'Gonna fly now . . . flyin' high now . . ." - the "Rocky" theme
Leon Spinks is gonna fly now, but he is not gonna fly solo. When television creates a new hero for the viewer nation, there are always plenty of cashers-in to go along for the ride, and they were flyin' high yesterday as the Spinks hypewagon took off.
The Muhammed Ali-Leon Spinks fight Wednesday night from the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel gave television, and presumably television viewers, just what they want: an actual event with all the exploitable shmaltz of make-believe. Dreams were coming true, all right, and not just for the 24-year-old boxer who became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Because for CBS, which spent $4 million for the rights to televise the fight and another $200,000 to produce the telecast, the bout turned into a key victory. CBS "won" the night in the always-crucial Nielsen ratings, which are more crucial than usual at the moment beacuse February is one of three annual "sweep" months in which ratings determine how much money CBS can charge advertisers for commericals on its shows.
According to initial "overnight" ratings from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, CBS scored a knock-out in about the 10th round, when its share of the viewers rose to a huge 71 percent in New York, 62 percent in Chicago, and 60 percent in Los Angeles, at about 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
And so if the network did lose $1 million on the telecast, which is the estimate of CBS Sports President Robert J. Wussler, it hardly matters. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] be cashed in at some future time.
Of course, an Ali defeat could be seen as a death-knell for boxing in prime time, since Ali is the one who made it profitable for the networks again after years of viewer indifference to the sport. And yet CBS has been nurturing Spinks along as a real life "Rocky" for months. Here was the payoff for everybody.
"Spinks may be answer," Wussler said from Las Vegas yesterday. "He's a very attractive figure - very poor, humble origins, Marine Corps background. He's going to become much more of a down-home champion than Ali was."
CBS ad salesman Mike Nowacki, who sold the commerical time on the fight, saw a silver lining, too, from his Manhattan office. "Spinks may be Manhattan office. "Spinks may be were a lot of people huming 'Rocky' down the streets of New York last night.
Wussler's claim that CBS may have lost $1 million in effecting this miracle surprised Nowacki, but he didn't want to argue. "If Mr. Wussler wants to comment on that, that's fine," Nowacke said.
"A million dollars? I would think he lost more than that," said ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge, who not only revolutionized TV sports coverage bu also turned sports on TV into Brobdingnagian box office. "I heard their ad sales were not all that great."
"We sold every single spot we could sell on that fight," counter hyped Nowacki. "Some people think that because there weren't any spots between round 11, 12 and 13 that we couldn't sell them, but actually this was an internal program practices matter; they weren't for sale. We oversold that fight. We had back-up spots that didn't even get on the air." 'Movie Load' of Ads
Commerical time sold for between $50,000 and $90,000 per 30-second spot, Nowacki said. Because the program ran over three continous hours, the network could carry a "motive load" of commercials, which means it was allowed to sell seven minutes of commerical time per hour instead of six.
But these dollar figures don't tell the whole story when the reverse domino theory of hypola is in effect; every domino that rises pushes up another, and so on, until the air isthick with regenerating promos and plugs.
The rise of a superstar calls for superhype; the fallout can be fabulous. Leon Spinks is the tiny eye at the center of this big bow-wow bonanza.
Thus it was hardly by happenstance that prominent at the Hilton Wednesday night were such CBS stars as Bernie Casey, appearing in tonight's network movie "Big Mo," and singer Natalie Cole, soon to headline a CBS variety special. The CBS cameras beheld them with generous attentiveness.
"Well, of course we do that," Wussler said. "We work very closely with the entertainment division on something like this." Wussler used to be president of the CBS Television Network himself.
"An even like this is tailor-made to promote personalities that are part of the total picture at CBS. When you invest a lot money, and there's no way of recouping your losses, you use the thing as a promotional vehicle. We're very up-front about that."
Ringside commentator Brent Musburger said hype wasn't his favorite pastime but that he could live with it. "It's a constant conflict with me because of my roots, coming from journalism," he said. "But my primary responsibility has to be with CBS." 'What a Great Night!'
On the air, Musburger couldn't have been much more enthusiastic over Spinks or the fights or the joy of winning for both. "What a great night!" he exclaimed in the closing round. "Two tremendous warriors! One of the great nights in the history of the heavyweight division! What a fight!"
As Musburger noted yesterday, "I'm extremely competitive, and I really enjoy being on a how that beats another network."
Others were reaping a harvest from this hypothon, and these included Hilton Hotels, which build the new $7.5 million pavilion at its Las Vegas hotel just so that major sports events could be televised from there on the national networks.
"Oh yes, definitely - we built if for that, and this was the first time our pavilion was used for an event of this caliber," said Hilton public relations director Jacques Cose from Beverly Hills. "We benefit from the exposure. Our facility was built specifically with television in mind."
By some wild, nutty coincidence, grand hotelier Barron Hilton was featured in pre-fight interviews on the air. Wussler denied that this was part of the arrangement between the network and the fight promoter and Hilton Hotels. "We thought it was an interesting thing - why does a guy like Hilton pump so much money into sports," said Wussler.
Cose said he thought the Hilton interview was just "part of the color" of the event.
Hilton spared no effort in promoting the telecast. Orders were put for all 40 Hilton-owned hotels to promote the bejeebers out of the fight, and many of the chain's additional 125 franchised hotels also were expected to participate. Hilton Bombardment
Guests at the Hilton-owned Waldorf-Astoria in New York were bombared every 60 seconds, 24 hours a day, for two week prior to the fight with a recorded announcement bally-hooing the event and Hilton's participation. "This is Mr. Joseph of the Bull and Bear," the announcement began, as the manager of a hotel restaurant invited guests to watch the fight on CBS.
A few guests could be seen jumping in their tracks when the recording boomed on suddenly as they stood waiting for elevators or rode up an escalator.
At the 1,752-room Statler Hilton in New York, public relations director Lois Gifford dressed up 19 female staff members in boxer's trunks, tights and tank tops that said "Ali vs. Spinks" on the front. "The girls," Gifford said, "handed out pop corn and cards announcing the fight" starting Feb. 14 and continuing through the day of the bout.
"They created a furor in the hotel," Gifford said happily. "The day after the fight, all the fellas were saying, 'Hey, where are the girls?'"
Part of the CBS success was in gear possible, in playing up the drama and playing down the boxing.
In fact the most exciting parts of the telecast may have been between the rounds, when cameras and microphones eavesdropped on the trainers' and coaches' pep-talks with their fighters - including Angelo Dundee's exhortations to Ali. It was at such times that the fight most resembled what CBS probably most wanted it ot resemble: a movie about a boxing match.
"You have to remember," Wussler said, "this fight wasn't going out to just the hard-core boxing audience. This was going to America! Weh had between 60 and 80 million people watching this fight!" (The figures can't be verified on the basis of overnight ratings.) Making and Event
"We try to make an event out of it, because it is something special. A heavyweight championship harkens back to the days of the black-tis spectators juxtaposed with all the blood splattered about.
"Any time you have a sporting event like this, you have to go after non-regular watcher. We tried to play it as broadly as possible. Most people know the basics of football; but a lot don't understand boxing.
Is that why Musburger was given to an analogy about a late round being like a "fourth quarter"? "I don't think there was a conscious effort to relate it to football," Wussler said, "but football has become the common denominator in this country." It has also become a huge source of revenue for the television networks.
Arledge watched the Ali fight - not the preliminary bouts - and was not impressed with the CBS coverage. "For one thing, I have never been a fan of overhead shots of a boxing ring," Arledge said. "It shows nothing. You have to think, where would you sit if you could buy any seat in the house, and hovering over the ring would certainly be the last place you'd want."
Arledge thought the CBS commentators were treating Spinks "like a house fighter - particularly at the point where he looked like he was losing." The announcers were also too insistent on "how fantastic and great and wonderful" the fight was, Arledge said. Cutesy-Pie?
Finally, he didn't like the pop tune CBS played under the closing credits."Bobs Wussler loves that,"Arlege said. "He likes to think of that as his contribution to television. To me, the emotion in the ring is so great at that moment, that to try to get cutesy-pie at the end diminishes the emotion rather than enhancing it."
Wussler said he thought the CBS fight coverage was superior to ABC's. "We try not to overstate the obvious," Wussler said, implying ABC didn't try as hard. "ABC is a very hot operation. We try to be somewhat cooler. We try to understate things. We throw in our personalities differently than ABC does. We stress broader-based personalities rather than hot personalities like Howard Cosell and Don Meredith."
Obviously, this mean war. But it is always a state of war between the networks, and the battle is given an irony at this point in that Ali had been closely identified throughtout his colorful TV career with ABC's Cosell. He lost his championship crown on another network, in fact an arch rival.
Wussler concurs that it was "unquestionably" the magnificence of Ali that made boxing a big draw again on television. Whether Spinks is a large enough mythic figure to carry the heavy load of hype himself is not certain at this point, but neither is it certain that Ali has left the ring for good.
One would think that boxing would be regarded as at best an anachronism on television, especially since it is a violent sport in a time of unrelenting controversy over TV violence. But when Arledge talks about boxing, one can being to see the dramatic essence, the obscure object of desire, beneath all the flapdoodle.
"Boxing is grat television," Arledge says. "It has all the elements of every kind of television that fascinates people. The small ring - not a big playing space like a baseball diamond. The primitive, simple act of it, so easy to understand.
"And then there is the fact that in boxing you have people who are not only not in the kind of big, anonymous uniforms that football players wear, but in fact their bodies, their faces, almost everything about them is visible, and right there in your living room. You get to know them as people. You fight with them, you get in close.
"It made for television."
The fights will go on, the fighting will go on between networks, and the relentless promotion wars will surely continue even beyond what CBS calls "the 32 days of fabulous February." Television is a confrontation medium. And in this corner, with a 70 share - the hypee-weight champion of the world . . . Cee Bee Ess!
But the hype crown is one title that can change hands in a minute.