The director of this year's World Series coverage by NBC-TV sat in the basement of his Wayne, N.J. home one morning last week and pored over a sheet of statistics provided by his network's research department. When Harry Coyle came to the estimate of the size of the audience for last Wednesday's seventh Series game, his eyes popped. "Wow—71 million viewers for a prime-time sports event is incredible," he said. "And the researchers claim that 367 million watched the Series. You should only be able to get numbers like those out of China."
If the Nielsen ratings on the Series, which will be released within the next two weeks, match NBC's figures, Game 7 will be recognized as one of the two most watched sporting events ever telecast in the U.S., equaling the audience attracted by the reigning champ, Super Bowl IX. But more surprising than the huge numbers for the seventh game is the fact that they occurred during prime evening hours, when viewers supposedly prefer situation comedies, dramatic series and variety shows to sports. If the estimates are confirmed, they also will be convincing rebuttal to the opinion, widespread on Madison Avenue and in executive offices of the television industry since the mid-1960s, that baseball is too dull or too slow to attract an enthusiastic audience, or is not as videogenic as other sports and thus cannot excite the nation as it once did.
The main reason this Series was able to prove that the country's attention could still be riveted on baseball was because of the prime-time telecasts. As a result of the rains that forced the postponement of Games 6 and 7, which originally were scheduled to be played in the daytime two weekends ago, for the first time five Series games were on television during the evening. While this prompted traditionalists to grumble about baseball becoming a "studio game," the public response was overwhelmingly favorable. And because this occurred, sponsors, promoters and the networks will have to rethink their old assumptions about both baseball and prime-time sports telecasts.
The games were a godsend for NBC. Its ratings during the two weeks of the Series jumped dramatically, an important factor in the tight three-way race with CBS and ABC to attract the largest prime-time audiences. In 1974 CBS beat NBC by .9 of a rating point for the entire television season. Although .9 might not look like much to baseball statisticians, it meant that CBS made an estimated $17.5 million more in advertising dollars than NBC. Baseball's overall image also was helped by the size of the Series audiences, and the immediate benefactor of that could be ABC, which next season will broadcast 16 Monday night games, the All-Star Game and the championship playoffs. There is justice in that. ABC was the first network willing to gamble that sports could establish a toehold in the prime hours. It was a very shrewd bet.
Some of the remaining doubters about prime-time sports claim that the huge audience for Game 7 occurred only because the dramatics of Game 6 briefly turned viewers on to baseball again. But what accounts for the fact that Game 6 had a huge audience (estimated at 62 million) of its own?
The sixth game was one of the best ever played, and NBC rose to the occasion with perhaps the best baseball telecast ever put on the air. Coyle deserves much of the credit for that. At 53, he has worked in more trucks than the entire cast of Movin' On. When he started directing televised baseball games in 1947, he received $65 a week and could not afford to have a TV set in his home. "They cost about $500 then, and I didn't have the money," he says.
Before this year's Series, Coyle, Producer Roy Hammerman and Executive Producer Scotty Connal submitted a list of 25 technicians to the network. "They were all top people, true experts," says Coyle. "When we got 24 of them, we couldn't believe it. NBC really backed us."
Another smart move by NBC was putting a permanent camera position in the left-field scoreboard at Fenway Park for the sixth game, replacing a hand-held camera that was used intermittently in the wall during Games 1 and 2. Having a camera there for the entire game enabled the TV audience to enjoy one of the memorable moments of baseball history.
"Lou Gerard, the cameraman in the scoreboard, was fighting off rats in there most of the night," says Coyle. "He had to keep one eye on the game and another out for rats. When Fisk hit the ball toward left field nobody could tell if it would be fair or foul, so it was great for us when one of our cameras got a good shot of it hitting the pole. And while we were showing the flight of the ball, I glanced over and saw what the scoreboard camera was showing and couldn't believe it. Fisk was trying to use body English to get the ball to stay fair. Then he started to jump up and down and circle the bases. That type of shot is a director's dream. It was a once-in-a-lifetime play and, because of the camera in the scoreboard, we had coverage that was equal to it."
Because NBC had to drop 17 regular prime-time shows to keep the Series on the air, the network suffered a loss in advertising revenues. But shots like the one of Fisk and the insights that the Series rendered about baseball and nighttime sports telecasts turned the games into something that will profit the networks—and fans—in the long run.