high school kids in action with the same type of professionalism that you see when you watch sports on the networks."