Today we take you back to 1981 when Jim Murray’s column was focused on a brand new TV channel, ESPN, and the man who made it happen, Chet Simmons.
Sports broadcasting and cable pioneer Chester R. (Chet) Simmons served as president of ESPN when it launched in 1979. As a founding father of sports television, Simmons started in 1957 with Sports Programs, Inc., which soon evolved into ABC Sports, where he was instrumental in the development of Wide World of Sports. He became president of NBC Sports and later of ESPN, and was founding commissioner of the USFL.
Thank you, ESPN, for always being in the JMMF corner.
THURSDAY, JUNE 4, 1981, SPORTS
Copyright 1981/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
The Dawning of the Age of Cable TV
In the early 1920s, a new medium, radio, and a new monopoly, network broadcasting, burst on an unprepared public and the satraps of the industry were quickly locked in bitter ideological conflict.
On one side were forces headed by Gen. David Sarnoff, ruler of a conglomerate, Radio Corporation of America. He held that the greatest good the new medium could perform was to move goods. In other words, it should be a giant advertising agency whose entertainment specialties, like the old medicine shows, should be used primarily to sell snake oil, to unclog the pipelines of American’s manufactured goods.
On the other side were the forces of free enterprise, which thought the entertainment should be sold directly to the public at the marketplace, just as stage, screen, sports and penny arcades were. Put your nickel in the slot and see the show. Pay-radio, not advertising — subsidized radio.
Gen. Sarnoff prevailed. He usually did. Pay-radio never came into being. Instead, toothpaste companies controlled the medium. They hired the comics, paid the orchestras, leased the wires. Razor blade companies brought you the World Series. Beer bottlers put on the Wednesday night fights. Pro football broadcasts carried sales pitches for shaving lather.
When television came in, the old argument reopened. Executives such as Gene McDonald, president of Zenith Radio and Television, argued for selling products direct to home owners. His reasoning: Why should a World Series, which could gross $40 million a day if everybody who watched paid a dollar, sell radio rights for $175,000 and TV rights for $65,000 (as it did then in 1949)?
McDonald and pay-TV advocates were blocked at every turn, largely by an aggressive mob of 12,000 movie exhibitors whose business was doomed anyway. They collected signatures and stopped pay-TV in its tracks. It was like the buggy-whip manufacturers collecting signatures to prevent the manufacturer of carburetors, but for a while the illusion of “free” TV prevailed. There is no such thing as free TV, actually. You paid for Jack Benny and the World Series, anyway.
But all this is ancient history, Pay-TV is alive and well and proliferating. Only this week the industry, which once held its convention “in a clothes closet in Las Vegas,” drew 12,000 conventioneers and 350 exhibitors to its three-day annual gathering in Los Angeles, attesting to its growth and vitality. The business’ enemies thought two decades ago they had patted it in the face with a shovel.
It’s called Cable TV today, but it’s the same business. Gen. Sarnoff would be aghast. It managed to escape the political buzz-saws of “fee” TV in the nick of time because it happened to be needed. When there proved to be massive pockets of population unreachable by an ordinary TV signal because they were behind mountains or other interrupters, entrepreneurs built community antennas and charged the subscribers for piping the pictures into their living rooms. Not even Gen. Sarnoff could say, “You can’t do that!” Nobody could collect signatures to take away television altogether from your home screen. So, pay TV had its foot in the door.
I had breakfast the other day with a TV executive who has a foot in both doors. Chet Simmons, when I first knew him, was in charge of sports programming for NBC in the days when competition for network sports preeminence made the Dodgers-Giants look like two sisters dancing.
It’s well to remember that the American Football League succeeded where earlier expansion leagues had failed, simply because NBC needed it. No other single factor contributed so much to its success. NBC could not tolerate putting on Sunday afternoon zoo shows while CBS was showing the real Lions and Rams and keeping score.
Chet Simmons runs an operation called The Total Sports Network, ESPN (for “Entertainment Network”) with headquarters in Bristol, Conn., of all places. It’s an audacious enterprise bankrolled by Getty Oil. It welcomes advertising, but it distributes its product by cable system, a bit of Roman riding that Gen. Sarnoff never thought of.
“We are advertising-supported, we generate revenue the same way the three networks do,” Simmons said. “We are in affiliate agreements with cable systems. But we are in one business and one business only, we are a program source for the cable industry, that’s all we do.”
Where does a 24-hour all-sports network find product? Would you believe televising the NFL draft? Twenty guys sitting around a room for 8-1/2 hours sorting out photographs of kids with 20-inch necks whose classes had graduated from A&M (usually without them). That’s entertainment?!
“Believe it,” says Simmons, convincingly. “To our viewers, it’s news, it’s entertainment, it’s suspense.” Lyrics by Irving Berlin.
What do you show at 4 o’clock in the morning, Chet, barroom fights? Reruns of the Cincinnati Bengals picking a linebacker? No. Chet said reruns of an event first programmed live the evening before are as avidly watched by sports fans as Saturday afternoon cowboy movies are by kids. They will watch the same film over and over. Especially if the good guys win.
Where otherwise do you get product? Well, Simmons notes, the major networks leave an astonishing amount of prime sports footage just laying around. Not Notre Dame-Michigan, the World Series or the Super Bowl, perhaps. But they do leave the college World Series of Baseball and the NCAA golf tournaments.
Even the famous Notre Dame-Brigham Young basketball playoff of last year was up for grabs. ESPN grabbed it. ESPN has the advantage, too, that it is all sports. It does not have to go pettifogging off after comparative trivialities such as elections, assassinations, wars, revolutions, drownings, floods, and other dilemmatic happenings of the non-world out there. If it doesn’t happen between the foul lines, so far as ESPN is concerned it’s a non-story.
Network-station sportscasts usually have a breathless announcer trying to cram in 24 scores, a shouted interview with a third baseman on the way to a shower, and a look at a three-horse spill at Aqueduct, all sounding like Donald Duck interviewing Mel Tellis — film at 11. Rush-hour train-calling at Grand Central is more entertaining — and informative.
How fair is the box office?
“In May of 1979, we had a million and a half subscribers,” reports Simmons. “In May of 1981, we have 10 million.”
How close is cable TV to bidding competitively against the networks for a World Series, a Super Bowl, the Olympic Games?
“We are a long way from making money,” Simmons said “But, when it was estimated that it would take $400 million to wire the Borough of Queens for pay-TV, 20 applicants bid for the privilege of spending $400 million. So you know what the return is they were looking at. The networks are now looking into cable TV themselves. What does that tell you?”
It tells me it’s a good thing Gen. Sarnoff isn’t around to hear it.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116
What is the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation?
The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.
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A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.
Our mission is to empower women of all ages to succeed and prosper — in and out of sports — while entertaining the reader with Jim Murray’s wit and hyperbole. An excellent teaching tool for Women’s Studies.
Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization providing sports journalism scholarships at universities across the country.