It is perhaps the most recognizable, most significant television sports show in history. Which makes it remarkable to think that ABC's "Wide World of Sports" originally was scheduled as a 20-week summer replacement, almost was canceled before it began because of a lack of advertising and had its name changed four days before its debut.
It was scheduled to be ABC's "World of Sports" until the late switch made it "Wide World of Sports." The show first aired April 29, 1961, and in the generation since, the world of television sports has been changed forever.
"What people take for granted today was revolutionary 25 years ago," said Dennis Lewin, coordinating producer of "Wide World" for 15 years and now ABC Sports' vice president, production. "We always took chances . . . The key to taking chances is not being reactive to viewers' tastes but leading viewers' tastes."
"Wide World of Sports" acclimated a generation of Americans to watching a lot of sports television. It was the birth of the anthology genre of sports TV -- the Column A, Column B approach to programming that gave the viewer an eclectic, erratic freedom of choice. If "Monday Night Football" created a new social dialogue and changed America's eating and sleeping habits one evening a week, "Wide World" had conditioned that audience years earlier to expect sports television to be special.
Roone Arledge conceived the format and Jim McKay was his point man on the air, spanning the globe to bring us the constant variety of sport. "Wide World" created an unprecedented flood of endless images. Think back -- to McKay and Howard Cosell, Cathy Rigby and Olga Korbut, Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, Peggy Fleming and Janet Lynn, Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Evel Knievel. Vasily Alexeev. The Harlem Globetrotters.
"Wide World," in effect, created a new sports world -- outside of baseball, basketball and football -- and brought that world into our homes for the first time, establishing a foothold in our athletic culture for previously neglected games. Kids, suddenly, wanted to be gymnasts and figure skaters, and viewers were enchanted by the new pastimes.
"It's part of the vernacular," CBS Sports Executive Producer Ted Shaker said of "Wide World," which has had more than 1,300 telecasts. "If you've got nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, maybe you'll watch 'Wide World.' There's a sense of security -- it's going to be there."
"I grew up with 'Wide World' as a part of my week, the highlight of my weekend," said NBC Sports Executive Producer Michael Weisman. "As a kid, it used to give me goose bumps when they went live to the Soviet Union or someplace like that . . . They used to do those travelogues. I loved those travelogues. You sat there with your mouth wide open.
"They brought an appreciation of other sports to us. Track and field, in particular . . . Even the cliff diving from Acapulco I used to love."
In a sense, the glory days for "Wide World" are over. It has suffered in recent years from the glut of sports programming. All three networks run anthology series, and ESPN, in effect, is a 24-hour anthology programmer.
"The public has become jaded," Weisman said. "It's no longer such a big deal to get pictures from around the world."
But "Wide World" has survived, partly because viewing habits are hard to break, partly because the show still televises relatively attractive events. ABC is the big-event sports network, and of the anthology shows, "Wide World" still attracts the most big events.
Of course, there have always been more than just big events on "Wide World." There have been frisbee catching contests for dogs, demolition derbies, wrist wrestling, baton twirling.
"We pride ourselves in doing the best of the non-major events," Lewin said. " 'Wide World' is still big events mixed in with unique events. Look at how the Ironman Triathlon has taken off in the past few years.
". . . People care about people almost as much as they care about events. We've always tried to bring back stories about a country's life style, culture, geography. Everything we do at ABC Sports evolves from the 'Wide World' philosophy -- the way we do 'Monday Night Football,' our Olympic coverage. The Olympics, for us, are an extension of 'Wide World of Sports.' "
The challenge for current "Wide World" coordinating producer Curt Gowdy Jr. is to restore some of the show's sparkle in a crowded viewing environment.
And the show is changing. With McKay, 65, cutting back on his schedule, various hosts often have found tough treading. ("I think Becky Dixon stands a chance of reversing 30 years of progress," Shaker said.) And "Wide World's" glow was hurt a bit by the show's expansion; a Sunday "Wide World" began appearing on occasion in 1974. To again make "Wide World" seem more special, Lewin said "we've made a conscious decision not to program Sundays anymore."
So it's back to Saturdays only, sans McKay. And even if the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat don't feel quite as compelling as they once did, "Wide World" deserves our gratitude. After all, we'll always have Paris -- or at least, as is the case here, Grenoble and Moscow and Peking and the rest of the world.
'WIDE WORLD' MILESTONES April 29, 1961 -- Show premieres, televising Penn Relays and Drake Relays.
July 15, 1962 -- First TV coverage of British Open golf, from Troon, Scotland.
April 11, 1964 -- First world heavyweight title fight on "Wide World": Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston.
June 5, 1965 -- First network telecast of Indianapolis 500.
May 21, 1966 -- Muhammad Ali-Henry Cooper bout is first title fight beamed live from Europe and first live heavyweight title fight on home TV since 1959.
April 17, 1971 -- Coverage of the United States-China table tennis meetings, the beginning of the famous "Ping-Pong Diplomacy."
Aug. 28, 1971 -- United States-Cuba volleyball from Havana, the first time a U.S. network covered a sporting event in Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
May 12, 1979 -- Coverage of the world table tennis championships in Pyongyang, the first network sports trip into North Korea.
July 11, 1982 -- U.S. television's first live coverage of the World Cup soccer final.