In the beginning, 17 seasons ago, there was only one "sports anthology" show on television: ABC's "Wide World of Sports."
The format proved to be as puragmatic for the network as it was popular with weekend viewers. It gave ABC weekly practice in producing the slick, multisegmented, taped presentations that became the bulwark of the network's Olympic coverage; built audience interest between Olympiads as a continous showcase for Olympic events and personalities and provided ABC a convenient outlet for big prize fights and other surefire ratings-getters that came its way.
Such a good thing could not go on forever without an imitator, so - like Playboy begetting Penthouse to challenge for gatefold gold - along came "CBS Sports Spectacular." It never has been as much a pillar of weekend viewing as "Wide World," but it has made inroads.
An now there are three. NBC enters the "anthology" marketplace Sunday with the premiere of "Sports World" (WRC-TV-4, 2:30-4 p.m.).
Long considered a leader in "live" sports coverage, NBC's acquisition of rights to the 1980 Olympics by outbiding its rivals in a giddy auction put a premium on development of personnel and skills for producing the stylish tape packages, which, because of the differences in the time zones, will make up the bulk of the coverage from Moscow.
"We have wanted to do this kind of show for a long time, and the Olympics gave us the impetus," says Chet Simmons, president of NBC Sports. "It gives us a vehicle to fit in events that come to us, instead of having to produce and sell them as specials. And it will help us develop the resources we need to do the Olympics."
The executive producer of "Sports World" is Don Ohlmeyer, lured to NBC last May after 11 years at ABC by the promise of continuing to do the Olympics. He was producer-director of the 1976 Winter Games, director of the 1976 Summer Games and has been named executive producer for Moscow, with overall creative control of the 150 hours of programming NBC will originate. Not coincidentally, he also was closely associated with "Wide World" and its glossy "post production" techniques.
As Ohlmeyer tools up for Moscow with Sports World," his old colleagues at ABC are doing their best to thwart him.
"No personal animosity," he says. "I left ABC on good terms, as far as I know, but that's the competitive nature of the business. I love lots of people over the ABC Sports, I respect and admire Roone Arledge (his ex-boss, now chief of ABC News as well as Sport), but professionally I'm still going to do everything I can to kick the crap out of them. And ABC would be gearing up to pounce on 'Sports World' whether I had come over or not, just as they threw every gun they had at 'Sports Spectacular." Network television is a life-or-death struggle."
Indeed. No sooner had NBC trumpeted that it would do "hard-hitting, no-holds-barred sports journalism pieces" in "Sports World" than ABC revived Howard Cosell's weekly "Sports Magazine," which had purported to do the same thing until being canceled for lack of interest.
Ohlmeyer reluctantly told TV Guide that NBC's first "journalism piece" would be on fan violence, and as soon as word got out ABC hurriedly prepared a piece on the same subject and scooped its new rival by two weeks.
"I didn't know they were that paranoid," sighs Ohlmeyer, who has resolved to be more tight-lipped about his plans in the future, "but it's nice to know they care about we do."
Ohlmeyer wants to do a show much like "Wide World" was when it had the field to itself. An 18-minute preview shown to the press this week suggested that the staple diet would be Olympic-type sports, summer and winter (track and field, boxing, gymnastics, swimming, skiing, skating, etc.), the journalism pieces, and "enough offbeat events to tickle the fancy of even the most jaded sports fan."
The emphasis will be on the international panorama of games, with major events abroad that seldom are seen in the U.S., such as the English Derby and other horseracing classics, and the All-Ireland Hurling Championships. Also, variety. The World Tug-of-War Championships from the Channel Islands, International Go-Kart Championships, National Skateboarding Championships and World Power-lifting Championships from Australia are scheduled, and "Sports World" will feature such as sumo wrestling, river canoe racing, cycling, surfing, rodeo, even jousting, the most popular spectator sport of the 13th century.
"I think one of the problems with the anthology shows is that they have gotten very predictable," says Ohlmeyer. "It's a little bit of auto racing, women's gymnastics only if you've got Nadia Comaneci, a bit of weightlifting, the Harlem Globetrotters and then you're into the next cycle.
"'Wide World' has been so successful for so many years that they kind of roll along, renewing things and have gotten away from what made the show strong - the wide world of sports. 'Sports Spectacular' is a hard-core, action-oriented show that goes after events they know work, predicated basically on a numbers game.
"I'm not a numbers guy. I'm going to try to do the best show possible. If people like it and watch, terrific; if not, we'll try something else. Basically we'll be a familys how that's varied and fun."
At the moment there are no plans to do made-for-TV sports, such as "Superstars" or "The World's Strongest Man," within "Sports World," but Ohlmeyer was one of the fathers of this type of sports-entertainment hybrid at ABC and is keeping his options open.
"We will look, in short vignettes, at some of the weird things people do for sport around the world,' Ohlmeyer says, "like a competition in Austria where people build sleds all year long, then get drunk and come down the side of a mountain and crash."
Sunday's first show, for example, includes a 3 1/2 minute segment called "The Flying Dutchmen." Shot on the banks of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands, it focuses on some magnificent men and their flying machines - amateur aircraft builders who propel themselves off a 10-meter platform in all manner of homemade craft, the object of the competition being solely to see who can stay aloft longest.
The rest of Sunday's lineup typifies the "mix" we can expect from "Sports World" - taped highlights of the Muhammad Ali Invitational track meet (three world records) and the World Cup women's gymnastics meet from Oviedo, Spain (most of the women who will provide Comaneci's major competition in Moscow). Plus the "fan violence" piece, which Ohlmeyer says will have more "focus" than ABC's, and leads into another segment next week on vilence on the field.
"Sports World" also promises numerous interviews and features on the personality and lifestyle of competitors along with action - the kind of treatment ABC fondly calls "up close and personal." To this end, Ohlmeyer has commissioned more than 100 short profiles of athletes expected to excel at Moscow from Emmy awards-winner Bud Greenspan.
"I've felt from my first day in the business that - expect for a few major events like a Wimbledon, a Super Bowl, a World Series, which compel people to watch by their sheer nature and magnitude - viewers identify more with people than events. So understanding and having insights into personalities is as important to a show as good events."
Just like "Wide World of Sports" in the good old days.