Tennis enthusiasts accustomed to spending long, lazy Sunday afternoons and leisurely Monday evenings watching that sport on the Public Broadcasting service will, alas, have to look to chopper presentations on commercial stations for their fix of televised matches this year.
"Grand Prix Tennis: Summer Tour" - the lot key PBS series which set the American standard for excellence in televing tennis - has sadly been phased out in favor of eight syndicated telecasts, produced by the independened Hughes Sports Network and sold a commercial stations on an individual market basis (WTTG-TV-5 in Washington) by Taft Broadcasting.
Public television, which lovingly provided a showcase for so long, will offer virtally no tennis this year.
The key factor in the complicated story of how this came about is that it is much easier to sell sponsors spots on commerial TV than underwriting grants on PBS. The bottom line, unforunately is that the viewer will get the commonplace in order to satisfy the common greed.
"On PBS we presented the best tennis show ever on TV. Its demise is a loss to the game," laments commentator Bud Collins, obviously a partial witness.
Collins will contunue to work the Hughes telecasts with Donald Dell, the Washinton attorney, entrepreneur, commentator and all-purpose pro tennis octopus who helped raise most of the funds for the PBS programs in recent years and ultimately engineered the syndication deal.
They are the sport's best broadcast doubles team, Dell's serious loquacity and penetrating analysis blending superbly with Collin's bald irreverence and knowledgeable, witty enthusiasm.
But "The Lip and the Scalp," as they call themselves, cannot be as effective away from PBS's unhurried, commercial-free format, which allowed for revealing slow-motion replays of interesting points and lengthy, informative post-match interviews.
Two of the Hughes telecasts have already been aired: the American Airlines Games in February and last weekend's Volvo Classic.
They were much better than World Championship Tennis' clumsy syndication efforts of its tournaments this winter, which have been technical and artistic abominations. But the Hughes production team does not have the tennis experience of WGBH-TV in Boston, which produced most of the tennis on PBS, and that shows.
"I'm working for them, so obviously I want the Hughes shows to be good," says Collins. "They'll improve, but even if are the best tennis ever on commercial TV, they can't possibly be as good as Pbs, in my view.
You're always going to have too many commercials and not enough time."
Six more tournaments are scheduled on Hughes: the Italian and French Opens, Washington Star International, Canadian Open, U.S. Pro Championships and Australian Open, all slotted for 6 to 8 p.m. Saturdays and 5 to 7 p.m. Sundays, Eastern time.
Brifly, the syndication works this way. A production company (Hughes) is hired to originate the shows. Stations in various markets are approached individually to carry the shows on a "barter" arrangement; the station gets the telecast free with a certain number of open commercial minutes that it can sell locally.
The syndicator - in this case, Taft in conjunction with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Dell's office - then sells national spots to sponsors. The amount they can charge is determined by the number of stations and major markets carrying shows. It is a risky, difficult business, but potentially very profitable.
The Volvo tournament was seen in 44.3 percent of the country, 14 of the top 20 markets. The goal, says Dell who has brought four of last year's major PBS underwriters over as national sponsors of the Hughes package, is to "clear" stations in at least 60 percent of the U.S. by the French Open telecast in June.
"I went to those four sponsors (American Airlines, Volvo, Fieldcrest Mills and Colgate-Palmolive)," says Dell, who is being criticized in some quarters for selling PBS down the river, "and said," "Ive got a proposal for a million-dollar, 14-tournament package on PBS, or eight tournaments syndicated commercially. Which would you rather do?" Every one said they'd rather buy commercial time."
Greg Harney, executive producer of the PBS series, had proposed a new concept this year called "Match of the Month" because he said there was a backlash within the PBS network over too much tennis in the summer.
His idea was to present one attractive event each month: American Airlines, Volvo Classic, Monte Carlo Open, Italian, French, Washington Star International, U.S. Pro, ATP Woodlands Doubles, Spanish Open, London Indoors, and Australian Open, plus a couple of additional U.S. summer tournaments. The budget, including WGBH's standard but burdensome 45 percent mark-up to cover station overhead, was $1 million.
Dell told Harney he thought it was impossible to raise that much under-writing and made a counter-proposal that Harney says "only a jackass would have accepted."
Versions of what transpired there-after vary greatly. Dell says Harney was unwilling to propose a less ambitious package with a smaller price-tag. Harney says letters offering to do this went unanswered.
Dell says he turned to the syndication route "reluctantly, because I really felt PBS was great for tennis; I'm disappointed we couldn't get the necessary fundraising." Harney says Dell didn't want to try, and that Bob Briner, executive director of ATP, "was hell-bent for syndication, determined to get away from PBS."
"I tried to referee, but it was impossible to get them together," says Collins, who has a 15-year sentimental attachment to Harney and public TV.
"I think if Donald had wanted the PBS series to continue, it would have because Donald is a man who makes things happen. He decided he wanted to make them happen in a different direction. Being a commercial animal, I think he looked around and decided that if he was going to raise a lot of money, it wa easier to sell it commercially and take a piece of it. . . . that's a laudable approach in our culture.
"I told him and Briner that I thought in the long view it would be better for tennis to remain associated with the quality product on PBS, but maybe this is just another one of the casualties of the commercialism of sports," Collins continued.
"We saw a nice era of four years on PBS, and now it's over. The great little show has done in. It's screw the public to make a buck, just like in every other area of pros sport and television."