When newspaper reports a year ago revealed that financial arrangements for four "Heavyweight Championship of Tennis" matches were not at all as represented by CBS, the network's sports executives did not react with urgent concern.
Robert Wussler, head of CBS Sports when the tennis series began and president of the CBS Television Network when the relevations were made last May, said initially: "I wouldn't exactly say we suffered a black eye ... Frankly, all this hasn't been a subject of very wide interest or discussion in the sports world. I really think most people don't care .... A year from now these disclosures won't have any impact at all. It will all be forgotten."
Ah, the irony of those words in retrospect.
Wussler was demoted back to chief of sports last October and then eased out of CBS employ altogether. His departure, apparently becuse of what has become known as the "winner-take-all scandal," was announced last month and effected last week.
It is safe to assume Wussler no longer underestimates the significance of the case - in the short term at CBS, where it could still cost the network dearly if the Federal Communications Commission is in a punitive mood, and in the long run for the industry, in arousing the FCC from its former posture of benign neglect of network sports programming.
The facts are familiar by now. Briefly the "challenge matches" between Jimmy Connors and four opponents were not "winner-take-all,' as billed on the air and in print. Except for the first, in which the winner got $100,000 and the loser $60,000, there was no purse at stake; both players were paid substantial pre-agreed sums of percentages, win or lose.
CBS also failed to reveal, as required by law, promotional considerations paid by Caesars Palace, the Las Vegal hotel which received frequent on-air plugs during the three matches played there. After a lengthy inquiry, the FCC concluded that CBS was responsible for misleading the public and making inaccurate statements to investigators.
Final determination of the case is still perhaps a month away, but one result seems clear: the FCC will scrutinize network sports programs much more closely than before. Instead of monitoring only shows originated by-local stations, whose licensing is its major concern, the commission will watch the networks to ensure that their programs aren't misleading.
"I believe that to meet its statutor obligations, this commission must conduct much closer surveillance of network activity, especially in the sporting area," says Joseph Forgarty, one of the seven members of the FCC.
Though the networks are insulated from direct regulation (the FCC's power lies chiefly in its control of station licenses), Forgarty says "they have an obligation through the stations they own and operate to live up to the same public interest mandate imposed on every station."
Fogarty declined to comment specifically about the CBS case, on which he still must sit in final judgment But he said the chief of the Division of COmplaints and Compliance of the Broadcast Bureau would likely be called in soon and asked, "What policies should we establish in order to conduct ongoing surveillance to assure that this doesn't happen again?"
The majority of Forgarty's colleagues - all of whom are appointed to seven-year terms by the president and approved by the Senate - are said to be similarly eager to show the networks that the FCC is "a forceful entity and not just a regulatory eunuch."
This newly assertive attitude has not been lost on network executives.
"As a result of our experience with these matches, we have instituted internal controls aimed at preventing future occurrences of this sort," Gene F. Jankowski, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, said in an apologetic six-minute statement broadcast two weeks ago in an apparent attempt to placate the FCC.
When Wussler was purged, Barry Frank - who headed CBS Sports while Wussler was network president - was conspicuously passed over for his job. Frank had helped promote the first of the tainted tennis matches and sold it to CBS before joining the network.
Instead, Frank M. Smith Jr. was appointed acting president of CBS Sports, reportedly because of his "Mr. Clean" reputation in 27 years with the network.
Last week CBS announced it intends to abandon an arrangement for exclusivity in televising the fights of 1976 Olympic lightweight champion Howard Davis. Exclusive contracts between boxers and networks, such as CBS's with Davis and ABC's with fellow Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard, are one subject certain to be examined for possible improprieties.
"We're going to watch ourselves, and you can bet the other networks will watch themselves too," says one CBS Sports executive. "It's just a hunch, but I think the 'made-for-TV' sports could be in trouble. Next year I think you'll see more 'legitimate' events, at least on CBS."
The year-long case is winding to close and will probably be placed on the FCC calender for final adjudication next month. No one knows what sanctions, if any, the commission will impose. It could do nothing, admonish CBS, reduce the license renewal time of any or all of the network's five "owned-and-operated" stations, an expensive and humiliating punishment, or even designate one or all of the stations for a hearing and possible license revocation.
The FCC is not likely to exercise this last, most severe option, but no matter how harsh or lenient it is with CBS, the commission has let the networks know it is watchingthem. This should go a long way toward discouraging recurrence of CBS's mistakes.
CBS got more than a black eye from the tennis caper, as Bob Wussler undoubtedly realized last week as he left the network where he went quickly from fair-haired boy to bete noir.