The amount of sports programming on British television this time of year is staggering even to a degenerate TV sports viewer.
"You have to understand how big sports is in this country," said Jonathan Martin, head of sports for British Broadcasting Company Television, at the BBC production complex on the All England club grounds this week. "We invented a good deal of the major sports. They are cherished and nurtured her even though everybody comes along and beats us at them."
Ninety-five hours of Wimbledon coverage will be aired during the 12 days of the tournament. Last year it was 130 hours because of the rain-extended play. According to one estimate, 25 hours of sports were shown on the three channels here over a two-day period. While tennis blanketed the two BBC channels, BBC 1 and 2, the commercial network, ITV, spanned the world for boxing, track and field, horse racing and cricket.
This past Friday's schedule is representative of the TV sports jubilee during the Wimbledon fortnight.
BBC 1 -- 1:55 p.m. to 4:20 p.m.: Wimbledon action beginning with the first match on Centre Court. 6:20 p.m. to 8 p.m.: more Wimbledon live action plus taped highlights, along with live coverage of a big track meet from Oslo. 8:50 to 9 p.m.: a short review of the Oslo track meet.
BBC 2 -- 2 p.m. to 7:50 p.m.: uninterrupted Wimbledon action beginning with the first match on the grandstand court, which means that Wimbledon action is on both BBC channels from 2 p.m. until almost 4:30 p.m. 10 p.m. to 10:45 p.m.: Wimbledon taped highlights featuring the match of the day.
ITV London -- 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.: a sports news and feature show. 10:30 p.m. to midnight: a package of sports, including the Oslo track meet and tape-delayed showings of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Ayub Kalule and Thomas Hearns-Pablo Baez championship fights from Houston (because of the time difference, most London papers had no reports on Friday of the fights).
Throughout this particular day there whirled before the bloodshot eyes of an avid tube watcher the faces and forms of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert Lloyd, Leonard, Hearns, Steve Ovett and Carl Lewis. In addition, the news programs on the three networks included the usual short sports reports.
At one point Friday, BBC 1 had the Sue Barker-Betsy Nagelson match from Centre Court, while BBC 2 displayed John McEnroe versus Bob Lutz from the No. 1 court. With McEnroe-Lutz still at it on BBC 2 when Barker-Nagelsen ended, Borg-Rolf Gehring took over Centre Court and BBC 1. Jimmy Connors-Tony Giammalva then moved onto the BBC 2 screen. When BBC 1 ended its Wimbledon coverage at 4:20 p.m., BBC 2 soon shifted from the Connors match to the Borg match in midstream because Borg, in minor trouble, was, in the eyes of producer Jonathan Martin, the better news story.
The operation shifted during court changes to quick glimpses of action on the outside courts, along with summaries from an announcer stationed somewhere in the catacombs of Wimbledon.
In the face of all this coverage, some observers might cry out, like the English officer at the end of "The Bridge on the River Kwai": "Madness, madness!" And they do. One critic noted that three high executives of BBC 1 moved to that position from the high sports chair. All these complaints, though, would appear to be as effective as our exasperations with the hype attending the Super Bowl. In any case it has not reached the point yet where anybody is responding to Wimbledon the way one rogue is to the fuss about the upcoming royal wedding. He is running a charter to Ireland the week of the wedding for all those who are stuffed in the gills with hoopla over Lady Diana and Prince Charles.
All this may be a surfeit of sport for a nation limited to three channels. It does raise questions, however, about why Americans never get any coverage like this on the U.S. Tennis Open or equivalent major events that span a few days. The networks can't do it, because sports couldn't rival the ratings of the daytime soap operas.
An independent network might be able to do this, but it's not practical because of the problem of getting air time on local stations. As long as movie reruns bring in more profits to local stations, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" will continue to rule the daytime roost.
That leaves cable television. Could any of the cable programmers muster the cash and the clout to buy the rights to such events and put together the powerhouse production required to televise them? That is something that gadflies ought to contine to put to the cable people as they continue to grow.
BBC's Martin said, "All the air time is justified by the ratings. We get an audience of 5 million watching the live play during the daytime, another 5 million come in after work for the news show and highlights. By the middle of the second week, the audience for the live action will reach 7 million. There will be 12 or 13 million for the ladies final on Friday."
The Borg-McEnroe final last year hit 19 million, which is 38 percent of the TV audience, this on a summer's day. The highest prime-time shows don't do much better than 40 percent.
The BBC coverage is government-financed, of course, allowing it to operate at a loss. British taxpayers accept this as a matter of course. They seemingly would no more protest the underwriting of the BBC than they would the queen.
The BBC pays six figures for the rights, and production costs run close to a million dollars. The coverage is so massive it awes even the NBC people who work in conjunction with the BBC to telecast two weekends of Wimbledon back to the U.S. The BBC uses 16 cameras, five on Centre Court each day, seven by time of the finals. There are four cameras on Court No. 1, one for a special interview room, and two minicameras to cover developments on the farthest corner of this 18-ring circus. Other cameras catch the action from various high perches.
Under Martin, a 39-year-old Oxford graduate who worked his way up the BBC ranks from production assistant, the BBC has expanded it coverage to a deeper consciousness of events outside the two main arenas. They embellish more with interviews. "But not enough. "They still tend to be mired in the inside courts; they don't go after stories the way we do, the way I understand the Americans do."
Their picture coverage is magnificant. They use their staff of nine announcers for blanket coverage of the play, good close-ups and informative isolated slow-motion replays. Martin said, "The thrill is that guys working the high cameras outside the Centre Court are anxious as we are to get whatever is happening out there."
That leaves the question of the BBC approach to telecasting sports events -- the announcing, the production techniques and the like -- as compared to the American way. That's a subject for a future column.