Over at WRC-TV-4, George Michael says he likes to go for it: the best videotape money can buy and airplanes can fly.
He spent $1,500, for example, to purchase a telephone line that would provide taped highlights less than a half-hour after the Virginia-North Carolina game last month. He spent roughly the same amount to fly the tape of a recent Maryland-Wake Forest game from Winston-Salem to the station in a leased private plane.
But wait. All over town, the scramble to fill the screen with video highlights -- be they of bullfights, rodeo roping, werstling from Bangor, Maine -- has heated up over the last six months. "I think you could look at the sports shows of every 6 o'clock news program in town and honestly there's a tape war going on right now," said one local sportscaster. "Channel 4 is spending big, but everybody else is putting out some money, too."
Michael says he spent about $4,000 in February to make sure he had all the tape that was fit to air. Other people say that figure is terribly low, that he spent almost that much on the Virginia-Carolina game and the private plane alone.
Of course, WRC and the other stations have a number of free sources for their tape, mostly from affiliate NBC, CBS or ABC stations around the country.
Over at WJLA-TV-7, for example, every afternoon at 5 there is ABC's DEF, the Daily Electronic Feed.For an hour, the network will run a number of stories, both news and sports, that all affiliated stations can use. Usually, there are a half-dozen sports packages, features or highlights, that Tim Brant can use at 6 or 11. WDVM-TV-9 and WRC have similar feeds, as does WTTG-TV-5.
"On stories involving local teams, we'll try to set up something with another station in the area of the event," said Craig Wunderlich, the sports producer at WJLA.
"When Joe Gibbs was named the Redskins' coach, we put in a call to our ABC affiliate in San Diego and they did the interview for us. That night.We had the first live interview with the guy. And if they need something from us, we'll trade favors. All the stations operate that way."
The Gibbs interview paled in comparison with Michael's coup of airing a complete highlight package of the Virginia-Carolina game last month, but don't blame Brant and Wunderlich. WJLA had the first shot at getting the same feed from the game, but declined to pay the $1,500 line costs. g
"We tried to talk them into it," Wunderlich said, "and we tried real hard. In that case, I'm sorry we didn't do it. But you also have to face facts. We are not owned by the network. Channel 4 is. We can't afford to get a private plane to go after things like that. They can. Yes it was a coup, but was it really worth it?"
Over at WDVM, money is being spent more for big salaries for on-air talent than for taped highlights. Glenn Brenner broke the bank with his $3.5 million contract and Sonny Jurgensen, Johan Cruyff and Sugar Ray Leonard do not come cheaply. Still, Brenner has made an effort to get more tape to go along with his usual schtick.
Occasionally the tape battles will get nasty. During the recent NFL season, Michael called CBS Sports and asked if he could take highlights from a Dallas-Green Bay game off the satellite. CBS called its affiliate, WDVM, which declined permission.
"People remember that kind of stuff," another sportscaster said. "I don't think we've got open warfare around here by any means. I mean, there are so many sources. Some stations have the satellite feeds. You can get stuff from Ted Turner's superstation, from the cable. So there's lots of tape to be had. But it does get nasty every once in awhile, and as long as there's competition for the stuff, there will be some hanky-panky."
So far, the tape wars have not gotten out of hand. WDVM's news is still the ratings leader, despite the Michael tape blitz.
But everyone is using more tape, including Bernie Smiovitz at WTTG, who said, "Realistically, with my budget, I can't really compete with George on tape. How am I gonna spend $1,500 for one game? Any news department that spends that much money is really in another league. But I think we do all right. We're not embarrassed by what we put out by any means. With George, it's out of this world. With us, we'll do the best we can with what we've got."