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Good but still not at the top
Frank Deford
September 14, 1981
Brent Musburger as anchorman is only one of the many needed improvements in CBS's U.S. Open tennis coverage
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September 14, 1981

Good But Still Not At The Top

Brent Musburger as anchorman is only one of the many needed improvements in CBS's U.S. Open tennis coverage

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More than any championship event, more even than a protracted World Series, the U.S. Open tennis tournament spread-eagles a network. CBS is telecasting a minimum of 31 hours this year, six afternoons of live action and 11 nights of half-hour highlights. In the past the network paid little attention to such a high-demographic showcase. Even the president of CBS Sports, Van Gordon Sauter, acknowledges that much of last year's presentation was "grotesque." So, for this September, he ordered changes.

Brent Musburger would captain the ship on camera, and there actually would be interviews, statistics and planned features. Sauter, however, stood fast with his personnel, except for bringing in a new highlight-show producer and breaking up the old-shoe team of Pat Summerall and Tony Trabert. Instead, he paired John Newcombe with Summerall and put Virginia Wade with Trabert in the mixed. Such shifting about seems to be the rage at CBS this fall; all sorts of NFL announcing teams have been recast, and Mr. Jim Snyder and Mrs. John Y. Brown have been electronically divorced on camera. Some may say these changes are only a rearranging of the deckhands on the Titanic, but at least at the Open the new pairings are an improvement, and in several respects the live coverage is modestly better.

The ex-jocks, Newcombe particularly, are technically incisive, and—hallelujah!—he and the others chatter far less than their garrulous NBC rivals do at Wimbledon. CBS also deserves credit for treating John McEnroe's demands to have the network's on-court microphone removed as just another news story.

Unfortunately, what is, again, so lacking in the live coverage is any sense of place, or any feel for the players as identifiable flesh and blood. They are merely faceless stroke-makers, and if Bud Collins does go on too much over at NBC, how we miss him when he's not around to breathe some life into the participants.

Musburger's nocturnal highlight festivals are far more accomplished. The host, as we know from football, is a special sort of sports TV technician in an exclusive little family that also numbers Jim McKay of ABC and Bryant Gumbel of NBC. These roundup fellows, usually plugged in by an earpiece, are quite good at what they do, even if what they do is extremely limited. But that's the point: Their effectiveness is based on being efficiently neuter, never imposing themselves as human beings in any meaningful way.

Because Musburger—like McKay and Gumbel—has the talents of an introducer rather than of an interlocutor, the evening show often struggles when he has to elicit comment. That's too bad, because some of the feature pieces have been much more pale and thin than they should have been. The jock correspondents don't have the verbal skills to support the pieces without a script, and Musburger draws only hackneyed responses.

Maybe this isn't fair to Musburger. His proficiency is welcome. Yet that very quality makes him a generic product. As Sauter himself points out, the crowd that stays up late to watch tennis recaps isn't channel-hopping. These most devoted fans should be catered to more familiarly. CBS would be wise to note how the BBC handles its late-night Wimbledon r�sum�. The show starts with Gerald Williams, a fine writer and knowledgeable tennis observer, delivering a very wry, very personal three-minute summary of the day's activities. Essentially, CBS's late-night show—its whole coverage—needs some of that bedside manner.

And, forgive me, it also needs to learn that "highlights" of a tennis match doesn't mean just the final point. Would CBS pass up showing touchdown passes and blocked kicks to air football highlights consisting of the quarterback falling on the ball to run out the last 15 seconds? Yet a significant percentage of the CBS late-night tennis highlight footage has consisted of two tired people shaking hands over the net.

Finally, how nice it would have been if, during the early and middle rounds. CBS had told us how the draws were unfolding. By 11:30 serious fans know who beat whom that day; what they don't know—and can't determine from newspapers—are the upcoming pairings.

Perhaps that's nit-picking. The late-night show is comprehensive and often engaging, and a giant step up. Still, insofar as the live coverage is concerned, there are miles to go before we peak.

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