When we began celebrating broadcasting’s 100th birthday, it was a salute to radio, born in 1921.
American ingenuity began focusing on television before the war. But it wasn’t until after the war that viewers slowly embraced the tiny TV screens that produced only shadowy black and white pictures. The sets themselves were fairly expensive and the signals were fidgety. Rabbit-ear antennas were annoying and those on roof-tops had their issues when hit by unpredictable weather.
Home television ownership, a rarity during the 1940’s, grew in the post-war boom years of the 1950’s. While only about 9% of Americans owned first generation TVs in 1950, the numbers jumped to above 80% by 1960. By 1967, technology was enhanced. Color sets were fairly common and TV overall had built critical mass.
MLB, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL were uniquely equipped to take advantage of the TV phenomenon. And in future years, TV and expanded versions thereof would serve as the most lucrative source of sports revenue.
From then and there to now:
The first World Series was televised and seen only in New York and aired on several stations. The 1947 Classic was watched by an estimated 3.9 million people (many watching in bars and other public places). The Series became television’s first mass audience.
The first NFL title game on TV was called by Harry Wismer who did the first five NFL title matchups on TV, starting on ABC and then DuMont which later went bankrupt. Wismer eventually bought the AFL’s New York Titans which late became the NY Jets.
NBC acquires exclusive rights to the World Series; Mel Allen begins his dominance of calling the big sports events in the 1950s. Representing the Dodgers on NBC, Vin Scully did four Series in the decade of the nifty fifties .
Scully, 25, replaces Red Barber representing the Dodgers on NBC’s Fall Classic telecasts. The announcers would work alone, each voice, half of the game. The two generally didn’t communicate with one another during their respective innings.
NBA does its first network TV deal, coming to terms with fledgling DuMont. The following year NBC got the rights. Marty Glickman was assigned the first couple years. Lindsey Nelson followed.
Scully (left) and Mel Allen preside as the Dodgers win their first ever Series.
Bill Stern, sports director of NBC Radio Sports was scheduled to do the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans for ABC Television. But he was addicted to drugs like morphine. As he began to open up the game broadcast, his mouth froze. He went through treatment for addiction. He died 15 years later of a fatal heart attack at age 64. The 1956 event opened up the doors for Ray Scott to advance. He did.
Something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since, the Yankees’ Don Larsen pitches a perfect game. Vin and Mel were mesmerized like all those at the big ballpark.
The football Giants and the Baltimore Colts match up in the NFL title game. At the end of regulation, the teams were tied. The league’s rule mandated that the teams go into overtime. The country was mesmerized and taken by storm. Football proved it is a sport made for TV. In time, the NFL would overtake baseball as the national pastime. Chris Schenkel and Chuck Thompson were on the call.
Curt Gowdy partners with Mel Allen on Braves-Yankees World Series over NBC Television. It’s Gowdy’s first of many. He would become Voice on NBC Sports in the mid 60s and dominate national play-by-play for a dozen years, doing early Super Bowls and the Final Fours.
The American Football League was born. ABC TV had the rights. First broadcasters were Les Keiter and Jack Buck. In 1965, the AFL sold its rights to NBC which continued as a rightsholder through the NFL merger and beyond. Gowdy became the Voice of the AFL and later the AFC of the merged NFL.
The new Sports Broadcasting Act passed by Congress in 1961 exempted the NFL and other leagues from anti-trust laws. As such, the NFL and other leagues were able to represent all their teams as a single unit for TV rights. MLB had been exempt from Sherman anti-trust laws since 1922. The decision that year enabled NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to sign a long-term rights deal with CBS for all its clubs. Until 1961, each NFL team couldn’t collaborate with others for rights representation. Most teams were with CBS and a couple with NBC. Consolidating all teams for the purposes of rights negotiations was a major step in growing the league’s television wealth.
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on a Friday, November 22. Commissioner Rozelle decides not to cancel the set of games the following Sunday. TV didn’t carry the games. Lots of debate on Rozelle’s decision since.
Army-Navy game called by Lindsey Nelson and Jim Simpson was first telecast featuring instant-replay. Confused viewers had to be reminded that replay was just that. “Army did not score again,” Nelson shared with his viewers.
The NBA could muster only two games of its championship series on ABC and in Game #4 the Celtics beat the Lakers 112 to 99. In the closing minutes of the game the network cut away to run a previously scheduled program. No big fuss. The NBA wasn’t the big deal then that it is today
The infamous Heidi game: Raiders-Jets, was cut short so that NBC could air the made-for-kids movie at 7p ET straight up. There were under two minutes to go when NBC broke away from what seemed like a Jets win. But the New Yorkers blew the lead while the NBC switchboard blew up with angry callers. A long-term victory for the NFL on television. The message from the audience, Don’t mess with my TV football on Sundays.
The NCAA Tournament had never had a TV contract with a legacy network. The Houston-UCLA matchup that ran in January . The game at the Astrodome had better than 50,000 on hand. It was the talk of the land, Elvin Hayes vs. Lew Alcindor. The game was on syndicated television, TVS, with a newcomer to the sports scene on play-by-play, Dick Enberg. It set up both Enberg for a great career and for college basketball a bright future.
NBC bought the rights to the Final Four beginning in 1969.
The first NBA Finals to be televised in full. ABC and Chris Schenkel had it. New York was blacked out of a live showing of game #7. The only live telecast was on Manhattan Cable which showed it to its 20,000 subscribers. Marv Albert had it live for a large radio audience in the Metropolitan area, while the rest of the country watched it live on ABC.
Bill White is the first Black hired as a fulltime play-by-player, working for the Yankees. Howard Cosell encouraged the team to do so.
Battle of the Sexes – A made for TV tennis matchup – in primetime on ABC, hosted by Howard Cosell. Billie Jean King won the match in three straight sets over a self-proclaimed male chauvinist, 26 years her senior, Bobby Riggs. The big to-do over the match helped propel interest and equality in women sports.
Munich Olympics – Jim McKay handles the terrible tragedy with aplomb. On the 11 hostages, somberly: “They’re all gone.”
NBC does a 32.8 rating for game #1 of the Yanks-Dodgers Classic, the highest in the last 53 years. The lowest audience numbers were on Fox in 2020 – a 5.2 for Game #1 – Dodgers-Rays. From 1978 to 2020, MLB’s ratings for the World Series have declined 84%. Yikes! Impervious to decline? Despite lower ratings, rights revenue continues to escalate.
The birth of ESPN and the continuing growth of cable has had a mammoth effect on the number of events available on television.
Second on CBS’ depth chart of NFL announcers, Scully presides over the touchdown throw by Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, simply know as “The Catch.” The Niners were headed to the Super Bowl
Because the Summer Olympics were in Moscow and the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan the previous winter, the U.S. declined to participate in the summer games. As such, NBC showed very little of the Moscow events. Earlier, the 1980 Winter Games were held in the U.S. and the Americans stunned the Soviets: Off the lips of Al Michaels, a phrase that lives in perpetuity, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Bob Costas, sports’ best ever studio host, begins a 40 year career at NBC.
On the eve of the NCAA Final Four, President Ronald Reagan was shot. Once the medical team was confident that the president would survive, NBC got ready for the telecast of the title game with the trio of Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer.
The Supreme Court rules that the NCAA can’t control telecasts of college football under one umbrella. The teams and conferences retained their own rights, the top countries top adjudicators declared. From a handful of games on Saturdays, the TV schedule ballooned to what’s now hundreds when including streaming.
Brent Musburger and Billy Packer are behind the mics on CBS when Villanova stuns Georgetown and Pat Ewing to win NCAA championship.
On NBC, “It gets by Buckner,” the greatest, Scully emoted, “the Mets win!”
The Kirk Gibson moment, ‘He’s using his bat as a cane.’ Four voices behind a great Dodgers moment, Bill King (A’s). Don Drysdale (Dodgers), Jack Buck (CBS Radio) and none better than the best, Vin Scully. Joe Garagiola and Vin work symbiotically to stamp the wonderful moment, a broadcast masterpiece for the ages.
An Earthquake strikes Candlestick Park minutes before the third game. Al Michaels turns from baseball announcer to reporter and earns praise for it.
So big, it made the front page of the tabloids. Brent Musburger is let go by CBS. Brent is brilliant as well as polarizing. Musburger picks himself up off the mat, doing work for ABC and ESPN.
The slow-car chase of O.J. Simpson occurs during the Rockets-Knicks finals. Marv Albert had the game on NBC. Commissioner David Stern and NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol agree to run the chase and the game side-by-side. Meanwhile. Al Michaels, still with ABC and one who loves maps, guides viewers on ABC News through the intertwining roads and freeways of Southern California. It was a bizarre night!
Baseball World Series was cancelled.
After 9/11, baseball’s post-season and the World Series were postponed. President George Bush was greeted like a hero when he strolled onto the YS mound to throw out the first pitch. Joe Buck stayed away from politics while the PC police were building a nasty army. Joe, a good son, was also caring for his dying father, Jack Buck, who passed in ’02.
Stanley Cup Finals were cancelled due to labor stoppage.
ESPN takes its first shot at a Megacast. Its broad menu of viewing big events like college football’s national championship, has continued to grow. The 2027 Super Bowl will be televised by ABC and tentacles including ESPN. Should be quite a spectacle.
NBC gets rights to Sunday Night Football, filled with goodies, including options to tweak the late season schedule to more compelling games. Al Michaels and John Madden move over from ABC.
Suzy Kolber showed her great professionalism extricating herself from an on-air ambushed kiss by Joe Namath during an interview on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
Jim Gray’s misguided plan to televise LeBron James’ famous Decision on ESPN backfires and turns into a Publicity Disaster. Gray is hardly seen anymore.
The most watched Super Bowl in history won by the New England Patriots over Seattle, attracted a record 114.44 million viewers.
America’s greatest ever sports announcer, Vin Scully retires after calling Dodgers for 67 seasons.
It took fifty years. In the 51st Super Bowl, a galvanizing comeback by the Patriots forced an overtime session for the first time ever. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were behind the Fox mics for the New England comeback win over Atlanta,
The world is hit by a deadly pandemic. Covid-19 destroys sports’ schedules and the telecasts that accompany them.
The Manning siblings add a new twist to TV sports on ESPN. The brothers add weekly casts, providing entertaining commentary on ESPN2 while the mainstream ESPN showed the game in traditional fashion.