history of sportscasting, like almost everything else on television,
is rooted in radio. Radio's first generation of great sportscasters--Graham
McNamee, Ted Husing, Tommy Cowan, Harold Arlin, Ford Frick, and
Grantland Rice--transformed the airwaves into an "arena of the mind"
in which hyperbole would become honored as an art. McNamee, regarded
as the first well-known play-by-play announcer, was unapologetic
about sacrificing accuracy for excitement. His emphasis on enthusiasm,
of course, lives on in the television performance of John Madden.
The radio days of sportscasting are notable as a period when sporting
events would be "re-created" from bare-bones wire service reports.
Announcers located in studios sometimes hundreds of miles away from
the game site used sound effects and imaginative language to manufacture
the impression that they were actually on location and describing
the play-by-play action as it unfolded on the field of play. Perhaps
the most notable conjurer of the illusion of sport re-creation landed
his first job in the entertainment industry at WOC in Davenport,
Iowa, as a football announcer. The year was 1932 and Ronald "Dutch"
Reagan, who 48 years later would ride his oratorical skills into
the White House as the 40th president of the United States, was
paid $5 a game for his services. Many of the second generation of
distinguished radio sportscasters--Mel Allen, Red Barber, Jack Brickhouse,
Clem McCarthy, Lindsay Nelson, and Bill Stern--would later be prominent
voices in television's first decades as a mass medium. Two of this
group, Allen and Barber, were the first broadcasters to be enshrined
in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
programming played a central role in transforming television into
a mass medium in the late 1940s, stimulating much of the initial
demand for this expensive new technology. As much as 30% of the
prime-time schedule was devoted to sports programming during this
In urban centers, many Americans' first television experience was
watching an athletic contest on a set prominently displayed at the
local tavern. Although roller derby and bowling also played well
on the small screen, the sports best suited to the limitations of
primitive television sets were boxing and professional wrestling.
During this period when most television programs were sponsored
by a single company, Gillette's Cavalcade of Sports stayed
on the air for 14 years, the longest continuous run of any television
boxing show. The prototypical wrestling announcer, Dennis James,
would become one of the first sportscasters to become known solely
for his performances on television. Sportscasting in the 1950s basically
followed the radio pattern of enthusiasm.
and their employers, conceived of their role as being ambassadors
of the game. As exemplified by the partisan commentary of Chicago
Cub's announcers Bert Wilson and Harry Caray, many operated as boosters
for a franchise. Point men in the team's public relations efforts,
these sportscasters are often identified as the beloved "voice"
of their organizations.
the 1960s, television sports would be revolutionized by the advent
of instant-replay technology. Introduced on 31 December 1963, during
the Army-Navy football game, instant replay would figure prominently
in enabling the phenomenal rise in popularity of televised football
during the 1960s. Unseating boxing as the supreme made-for-TV sport,
slow-motion replay technology made chaotic combat on the gridiron
into an aesthetic experience in which even the most grotesque display
of brutality (for example, the snapping of Joe Theismann's leg)
became a thing of beauty, a kind of improvised ballet of violent
masculinity. In 1964, immediately after the advent of instant replay
technology, CBS paid an unprecedented $28 million dollars for television
rights for NFL games and instantly recouped its investment with
two $14 million sponsorship contracts--one with Ford Motor Company,
the other with Philip Morris.
Establishing Sunday afternoons, once considered a "cultural ghetto,"
as a showcase for the masculine melodrama of professional football
would set the stage for premiering what would eventually become
the single most significant regularly-scheduled special event of
the television year--The Super Bowl. Known then as the World Championship
Game, the first match-up between the top teams in the AFL and NFL
was played on 15 January 1967, and did not attract enough paying
customers to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum game site--even with
a local blackout of televised game coverage. The game was carried
by both CBS and NBC. In pre-game promotions, both networks emphasized
the excellence of their sportscasters. CBS offered its regular NFL
announcer/analyst staff of Ray Scott, Jack Whitaker, Frank Gifford,
and Pat Summerall, while NBC featured Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman.
However, The New York Times found that the much ballyhooed
competition between the two sportscasting staffs "proved to be malarkey
. . . never were two networks more alike." Despite such negative
reviews, the Super Bowl quickly caught on. In 1972, Super Bowl VI
established a new record for the largest audience ever to watch
an American TV program, a record since surpassed by several other
Super Bowl telecasts.
account of sportscasting in the 1960s and 1970s would not be complete
without acknowledging the influence of Roone Arledge, the man who
first penned the lines (on the back of an airline ticket), "the
thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." In the early 60s, as the
architect of what was destined to become the longest running sports
program on television, Arledge hired a young Baltimore announcer
named James K. McManus to host ABC's Wide World of Sports.
After McManus changed his name to Jim McKay, he would go down in
broadcast history as the man who first informed the world about
the tragic terrorist attack that took the lives of ten Israeli athletes
at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany. As an ABC vice-president,
Arledge played an instrumental role in the adoption and refinement
of instant replay. Then, after being promoted to president of ABC
Sports, Inc., Arledge would author yet another American institution,
Monday Night Football. When Arledge's salary reached the
one-million-dollar mark in 1975 he was considered the television
industry's highest-paid executive.
philosophy of sportscasting was established early on when, in 1961,
he adopted a policy of not signing contracts that included the traditional
announcer-approval clause. This policy made ABC the first network
to allow critical commentary to accompany the play-by-play, a clear
break with the obligatory boosterism of sportscasting's past. This
philosophy is perhaps most clearly embodied in Arledge's underwriting
of Howard Cosell's stormy career. Arledge designed the innovative
narration of Monday Night Football around Cosell's quasi-journalistic
commentary. Thanks to the Cosell factor, the bantering of the most
memorable stars of Monday Night Football--Cosell, Frank Gifford,
and Don Meredith--was both controversial and tremendously successful.
Often humorous and sometimes rancorous disputes between Cosell and
Meredith, refereed to a certain extent by Gifford, made even the
most lopsided contest entertaining. While the public loved it when
Meredith won an argument with a well-placed zinger, Cosell, near
the end of his life, got the last laugh. In 1994, Cosell joined
the elite ranks of Jim McKay, Lindsay Nelson, Curt Gowdy, Chris
Schenkel, and Pat Summerall when the National Academy of Television
Arts and Sciences recognized his accomplishments with a Lifetime
Achievement Award. In the post-Cosell era, the mantle of the sportscaster
that Americans love to hate is now worn by Brent Musburger.
former Miss America Phyllis George is generally credited with breaking
sportscasting's gender barrier in 1975 when she joined The NFL
Today on CBS, at least one woman performed as a color commentator
in the 1950s. Her name was Myrtle Power and she was signed by CBS
after achieving brief celebrityhood as a baseball expert on The
$64,000 Question. While women have continued to make inroads
into sportscasting, it has not been without struggle. Perhaps the
most confounding obstacle involves female access to male locker
rooms, the subject of much controversy during the 1980s and 1990s.
Jocko Maxwell, an African American who went to work as a sports
announcer in 1935 for WHOM in Jersey City, New Jersey, is recognized
as the person who first crossed sportscasting's color line. Recently,
several African Americans have distinguished themselves as announcers
and commentators, the most noteworthy and notorious being Irv Cross,
Bryant Gumbel, Jayne Kennedy, Joe Morgan, Ahmad Rashad, and O. J.
Simpson. Even so, racism, like sexism, is still alive in the world
of television sportscasting as demonstrated in 1988 in a racist
comment by Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder. A well-known odds-maker, Snyder's
career as a game analyst on CBS was curtailed when it was reported
that he attributed the competitive excellence of African American
athletes to selective breeding.
the launching of ESPN in 1979, sportscasting entered a new era.
ESPN quickly became the first profitable basic cable network and
is currently available in over 59 million U.S. television households
making it the largest cable network. As the dominant national supplier
of sports-related programming to cable systems, ESPN has had a profound
impact on both the economic and stylistic dimensions of sportscasting.
Largely because of ESPN's "March Madness" coverage, NCAA basketball's
annual 64-team national championship tournament has joined the World
Series and the Super Bowl as a mega-event on the television calendar.
ESPN coverage is also responsible for cultivating a larger following
for women's basketball and men's baseball at the collegiate level.
the ESPN era in sportscasting has been marked by what media critic
Leslie Savan calls "the ironic reflex." This style, associated with
the postmodern turn in popular culture, appeals to the "Bud Bowl"
generation--a generation that pays more attention to the Super Bowl
commercials than to the game itself. Rightfully or wrongfully, this
generation believes that being conscious of the contrivances of
television's commercialism makes it somehow immune to its manipulation.
NBC's Bob Costas surely ranks as the most sophisticated and celebrated
member of the new wave of hyper-cool sportscasters. Earning five
Sports Emmy Awards between 1987 and 1994, Costas's postmodern credentials
were validated when NBC scheduled his interview show, Later with
Bob Costas, in the time slot immediately following the nightly performance
of television's king of irony, David Letterman.
Three of ESPN's most familiar sportscasters put very different spins
on the postmodern style. Chris Berman impersonates Cosell's "He...could...go...all...the...way!"
when narrating football highlights on Sportscenter, the terrifically
popular sports news show that appears daily on ESPN. However, Berman
is best known as a punster whose nicknames for baseball players
(e.g., Roberto "Remember the" Alomar, Greg Gagne "with a spoon,"
Wally "Absorbine" Joyner) command their own page on the World Wide
Web. In contrast to Berman's playfulness, Keith Olbermann, another
regular on Sportscenter, is the epitome of postmodern cynicism.
As a sportscaster with an attitude, Olbermann carries on the Cosell
tradition of opinionated commentary, but inflects it with the Costa-esque
smirk or the Groucho-Marxian raised eyebrow. On ESPN's college basketball
beat, Dick Vitale takes enthusiasm over the edge, the excessiveness
of his hyperkinetic performance making Vitale a parody of himself.
yet, amidst all the winks, nudges, insincerity and excess of contemporary
sportscasting, there is still a profitable place for good, old-fashioned
enthusiasm. In 1993, after Fox outbid CBS for the rights to broadcast
NFC football, John Madden negotiated a contract with Rupert Murdoch
that would pay Madden $30 million over four years. With that deal,
Madden, a sportscaster who emotes the sincere enthusiasm of sportscasting's
pre-ESPN days, became the highest paid sportscaster of all time.
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also Sports and Television