"That, I never understood," says Joe Aceti, who directed Wide World from 1972 to '82. "I mean, they [the Globetrotters] did the same tricks every year. We did take them to different places, though."
The Acapulco cliff diving championship was another absolute ratings lock every time it was shown. It was the television equivalent of a swimsuit issue, beefcake division, enlivening everybody's winter afternoon. It wasn't exactly sports, but it sure was fun. "We never expected to do it at all," says McKay. "We were going there to do a water-skiing championship, and Roone called up the hotel where the divers worked, the El Mirador. We thought we'd do the cliff diving as a sidelight. But it turned out these guys were union, even had a shop steward. Anyway, one of the divers tells Roone that there's been all kinds of interest from NBC and Hollywood and that they couldn't possibly work for less than $100,000. That's that. But when we get there, our local contact tells us he's got the cliff divers lined up. For $100,000? 'No,' he says, 'they compromised. They'll do it for $10 a dive.' Of course, they charged us for practice dives."
One bit became so popular that Wide World didn't air it just once a year but every week: the agony of defeat. That poor skier hurtling out of control down the chute? Vienko Bogatej? "It was 1970 and I was in Yugoslavia doing world figure skating," says Lewin. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I was up in my room watching this ski-flying competition from Germany on television, and I see this alltime fall. I rush down to the dining room, McKay is waiting for me, and I say, 'You won't believe what I just saw.' "
Bogatej was not seriously hurt and even tried to enter the next year's meet—yes, it was ski flying—from his hospital bed. Unknown to him, however, his fame had already been everlastingly secured that day by Wide World. "Can you believe, there was a point about 10 years ago when it was thought that shot had run its course," says Lewin. "But it became so symbolic, we had to keep it."
Bogatej will remain the program's only constant, then, because the strength of Wide World has been its ability to anticipate and nurture whatever seems to tickle the viewers from one year to the next. Flemming left the show in 1986; McKay still makes appearances on the show. Frank Gifford is now the studio host.
The Evel Knievel phenomenon eventually passed, as did the demolition-derby phase. The chess craze died, so Wide World no longer trots off to Iceland to broadcast a match. Ali, who provided the show with 29 fights (not including a studio scuffle with Joe Frazier) and high ratings every time, finally departed. Things run their course, and Wide World always finds something new to complement its core events—the Triple Crown, the Little League World Series, the Tour dc France.
The proliferation of cable TV and pay-per-view has made that search more difficult. Wide World can no longer snap up the lumberjack championships for $10,000; the lumberjacks have their own series on ESPN. Nor can ABC expect viewers to sit still for a midget-car dirt race from Terre Haute, Ind. And big fights will never again be seen on Wide World of Sports. Then again, the time may be right for cyclo-ball. You never know.
"We only showed that the one time," says Flemming. He seems to have a tinge of regret in his voice.