Every July, a friend and I have a sporting contest. As soon as NBC's "Breakfast at Wimbledon" commences, he attempts to hold his breath while I attempt to listen to Bud Collins. The first person to run outside for air and water is the loser.
I've lost four straight years.
By and large, NBC's two-week coverage of Wimbledon is steady. From the camera and production work to the taped features and late-night updates, the network deftly handles the world's most important tennis tournament.
Except that the people at NBC aren't satisfied just to bring us wonderful pictures and graphics. No, they've got to bring broadcasters along and, what's more, they let them talk.
The biggest problem lies with Collins. At 9:30 on a Sunday morning, his bombastic style greets you like a nuclear alarm clock. He generally uses two forms of analysis -- during points, he says, "Ooooh!" "Aaaah!" or "Oh!" Between points, he coins nicknames.
In one narrow sense, Collins is the Howard Cosell of tennis -- you love him or hate him. Suffice to say that if Collins is regarded as the main course of NBC's breakfast, I'd prefer to wait until lunch.
Play-by-play broadcaster Dick Enberg and analyst JoAnne Russell fare better. Enberg tried to be understated much of the time and Russell provided good strategic insight during the Evert-Navratilova final, but still they were guilty, along with Collins, of frequently stating emptily how good points were and how hard the opponents were playing.
Broadcasters, by definition, feel the need to fill air time by broadcasting, and that's the problem. NBC and other U.S. observers like to poke polite fun at BBC's restrained approach, in which nary a word is spoken while the ball is in play. But from this viewpoint, that's the less insulting approach.
Collins says U.S. audiences wouldn't stand for such a low-keyed broadcast, that we like "the babble."
But in fact, tennis lends itself as well as any sport to announcerless treatment. We easily can see what's going on and, if the network simply flashed the score of each game between points and the score of the match after every game, we'd have all the information needed.
Even on replays, commentary usually is superfluous. Collins or Russell essentially guide us through each stroke: "Now, watch this backhand, and what a reaction from Curren as he stretches out and punches back the volley." Well, we can see all that. That's why they call it television.
NBC's weakest moments came when its cameras and voices strayed from the tennis. NBC, for instance, tried to persuade us that all of West Germany was following the fortunes of Boris Becker. And in the men's singles final, the innumerable shots of Becker's parents and Kevin Curren's girlfriend reacting to shots were an irritating intrusion. (Ever since ABC chronicled the Pittsburgh Pirates' "We Are Family" World Series title in 1979 by following all the players' wives in the stands, network television has not tired of this innovation.)
NBC has brought us Wimbledon since 1969, including live coverage of the men's singles final seven straight years and live coverage of the women's final four straight years. Yet for all its experience, it still gives us too much clutter and too much talk. Perhaps by 1986, NBC will tinker with its approach and muzzle its microphones, but I won't be holding my breath.