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In 30 years, "ABC'S wide world of Sports" has reported from 54 countries, Albania to Zaire, and visited 48 states, Alabama to Wyoming (all except Montana and Mississippi). It has gotten Up Close and Personal with athletes from Ali to (Alexander) Zaitsev, broadcast the commentary of experts from (Jesse) Abramson to (Steve) Zabriskie and generally spanned the alphabet to bring you the constant variety of sport. For that matter, it has covered every sport except, well, no, it has covered every sport, archery to water polo.
"You've heard of cyclo-ball?" says Bill Flemming, who along with original host Jim McKay hails from that first 2½-hour show, on April 29,1961, when variety consisted of McKay's broadcasting the Penn Relays and Flemming's doing the Drake Relays (spanning that part of the globe between Philadelphia and Des Moines). Cyclo-ball was motorized soccer, or polo with an attitude. Says McKay, "Demolition derby ring a bell?" And who here has any out-takes from the International Bikini Sports Competition?
"Some horseback riding was involved," says Dennis Lewin, a longtime coordinating producer for the show who is now a senior vice-president at ABC Sports. "The segment, as I recall, required some very sensitive editing." Hey, Kids! Lady Godiva! But, no, the agony of delete.
Wide World's, 30th anniversary show, which aired on April 28, stressed the importance of somewhat more dignified events, those championships from, yes, all over the globe. Among them: a U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet from Moscow that ABC believes thawed the Cold War, innumerable World Figure Skating Championships, the British Open and all kinds of derbys and steeplechases and other high-toned athletic events—the kind of stuff that was its original and lofty charter. Wide World had plenty of those events, sure. But, pssst, baton twirling, anybody?
You do not want to take a program that gave us Evel Knievel too seriously—nor do you need to. Over three decades Wide World of Sports has secured its legend in sports television with innovation, excellence and a surprising, and probably unnecessary, elegance. The sophistication of some segments could be unnerving: The Saturday sloth was often disturbed in his anticipation of the ski-flying championships by a historical travelogue on Oslo that was—how else can we say it?—literate. Soon enough, though, the blathering gave way to some spectacular results: ratings and Emmys. Wide World has had it both ways.
It was, and remains, a weird mix of the worthwhile and silly, the kind of show that will patiently nurse lesser-known sports like gymnastics and figure skating to their current prominence and likewise give us the U.S. Air Force rocketry meet, an otherwise unreported sporting event that featured the destruction of drone rockets over Florida by some of our young fly-boys. Yes, this is the show that brought us that moving gold medal ceremony following America's ice hockey victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Could any show have done that better? Keep in mind, though, that Wide World broke away from the Acapulco cliff diving championships to do so.
Is this a hard show to characterize? Well, not really. Wide World of Sports is almost always, whatever its intentions, interesting. And that's a hallmark, or should be, of any program that hopes to produce 2,200 hours of television. "I hated demolition derby," says Flemming, who boasts that he covered 63 sports for Wide World, "but I kind of enjoyed cyclo-ball." There you go.
Pay attention, all you TV programmers, you Wide World wannabes, you networkers looking for a 30-year franchise: Wide World of Sports was not born of any grand design at ABC, which, unlike its two main competitors, didn't even have a sports division back then. The concept was an accident of geography. It seems that baseball was then televised on an individual team basis (each club made its own deal with the networks) with the added restriction that games could not be telecast in any other competing market. ABC might have the rights to Giants games, for example, yet still be unable to broadcast them to half the country. ABC execs explained this to Roone Arledge, then a 29-year-old producer at the last-place network, and asked him to come up with something they could show all America the next summer.
If ABC was light on ideas, Arledge certainly wasn't. He seized on the notion of a sports anthology show. If variety worked for Ed Sullivan, he figured, it would work for him. But where was his Topo Gigio? Arledge was confined to what must have seemed like fringe stuff: anything nonbaseball, nonfootball, nonbasketball. What was left?
"The first thing Roone told me," says Chuck Howard, Arledge's assistant at the time, "was to find out what's happening every weekend." So Howard, posing as an assistant to an NBC radio announcer whom Arledge knew, sneaked into the NBC library (ABC didn't have one) and filled legal pads with a decidedly bizarre sports calendar.