Just when you thought it safe to watch television on weekend afternoons again, NBC and CBS have decided to tinker with their sports anthology shows, producing a slight shift inphilosophy and programming
Sports anthology shows are the networks' curious collection of Olympic-style events, bizarre competitions and junkyard sports. Boxing and bicycling, swimming and skating, track and triathlons, motor sports and marathons.
Twenty-five years ago, ABC launched "Wide World of Sports," and its highly successful format -- giving us a little of this and a little of that over 90 minutes -- spawned several imitators. The current challengers are NBC's "SportsWorld" and CBS' "Sports Saturday" and "Sports Sunday."
While these shows go head-to-head many weekends, the times around them are changing. The sports audience is more splintered because of cable and satellite options. As the networks span the globe for the thrill of human drama, there's a growing sense that we've seen it all.
We've seen the wrist wrestling and mountain climbing and logrolling. We've seen the lethal knockouts and spectacular crashes and dangerous spills.
Something, perhaps, has to give.
ABC doesn't think so. Like its competitors, "Wide World of Sports" has declined in ratings the past year, but remains the leader of anthology shows. In May, "Wide World" will be reduced to one hour for the remainder of the year.
"My general opinion of the format is positive," said Bob Iger, ABC Sports' director of program planning. " 'Wide World' is healthy. Of course, we have to continue to look for new events to cover. You just can't create them."
Over at NBC Sports, consistently the most creative among the networks, the inventive minds are trying to revitalize "SportsWorld." NBC's thinking is that the anthology mix needs some fresh seasoning.
"I think the anthology formats are tired," said Michael Weisman, executive producer of NBC Sports. "I grew up watching 'Wide World' and it was fascinating. We've all followed the same format, and there's a sameness.
"We want to get away from the 10 minutes of Column A, 10 minutes of Column B format. You frustrate the viewer that way. When we have an event of significance, we'll devote an entire program to it. We're giving the viewer a little more credit than in the past for his attention span. We're giving them a full-course dinner instead of an appetizer."
That, along with what Weisman calls a commitment to "less forgettable" programming, is NBC's latest solution. So, in the past few months, "SportsWorld" has given us specials involving sports music videos and pro wrestling. Both shows were an affront to the ear and the eye. However, they're indicative of NBC's effort to broadcast stimulating, talked-about topics.
On May 25, "SportsWorld" will present a sports fantasy special (allowing selected viewers to challenge athletes at their specialties) and another music video show. (Please, please, anything but that!!) In the near future, NBC will try a sports trivia special and a show devoted to the greatest sportswriters and sportscasters in history.
"SportsWorld" certainly won't die because of too much gymnastics.
"To me," Weisman said, "good programming would be letting (boxing promoters) Don King and Bob Arum into a room and letting them go for an hour with a moderator."
To Peter Tortorici, good sports programming might be less sports programming.
"We're going to address the issue (of too much sports on the air) before it reaches a crisis situation," said Tortorici, vice president for program planning at CBS Sports. "The state of the business is in flux. What we're trying to do is give you a little less of the same."
A few months back, when ABC's Iger characterized CBS' anthology format as "essentially a boxing show," he was largely accurate. CBS and NBC, in the past year, depended on boxing more heavily than ABC. According to Tortorici, that's changing at CBS.
"We're going to box more selectively," he said. "We want to make each match more special and try to get the viewer to identify what we do with CBS."
In addition, by summertime, CBS will cut back its anthology hours to "Sports Sunday" only and introduce two new shows -- one involving John Madden and another called "Inside Out," an intelligent sports/features half-hour geared to children.
Yet, CBS still is out there looking for new events -- it will feature more bicycle racing (including the Tour de France) and broadcasters Pat O'Brien and Terry Bradshaw just returned from Alaska, where they covered a dog-sled competition.
That's the nature of the anthology beast: finding enough events, preferably live, to fill a 90-minute show that largely exists to sell us beer, cars and deodorant sprays. The format may not be aging gracefully, but none of its guardians wants to pay the price of pulling the plug.
"Anthology programming is going to stay on," Tortorici said. "Sports still delivers male viewership better than any other type of programming."
Fact: The Seattle Mariners will earn $1.6 million from their local broadcasting rights fees in 1985. That's major league baseball, and the season lasts six months.
Fact: The CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, WCCO-TV, recently paid $1.55 million for the rights to broadcast the Minnesota high school hockey tournament for the next three years. That's high school hockey, and the tournament lasts three days.