Bernie Smilovitz knows he's playing in a slightly different league from the sportscasters at Channels 4, 7 and 9. And he knows, too, that it's tough to get the ratings when the competition is Lou Grant on Monday night, Quincy on Wednesday and J.R. Ewing on Friday.
But Smiloviz -- Bargain basement Bernie from Channel 5, the budget store of local news -- says he's having a delightful time doing sports every night at 10:45, not to mention his work every day on WASH-FM radio.
Smilovitz is 28, Brooklyn-born, Silver Spring-raised, Maryland-educated, radio-trained and not at all uncomfortable competing with the big-budget boys at the network affiliates in town. Even if he occasionally has to scramble for a camera crew. Even if he has no producer. Even if he's the only full-time sports man on the WTTG payroll.
"I honestly believe we put out as good a product as anyone," Smilovitz said the other day. "We've got a satellite receiving station, and that puts us right in the same ball game with anyone. In terms of highlights and tape, we're definitely competitive.
"The competition? The only competition I worry about is 'Dallas.' You think anybody watched me the night they told you who shot J.R.?"
Channel 5's 10 o'clock news, with five points in the February Nielsen ratings, is now fourth in the market behind the 11 o'clock news shows at the other three stations. But it is only two rating points behind Channel 7 and three behind Channel 4. Channel 9 has a lock on the late-night news, with 10 points. But still, somebody out there is watching Bernie Smilovitz.
And what they see is a young, mustachioed and glib broadcaster with a touch of irreverence. They also see a man who has been doing television only 16 months and, occasionally, it shows.
Sometimes he talks too fast. Sometimes he blinks to frequently into the camera. Sometimes, on replays of basketball highlights, he follows every basked with a "boom." Sometimes he gets a bit too sarcastic for his own good. And, sometimes he admits that "a line 10 people will think is funny, another 10 people will think is awful. I think I'm more aware of that now.
"When I look at the tapes of my first couple of months, I thought I was coming off as a real hard guy. I'd shoot a line over at Jackson Bain (the anchor man) and people would misinterpret it. A friend of mine called me one night and said, 'Don't you like Jackson Bain?' I said 'Sure, why?' He said, 'It sure didn't sound like it last night.'
"The thing I've learned is you can't be a phony. You have to be yourself. So I try to take a light breezy approach to it because that's the way I am. The first time I ever did radio, I tried to be Edward R. Murrow. I was working with Jamie Bragg, a guy who really helped me when I first started, and he said, 'You're funny, you've got a great sense of humor. When the mike goes on, don't try to be anything else, and it'll work.'"
Smilovitz started his broadcasting career as a part-time writer at WTOP radio. The day the Hanafi Muslims occupied the B'nai B'rith building, both regular sportscasters were out of town and every other on-air voice was covering the siege. Smilovitz was asked to go on and read the sports.He performed well enough to be asked back the next day, and was soon hired full time.
In his radio days, Smilovitz had a reputation as one of the hardest-working men with a microphone in town. He was everywhere -- ball games, news conferences, the Pimlico backstretch at 6 a.m. and the bars where the Redskins hung out. Nor was he leery of asking a tough question or two. Ask George Allen. He would occasionally try to walk away from Smilovitz in midinterview, but Smilovitz would dog him step for step until he had what he wanted.And Allen never was able to pronounce his name.
Smilovitz had no qualms about going on television cold turkey when Channel 5 hired him in November 1979. The station never provided him with a tutor, never spend much time doing any rehearsals. The first day he showed up for work also was the first day he went on the air.
The station had recently lost Dan Patrick and, frankly, anyone hired to replace him would have been an improvement. Still, Smilovitz was a wreck that first day. He showed up at the station early, kept writing and rewriting his script, then realized at 9 p.m. that he'd forgotten to eat.
He made a quick dash across the street to the Mazza Gallerie, but the only store open -- quite appropriately -- was a nut shop. Two pounds of cashews washed down by several Cokes is hardly the supper of sweaty-palmed sportscasters. But Smilovitz got through the first show without too many problems -- stomach or otherwise -- and has been on ever since.
He has 1 1/2 years left on his contract and says he will be more than happy to stay put. "They've been good to me and I think I've been good to them," he says.
"I'm realistic. We're an independent station. Channel 4 has 14 camera crews. Channels 7 and 9 both have nine crews. We've got three. But I can only think of maybe three or four times since I've been there where I've been told I couldn't have a crew. The day of the assassination attempt, I was not about to ask for a crew.
"But right now, I've got the best of both worlds. I've got television, something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid listening to Warner Wolf, and I've got the radio thing, too, which I really love. How could I not be happy?"
Life can be a kick in the bargain basement, too.