Somewhere out there, Ed Baruch says, are unknown high school athletes deserving of attention. Somewhere out there, suggests Branch, are folks wanting to hear about those athletes. Somewhere out there, Branch argues, there's room for a weekly high school sports show in Washington.
Listening to Baruch, you get the feeling he could sell Raid to a roach. He's that good a salesman. These days, his salesmanship is severely tested as he tries to market "The High School Sports Show" on WDCA-TV-20 Sundays at 9 p.m.
Fifteen years ago, Barauch produced a high school football special that was broadcast on Channel 9. More recently, he put together local and national TV packages for the Capital Classic all-star basketball game and produced national high school specials featuring Parade magazine all-Americas.
Reaction to those telecasts convinced Baruch that high school sports could command a weekly following.
Now in its second month, "The High School Sports Show" brings new exposure to scholastic sports, racing through coverage of D.C. and 14 Maryland and Virginia counties in its weekly allotment of 30 minutes. So far, area viewers are ignoring the show in near-unanimity.
The premiere (Sept. 23) drew a 0.5 rating. By the fourth week, the rating had improved to 1.8. (The numbers represent the percentage of television households tuning in.) Up against network movies, presidential debates and blockbuster specials, the scholastic show's numbers indicate it's no more of an intrusion on the prime-time scene than a small burp is at a five-course dinner party.
"In the Washington area, people seem to have a lot of difficulty finding the UHF stations," said Marion Wigham, the show's producer."
Baruch, eternally optimistic, is not worried.
"The sponsors (Giant Food and Roy Rogers, among others) aren't in it for the ratings," said Baruch, the show's executive producer. "They feel that, in the community, they are doing a service.
"As far as the station goes, I'm told here that 9 o'clock on our station gets a zero (rating). If I get a 1, I'm a hero."
Baruch's format, in fact, tries to create heroes out of little-known athletes. The most intriguing aspect of the "Sports Show" is that, essentially, it treats all sports equal.
"Football's the glory sport," Baruch said, "but you've got a kid out there working and running just as hard in cross country. That kid ought to get recognition."
Thus, "The High School Sports Show" tests the sports junkie's limits. Where else can you find Pallotti-O'Connell girls soccer or Severna Park-South River field hockey?
That eclectic overview might drive away the football and basketball fans, but Baruch hopes it pulls in new viewers. The view here is that, regardless of approach, Baruch's show will probably fail.
Can a weekly high school sports show really make it in an area seldom excited by anything other than the Redskins and rush-hour traffic jams? At least two major league baseball teams, three soccer franchises and countless presidents have failed in this town. D.C. folks usually take to high school folks like Wheeling, W.Va., folks take to international politics.
From time to time, local newscasts experiment with scholastic sports coverage, usually with varying degrees of failure. Whether it be occasional features or weekly top 10 polls, most viewers seem to conclude, "That's nice and dandy, but how 'bout telling me more about the NFL, the NBA and tomorrow's weather?"
Finding an audience is just one of Baruch's troubles. The show itself is lousy. There are a couple of nice touches -- like the short takes on outstanding performers -- but generally, the show looks to be on the edge of self-destruction.
First of all, the show operates one week behind on news. Baruch said he considered a live Sunday production but ruled out the idea because of logistical difficulties. Wigham said, "If we had gotten money, we would've done it live on Sunday nights."
Despite the show's carefully defined structure, the presentation taxes the viewer's tolerance. We get three minutes each of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. highlights, followed by segments on the coach, team and players of the week.
There's an old saying: "Names sell newspapers." The "Sports Show" applies this theory to television. Names roll out, one after another. If your own kids play high school sports and don't get mentioned on the show by June, advise them to redirect their interests to science, music or crime.
In the highlights segment, we hear interviews at the same time that we're shown footage, a disorienting sensation. We don't know whether to concentrate on the words or pictures.
Cohosts Leif Elsmo and Yolanda Gaskins recite every player's number, even though that information is flashed on the screen. On one recent show, a player remained nameless, identified only as "No. 10" by Elsmo. At the end of the show, Elsmo related to Gaskins and field reporter Vicki Tamburo that it had been a "great show tonight. I thought it went very well." Sure, you can fault Elsmo for the inaccuracy of his statement, but credit him for creating the broadcast equivalent of a Fun Bunch high five.
Moreover, the studio interviews with featured athletes and coaches are indistinguishable from one another. Elsmo and Gaskins start almost every interview with the statement, "Tell us about your records," or "Tell me about your team." With little insight or unusual background on any one subject, by the end of the show everyone starts sounding like the same senior cocaptain who's been all-county for two years and practices year-round.
They're trying hard, much like the athletes they highlight, but they're not scoring any points.