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How not to hook an audience
William Taaffe
November 19, 1984
NBC's broadcast of the inaugural Breeders' Cup left too much unexplained
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November 19, 1984

How Not To Hook An Audience

NBC's broadcast of the inaugural Breeders' Cup left too much unexplained

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When Kentucky horseman John Gaines came up with the notion of putting the ultimate horse racing extravaganza on TV in one filthy rich afternoon, he was subscribing to the Big Bang Theory: stage such a boffo show in four hours that all those folks who watch football and tennis and bowling will fall in love with horse racing. TV would hook 'em, horse racing would keep 'em, and everyone would live happily ever after.

In Year One of the grand Breeders' Cup experiment, though, NBC failed to hook 'em. The big peacock, which is committed to the Cup through 1986 and has an option to carry it for two years after that (potential outlay: $5 million), apparently fell short of its projected national rating of 5.0. The preliminary Nielsen in New York, a hotbed of racing, was only 4.4. Artistically, NBC also failed to satisfy the uninitiated. Its obligation was to bring casual viewers inside the sport, to explain its essence and method and idiom, while not ignoring the major journalistic questions of the day. NBC did not distinguish itself on either count.

Not that the Breeders' Cup was a TV debacle. Far from it. NBC had just the right chemistry in Pete Axthelm and TV tyro Harvey Pack, an irreverent, trackwise New York odd couple. At one point Pack mentioned that Eillo, the winner of the $1 million Sprint, goes by his owner's given name spelled backward. "If I had a sprinter," Pack added, "his name would be Yevrah." (Whereupon some graphics went up on the screen identifying "Etep" Axthelm and "Yevrah" Pack.) Sharon Smith provided a voice of clarity and intelligence in an annoyingly frenetic telecast. And there were a few memorable moments ("He's a sometimey horse," one breeding handler said of Seattle Slew's sex life).

But anybody who isn't a racetrack habitu´┐Ż had to keep asking two fundamental questions during NBC's coverage. The first was how and the second was why.

NBC Sports executive producer Mike Weisman and race producer John Gonzalez did sprinkle in some winsome features on life down in the Bluegrass. Still, for 240 minutes we got nothing on how morning line odds are made, zilch on how purses are apportioned. When Wild Again and Gate Dancer got into that bearing-out, lugging-in controversy, no one explained the guidelines stewards follow in determining the outcome of inquiries. Couldn't at least one of these questions have been addressed during the time NBC spent chitchatting with Elizabeth Taylor? Gee, Liz, we don't really care if you like Princess Rooney.

Because they wanted to keep the four hours moving, Weisman and Gonzalez kept interviews and features brief. The excess of voices and scene cuts was bewildering, however, and the show skirted some significant issues. Why does California allow horses to use the diuretic Lasix, say, when New York, where the Breeders' Cup will be held next year, does not? In fairness to the producers, two unanticipated inquiries ate up sizable chunks of air time. But then, so did Linda Evans and Fred Astaire.

It's just possible, of course, that the fault was with the single-afternoon format of the Breeders' Cup. NBC had an average of only 35 minutes per race in which to give a rundown of the field, do features and plug in all those Earl Scheib "No ups and no extras" ads. But the bottom line is that new viewers weren't attracted. "I don't think you can change people's viewing habits overnight," Weisman had said. "In time, Breeders' Cup I, II, III, IV and so forth may become a part of the American sports scene." Unless it moves to successive weekends, however, the Cup on TV may be I, II, III and back to the barn.

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