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The idea of being associated with the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo did not raise adrenaline levels in the advertising community. Nobody wanted a taste of this stew. Ad sales were so slow that ABC was ready to pull the plug before the first show was aired. Only by piggybacking commercial spots on Wide World with the much more desirable NCAA football, for which the network had national rights, was ABC finally able to sell the show. "It got on the air not because anybody believed in it," says Howard, "but because baseball wouldn't penetrate any more than 48 percent and because somebody held a club over Reynolds tobacco's head."
But would viewers set aside time to watch the Japanese all-star baseball game? Or track and field, swimming and diving, gymnastics and figure skating? There had been no clamor for any of these minor sports. The very fact that they were available to this last-place network indicated their lack of popularity.
Yet Arledge's inspiration was astonishingly simple. You could get away with showing anything—anything!—if you somehow got the audience interested in the people doing it. Says McKay, "The thought was, and from the beginning we were thinking exactly alike, that if these sports could be one of the most important things in the lives of a certain group of people, we should be able to make them interesting for 20 minutes on a Saturday afternoon."
This notion eventually evolved into "Up Close and Personal," the underpinning of all Olympic coverage and much other sports television that has followed. The concept never would have worked if Arledge hadn't hired as his announcing mainstays two of the most uncritical, and we mean this in its positive sense, sportscasters in the business. Flemming seemed genuinely enthusiastic about everything, from the air races over Chino, Calif., to the motorcycles on ice in Moscow ("Four-inch spikes on those tires! And pools of blood in the turns!"). For his part, McKay never met anybody who wasn't "worth a story once in his life."
McKay, above others, recognized the emotional value in nearly every sport he reported. "The World Barrel Jumping Championships up at Grossinger's," he recalls. Goofy, huh? "When this guy broke the 17-barrel barrier, it was like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. He was up on people's shoulders, he was crying, his wife was crying. These things, you always have to remember, are very important to the people involved."
Only rarely has McKay failed to remember that. Once he was at a demolition-derby world championship. "The ultimate minor sport," he says. A driver had just won his second world title in a row, and what are the chances of that in demolition derby? McKay couldn't resist asking (wink, wink) how do you account for such excellence in demolition-derby driving. Says McKay, "He looked at me with great sincerity and answered, 'Well, I go to church a lot.' I felt two inches tall."
Even with McKay and Flemming, the show would never have survived that first season as a summer replacement had it not covered the U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet in Moscow. Ratings had been low, but the publicity that that segment generated allowed a second season, which spawned the famous billboard atop the show. "Oh, that," says McKay. "There had been a different opening that first summer, something about sport in its unending variety. The next year we were running behind when we realized we had to record a new opening, and we hadn't written it yet. So Roone and I quickly did it. It was a back-of-an-envelope deal. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Who knew that would be around 30 years later?"
Today the show alternates between being educational and catering to the lowest common denominator (most TV does not alternate from the latter). For all the fluff that sticks in your mind, the core of Wide World's programming, to be fair, has been the major championships, and some of that programming has been stubbornly noble. When Wide World carried Peggy Fleming's first win at the National Figure Skating Championships, in 1964, it was to a largely Indifferent World of Sports. "She won in a virtually empty arena in Cleveland," says Lewin. "Figure skating eventually flourished because of exposure by ABC. Now, you can't buy a ticket to see skating."
In recent years Wide World has taken similar chances with endurance sports. Now everybody is familiar with the drama of the Ironman, the Iditarod and the Tour de France. But back to that fluff.
Producers quickly learned that the more diverse each show was, the better their chances for achieving high ratings. By offering a Muhammad Ali fight, a chess tournament and a figure skating competition, the producers were really drawing three different sports audiences, even women viewers. Better still, by adding a lumberjack championship, a Harlem Globetrotters game or an antique-car rally, they were drawing every fanatic with a TV. Highest rated Wide World ever? Evel Knievel and the Globetrotters in 1975. In fact, any show with either Knievel or the Globies was a ratings bonanza during the '70s.