Many interviews from the Washington Redskins' training camp in Carlisle, Pa., are telecast each summer. But one lingers.
It was an engaging show, although most of what was said has faded. The sportscaster was WTTG's compelling Bernie Smilovitz; the guest, Redskins' indomitable owner Jack Kent Cooke. In the midst of discussing Cooke's eccentric ways, Smilovitz asked: "Would you work for an owner like Jack Kent Cooke?"
Cooke, the man who seems to preface all of his nouns with three adjectives and most of his verbs with three adverbs, gasped. When Cooke is speechless even for a moment, it seems like hours. Then he laughed. Finally, he said: "That's a very good question. Nobody's ever asked me that. That's a knockout of a question."
After a pause, Cooke, who is known for being tough on subordinates, added, "I'd like to have a couple of weeks to come up with an answer."
The owner of the Redskins tried to divert the conversation but Smilovitz, who has a honed skill for the right question, bore in again. Noting that in a 30-minute show you don't have two weeks, he pressed Cooke for a reply, and finally got a reluctant "yes."
It's that time of the year again, and starting Monday Smilovitz, as part of his sportscasting chores on Channel 5's "Ten O'Clock News," will be bringing his viewers a full week of special reports for the Redskins' training camp.
Since Channel 5 began overhauling its news staff, from May 1983 through May 1985, Nielsen ratings for the "Ten O'Clock News" show a 50 percent increase, with a 25 percent increase in WTTG's share of the viewers at 10 p.m., despite bucking network biggies such as "Hotel," "Hill Street Blues" and "Falcon Crest."
Smilovitz and his cohorts recently took eight Emmys for sports programming, dwarfing the other three big stations in town -- WRC, WJLA and WDVM.
This is the time of the year that Smilovitz grabs his biggest audiences with his coverage of the Redskins. Carlisle week will be followed by four special shows about the team (Aug. 2, Sept. 6, Nov. 8 and Dec. 27 at 8:30 p.m., repeated the following night at 10:30.) Channel 5 will also produce three of the preseason games.
Smilovitz' Monday night "Playbook" show, which follows Redskins games, was a hit in its initial run last fall. Both WDVM's Glenn Brenner and WJLA's Frank Herzog joined him for one show. This season, Smilovitz plans more guests. And then, before all the Redskins mania subsides, Smilovitz will begin his fifth year of working Georgetown basketball games and "The John Thompson Show."
It's all very heady stuff for Smilovitz, 32, the kid who used to work for peanuts outside D.C. (now RFK) Stadium and who now has a contract for a six-figure salary.
Smilovitz was 4 when his family moved to southeast Washington from Brooklyn, N.Y. As a boy, he worked for Felix, a blind man who sold peanuts outside the stadium. If Bernie hawked the two huge burlap sacks of peanuts, he got $5 and two bags of peanuts.
Smilovitz, a hustler then as now, worked out an arrangement with a ticket-taker: he gave up his peanuts and the guy at the turnstyle let him into the ballpark free. "Sometimes he'd let me keep one bag," recalled Smilovitz with an impish smile.
Smilovitz grew up in Silver Spring and was graduated from Northwood High School and the University of Maryland. He spent four years with WTOP radio, where he had a nightly talk show. (His brother Harvey, four years younger, is now the sportscaster for WTOP radio, and has begun doing substitute work on Channel 5.)
Smilovitz got his first chance on television late in 1979 when he went to work for WTTG. After he'd done a few shows, Smilovitz asked a station honcho what his salary would be. He was told, "This is not something you should be talking about at this time. This is an opportunity of a lifetime."
Smilovitz' interviews and opinions are the strong points of his sportscasting game. He knows what questions to ask, and when he says what he thinks, there's no doubt about where he stands. "If you got that," said Smilovitz, "it ain't a bad start. As a matter of fact, you can have fun with it. You should let your viewers know what you think.
"The key is, I don't take it seriously. If there is something serious, then you treat it seriously. But overall it should be fun. For me it is, I enjoy it so much."
At WTTG, Ernie Baur, assistant director of station operation/producer and director, has worked with Smilovitz on most of his specials as well as Redskins and Georgetown shows. Before going to WTTG, Baur worked at WDVM (Channel 9) with all-time nice guy Dan Daniels, almost 20 years ago, and then with those who followed, including Warner Wolf, Frank Herzog and Glenn Brenner.
"First of all, Bernie is a combination of Frank and Glenn," said Baur. "Herzog is known as a good producer and reporter. Brenner has the keen sense of humor. Putting all those shows together last year showed me that Bernie also adds a value to producing a show equal to anyone. He has a sense of flow. He can suggest the right music, and all sorts of things."
"I'm doing exactly what I've wanted to do since I was 5 years old," said Smilovitz. "I don't try to act like an authority or know-it-all. Basically, to me it's like sitting down in the viewer's living room and shooting the breeze."
Smilovitz' act has not always been so smooth. A few years ago some viewers at times felt he came across somewhat brazen and sarcastic. But with anchorman Maury Povich and James Adams there is now a chemistry that works.
Povich started as WTTG's first sportscaster on the "Ten O'Clock News" in 1966 and broadcast sports for seven years before switching to fulltime news anchor and "Panorama" host. "He keeps me on my guard," said Smilovitz. "I couldn't have a better relationship or better anchormen to work with. I'm often doing checks and double checks, because if the item is not exactly correct Maury will point it out. But having him on the set is terrific."
Now and then Smilovitz keeps Povich at bay with, "I grew up watching you." Povich deflates Bernie with, "He's the oldest Bruce Springsteen fan in the area."
They clearly enjoy working with each other. "Having grown up here, Bernie has a better feeling for Washington as a sports town than anyone else," said Povich. "He has the quickest wit of anyone I've worked with. He has great stand-up material. I wish he'd do more commentary. He's very good at it."
Smilovitz' work has changed in the 51/2 years he's been with WTTG, where at first he was the entire sports staff. But in the last three years, the station poured money into up-grading its news show and Smilovitz says he'got everything" he asked for. Baur works with him on all of his special shows. Larry Duvall has been added as sports producer. Steve Buckhantz spells Smilovitz on weekends and when he's out of town and serves as reporter three days a week. There are also interns on the scene.
He also got a satellite dish antenna to enable him and his staff to pick off film clips of all satellite transmissions. "This new technology is the most overwhelming change in the business," said Smilovitz. "We can now bring in film on any and every game."
Smilovitz, who is single, plays some golf and goes out socially from time to time with both Brenner and Herzog. ("Don't know George Michael that well.") Off duty he visits regularly with his brother and parents, who live in Silver Spring.
Smilovitz says he's not one for setting a lot of goals, although he's always wanted to do exactly what he's doing. "I guess in the back of my mind I've always wanted to win an Emmy," he said. "No one can ever take that away from you. If I have one goal, it's to be better tonight than I was on my previous show."