The 1970s were a decade of major advances for sports on network television, with soaring audiences, refinement of the instant replay capabilities, and a number of rising new stars in the broadcast booth.
What will the 1980s bring? Washington Post Staff writer Leonard Shapiro recently conducted separate interviews with three of the most influential men in network sports -- Van Gordon Sauter, president of CBS sports; Arthur Watson, president of NBC sports, and Jim Spence, senior vice president of ABC sports. All were asked similar questions. Their comments, taken from taped transcripts of the interviews, follow.
Q: In general, how do you view the future of sports on network television over the next decade?
Sauter (CBS): The furthest we can see down the road is four or five years. Beyond that, you're pretty much going into a fog bank. Over the next four or five years, given the technology that exists and given the nature of the contracts, we don't see any meaningful change in the structure of sports on television. What will happen after that . . . is pretty much dependent on the economics of the new technology, the attitude of the legislators, regulatory people to changing the relationships that people have the sports on televisions. And also, the amount of the country that is wired so that it can receive sports through a different technology than it does now.
Watson (NBC): Without question, I see increased competition for the viewer's time. With the new technologies. . . there will be more there for the individual viewer to choose from; therefore, the competition will be that much more fierce. I think we'll see cable expand, whether that's subscription cable or things like ESPN. Certain services will continue to be dominant -- the networks -- but they will face additional competition.
Spence (ABC): I think there's a question, at least in my mind as to whether the American public on a regular basis is going to be willing to pay for events they now receive for free. I think the answer is that for special events, they will pay, and in all likelihood, that's what's going to happen down the road. You'll see special events, like a heavyweight championship fight, going to pay cable but you're not going to see game 48 of an NBA season going to pay cable. I would think there'd be a lot of concern on the part of Congress and others if special events now available -- a Super Bowl, a World Series -- were taken away from the (general) public. The other factor is exposure. Traditionally, sports organizers are interested in exposure and revenue. We are told that 40 percent of American homes will have the pay cable capability at the end of the decade. Is a sports organizer going to want to see his event exposed to only 40 percent or less of the country?
Q: Are you now facing increased competition from existing cable networks -- ESPN, USA Network, Home Box Office -- to obtain the rights for sporting events?
Sauter (CBS): No. An ESPN has had no meaningful impact on the market place. What we do find is that some rights suppliers (promoters of events committed to the networks on the weekends or in the prime time) want events we do not broadcast freed up so they can use them (when the networks are not televising those particular sports). Take tennis. While we may be the major carrier on a Saturday or on a Sunday, the events we don't cover on a Wednesday or Thursday, they would like to cover. Now, does that diminish our audience or hype it? We don't really know. . . We have just initiated a research effort into what the impact of the new technologies may be on network sports in general. We're realistic enough to know that there are going to be changes. When and in what form, we don't know.
Watson (NBC): No it (increased competition for rights) hasn't reached that stage. You see a few isolated instances, some in the boxing area where HBO particularly and some of the others are now bidding for fights and their bids are competitive with the prices and networks are willing to spend. You also find some of it in the college basketball season. Some baseball clubs, Seattle and the Chicago White Sox, for example, are offering some of their local baseball games exclusively to subscription cable. So you see inroads in certain areas.
Spence (ABC): Take the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick fight in April. HBO did that fight; we passed. The rights fees that the promoter was asking were exorbitant if that fight fight was going to be televised in the daytime. Our interest was in television that fight on Wide World of Sports. HBO aired the fight in prime time. So HBO, the cable industry, can take an event that we don't deem sufficiently attractive for prime-time exposure and put it on in prime time. Their standards seem to be different than the network's standards. So I guess you could say there's competition in an indirect sense.
Q: The National Football League TV contract expires after next year and negotiations are coming up for a new contract. Some people say the next contract the league signs will exceed a billion dollars, and that it may be the last network contract. Your view on the upcoming negotiations.
Sauter (CBS): We go into negotiations sometime in the middle of the summer, and we presume it will be for a four-year contract. What will happen at the end of that four years is going to be dependent upon what changes, if any, are made in the league itself. There is a tremendous number of market place conditions that have to be factored into this, and I don't think we know what those conditions are going to be. . . The league is very insightful as to what the market place will bear. And we see no reason why it will change.
Watson (NBC): There is little doubt in my mind that the rights fees (the fee broadcasters pay for the right to televise an event) will increase, and increase substantially. What actual dollar amount they reach remains to be seen -- that's part of the negotiation. Do I think it's the last contract that will be negotiated with the networks? I certainly do not. I think the NFL recognizes that their support in the past has come from free television, and that's where their fan support comes from as well. I'm sure they will be around with us for a long period of time. (NFL Commissioner) Pete Rozelle is probably one of the most sensitive and knowledgeable people in our business. He knows what the traffic will bear. He's also flexible and understanding as to network problems and it has been an excellent relationship for both sides. I can't visualize Pete doing anything to upset things.
Spence (ABC): I think there might well be some cable experimentation. Going back to what I said before: I think the exposure factor is going to be an important consideration in the mind of the NFL. My guess would be that it really will not be the last network contract.
Q: What about the Olympics? The rights fees for the Los Angeles games were staggering. Are the Olympics getting too expensive for network television?
Sauter (CBS): Well, I don't think there is anyone here who would willingly change places with ABC in a financial sense. Would everybody like to broadcast the Olympics? The answer is an emphatic yes. But CBS reached the conclusion that the cost of it could very well be exhorbitant, as I think it's turning out to be, and that it was just too much of a financial gamble for prudent business people to make. ABC saw it the other way and the accuracy of that will work itself out.
Watson (NBC): ABC thought it was worth that much. Everyone else felt that was too big a bite. Now who was right and who was wrong? We'll find out in 1984. The bidding took place when we were in the process of concluding our arrangements for the Moscow Olympics and before the boycott. So we had a pretty good handle on what we felt the coverage would generate, and we used that experience factor in determining what our level of bidding would be. We decided it was too high a price to pay.
Spence (ABC): We are over 50 percent sold right now for the Olympic Games, a little less than three years away from the Winter Games and more than three from the Summer Games. We fully expect the Olympic Games to be profitable in 1984. The Olympics are special to ABC. By the end of 1984 we will have televised nine of the previous 12 Olympics. The Olympics is an important part of our history and we made a judgment as to what we should pay and we think that is a sound judgment. . . Having said that, I would be less than candid if I didn't say that certainly we would be concerned about the escalation of the rights. At some point things are going to get out of hand. But we think of our investment in both Games as sound and we expect both Games to be profitable.
Q: The National Basketball Association contract with CBS runs out next year, as well. What is the future of the NBA on network television?
Sauter (CBS): The ratings are up 22, 23 percent over two years ago. I personally feel professional basketball is a very viable television sport. One of the problems we have is that the sport itself has some identity problems that need to be corrected. If they can be corrected, I think it's a marvelous television sport. Any sport needs franchises which are well-established locally, which are part of the community and provide some emotional payback to the community. I don't think the franchise system is as deeply embedded as it should be in communities that are being served, and I think that's a local marketing and merchandising problem that has to be solved from within. I discount entirely the feeling that there are too many blacks in basketball.I don't think the sports fan really cares. They want to see an exciting contest, and to me that's the root of the problem . . . At some point before the end on this year, we will sit down with the NBA and begin to talk as to where we go.We have had no internal discussions of any consequence on this matter and I would imagine we wouldn't reach that stage until sometime in July.
Watson (NBC): Like we do on any occasion when a major sporting event is up for renegotiation, we will evaluate that and make a determination. I think a lot of the problem the NBA has had is that there has been too much concentration on a few select teams, not giving exposure to the balance of the league. During the regular season, I think people are more concerned with what's happening in their areas, with an occasional national exposure for the leader in the various divisions. I mean, you can almost predict what the CBS schedule will be.
Spence (ABC): There's no way that we would become involved with the NBA in the manner CBS Sports is now. Secifically, what I'm talking about is playoffs. In my opinion, what CBS has been doing with the NBA playoffs is a disservice to basketball and to the NBA. Either we'd be involved with live coverage of playoff games or we wouldn't be involved with the package. Obviously it's not going to rate as high as the entertainment programming that CBS will put on in lieu of it. Obviously, the finals were hurt during the May ratings sweeps. But my reaction to that is so be it. Just narrow it down to the finals, or the decisive games in the finals. For those games not to be televised live to me is just a disservice to the public, to the league, to the sport and to themselves. There's no question the NBA's got problems in television terms. The season is too long. In my opinion, there's a feeling that exists in the minds of many fans that the NBA players don't care enough, don't put out enough, as opposed to the college players who bust a gut. It's unfortunate, but true, that I think a lot of people are concerned about the number of black players . . . I wish it didn't exist, but I think it does.
Q: What about professional hockey? Why can't the NHL make it on network television?
Sauter (CBS): It's a sport that does not translate to a 19-inch television tube. At the same time, it is a sport that has a fairly narrow geographical base and it does not play to a national audience. But I think the key problem is that it's hard for television to capture the game. Unless you are a dedicated hockey fan, it's very difficult to follow.
Watson (NBC): It's a sport that has limited acceptance by the American viewer. It's very localized, Northern-oriented with limited appeal. Maybe we could do it on a spot basis, (like) Stanley Cup games. There's a valid argument against it in terms of popularity. Soccer is the same way, although soccer seems to be growing. And indoor soccer, which is more scoring-oriented, seems to be growing at even a faster rate and is something we are considering.
Spencer (ABC): I was looking at a replay the other night on an Islanders-North Stars Stanley Cup game and you know, there were a number of goals that were replayed and I didn't see one of them. I couldn't see one single pluck go in the net. In the stands, it's a terrific sport. When you talk about the tube, it becomes a different animal.
Q: how do you view the role of journalism in network television sports?
Sauter (CBS): The people who watch sports on television also watch 60 Minutes or 20/20 or David Brinkley. They read the news magazines and People and U.S. They are well-informed. I think they have a curiosity level now which is not fully satisfied just by networks pointing cameras at fields or rings or courts. They want to know more about the personalities of sports, about the conflicts of sports. And I think we have to respond to that need. As we look into the future, that's one of the things we can do which is not terribly vulnerable to a consortium of pay operators. I think there will be many forms of traditional journalism making their way into television sports journalism.
Watson (NBC): There's no question that there's a place for journalism in what we do. We've had sports journalism for the past three years with a serious effort to address issues in a journalistic way. Our pregame baseball and football programs have shifted their emphasis from just the pieces dealing with the sport to actual sports news of the week. I think in the past, most people thought of sports as an entertainment vehicle rather than a journalistic news medium. But sports became more and more controversial, with people speaking out on issues. I think it's the maturing of the sports divisions recognizing that responsibility in that area.
Spence (ABC): We've included journalistic pieces within our existing programming for many years. We do feel that as the sports world becomes more complex, with social, economic and political factors, that we should get more involved journalistically. We've decided to go forward with our sports magazine this summer. On the other hand, I don't think we should lose sight of our prime responsibility and that is to entertain people and to cover events in the most creative, innovative way we can. You don't need a magazine or a segment of a program to get involved journalistically. If a broadcaster is covering a baseball game and there's an important story there, we will cover it automatically, but as an adjunct to the basic coverage of the event.
Q: Whom do you see as the new starts of the broadcast booth in the 1980s?
Sauter (CBS): We think Brent Musburger is a superb anchor person in the sense that he's very knowledgeable . . . From that point on, you look for specialists. We just re-signed John Madden and Roger Staubach. Madden came out of nowhere, in effect, and through his work for us and his beer commercials, has become one of the most recognized figures in sports today. Also one of the best-liked. It is a personality business. In football, we have fundamentally the same crew we did last year. We may change the pairings of some of these people, but it's the same talent.
Watson (NBC): We think people like Dick Enberg and Bryant Gumbel have great futures. I also think you'll be looking more and more to local stations who have aggressive sports reporters, not just anchor people who read the news but people who get out in the field and comment on sports in your area. Musburger did that for awhile. Gumbel's a perfect example for us. As far as football, we have one new color man, Rocky Bleier. Dick Enberg also wants to do more basseball; that's always been his personal favorite. Joe Garagiolas and Tony Kubeck will continue baseball. They both have long-term contracts.
Spence (ABC): We think Al Michaels is a bright young talent, and we thought that before his performance in Lake Placid . . . Enberg is an excellent talent. Brent Musburger is a very fine commentator. Jim Lampley with us has a bright future. Of our principal people, we have a number of guys who are going to be around for a long time. I'm talking about Frank Gifford . . . Keith Jackson. Howard Cosell is still Howard Cosell. Howard and Jim McKay are obviously older, and it's likely both of them will be cutting back on their activities as the years go by. But they're both going strong.