A network icon was born 100 years ago tomorrow, September 24h 1921.
Jim McKay followed what many men of the war years did. He completed his degree, served in the military and looked for a job. Few spoiled brats then. His goal was to write and he got his early wish in 1947, penning stories for the Baltimore Evening-Sun.
Television stations were beginning to sprout in American cities just after the war. Many were purchased by local newspapers that had the good vision to appreciate the enormous influence the medium would have for decades. Radio still dominated. It wasn’t until about 1960 that television penetration hit 90% of U.S. homes.
When the Sun purchased WMAR TV, McKay was tapped to partake in all sorts of programming, from general assignments to sports. McKay would always say that the writing he did during the early years of his career would help him grow enormously. It did. In fact, it’s interesting to note that when he first auditioned for a radio gig, he was turned down for being “too pedantic.” In other words, he was bright, well rounded and a perfectionist.
Jim Spence might as well have written the history of network television sports. He was a high level executive at ABC Sports who worked with McKay for some 25 years. The business was much smaller then. Spence’s Up Close and Personal, the Inside Story of Network Television was released in 1988. In it, he doesn’t hold back. As for McKay, Spence says he was a man, “with journalistic instincts and a highly developed sense of drama.”
McKay hosted Wide World of Sports for close to 28 years. The show was appointment viewing every Saturday. When you heard these words, you knew you were tuned to the right channel.
“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition…This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”
The terror attacks by the Palestinians at the 1972 Olympics shocked the world. It is something that none of us who were around then will ever forget. Those words still echo in my ears today, “They’re all gone.”
Jim McKay passed in 2008. His son Sean who maintained the family name McManus, has run CBS Sports since 1996. Prior to his lofty appointment, the network had lost the NFL rights. Sean made the NFL a key priority and under his helm in early 1998, CBS Sports reacquired the rights. The network has maintained them since on center stage.
On the eve of his dad’s 100th, McManus shares the memories he has of his father.
Unless viewers go back a couple generations, they’re unlikely to know that before your dad became a 38-year fixture at ABC Sports, he was with CBS. How did it all begin?
Dad’s goal in life was to be a reporter. After finishing college at Loyola of Maryland and serving in the Navy, he headed to New York for radio auditions, but didn’t make the cut. So he returned home to Baltimore, called the president of his alma-mater who gave him a lead at the Baltimore Sun and he was hired there for $35 a week.
In time, he did a TV show on WMAR-TV which was founded by the The Sun. Management thought he would excel on TV because my father was engaged in the theater club at Loyola.
So he hosted an assortment of programs, ranging from horse racing to parades. Remember, there were no role models to follow. TV was an embryo. It had no scripts to follow or pioneers from whom to learn. He was on-air three hours a day and five days a week. The show was called, “The Sports Parade.”
When did he arrive in New York and when did he shorten his formal name of McManus to McKay?
He was invited to New York in about 1950 to replicate the program he did in Baltimore. But when he arrived, he learned that it was a variety show not just sports. He was also told that the name of it was “The Real McKay.” And as my father said, “I adopted the name and that was the start of it all.”
Dad’s early work was a harbinger in many ways of what was to come on TV. He thought he’d wind up being a reporter or anchor and he did shows like The Verdict is Yours and Make the Connection.
When did he begin covering sports regularly?
In the mid to late 1950s, dad did a couple of seasons of Giants football with Chris Schenkel. In the mid 50s, he was sent by CBS to Augusta to cover the Masters.
While in Augusta, he got a call in the press-room from ABC’s Roone Arledge who asked him to host a new 13-week sports program, called Wide World of Sports. He said sure. It was considered a summer replacement show and was cancelled after 13 weeks. It was later reinstated and the rest of course is history. Wide World of Sports ran for 28 years,1961-1988.
Jim started in TV in 1947, 74 years ago, an embryonic and nascent time for the medium. He retired 23 years ago. How would he feel about the medium today?
He would be impressed with the level of production and presentation. They’re first class. I’m sure he would be particularly impressed with the documentaries like ESPN’s 30 for 30 or the featured shows that CBS Sports has done. He would likely be wowed by the sheer volume of TV sports that is produced today.
My father would also be intrigued by the expanded role of the sports commentator. Today, they’re truly public personalities. In his prime, the show was more about the event and now, at times, it’s more about the voices. There definitely seems to be more emphasis on the announcers than there was in his years. The breadth of programming is amazing today.
In my father’s heyday it wasn’t only about live sports. You might say that live sports is the most important programming segment on network television today. Live sports is the most valuable content on TV today.
I would say that the first three sports personalities on network television were Howard Cosell, Jack Whitaker and Jim McKay. I’d certainly draw more parallels between Jim and Jack, two kids from Philly and two men with a softer tone. Would you agree?
Jack and my dad were very close. Their backgrounds did have parallels. They were fantastic writers and storytellers. They were essayists, they’d profile their subjects brilliantly, up close and personal. They’d open their shows masterfully. They were simply the best in the business, priding themselves on being raconteurs. The two men had enormous admiration for one another.
My dad did little of the mainstream sports. He focused more on events where he can share anecdotes. It best came together at the Olympics or covering car-racing, horse-racing, gymnastics and Track ‘N Field.
Howard Cosell and my father had a good relationship. In fact, Howard admired my dad. But they didn’t work together much.
Jim McKay is so connected to his lachrymose words when the 11 hostages were confirmed dead during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Americans won’t forget those shocking words, “They’re all gone.” Your dad, at the height of the crisis, was on television for 14 straight hours.
Roone did turn over the critical assignment to my father when the Olympics evolved into a news event and into a terrible tragedy. My father had a journalism background. He began as a writer doing general news, so he brought more experience at a time of an unexpected crisis. The Israeli hostage crisis was getting worldwide daily attention. It was a global and lead story. So Arledge put my father in the chair.
Many might have forgotten that my father wasn’t the host of the ’72 Olympics. Chris Schenkel was the primetime host. Roone went with his gut and instinct. He assigned my father and he responded by working for 14 straight hours with hardly a break. News anchor, Peter Jennings was there too.
Any recollections of what Jim shared with you about the ’72 Olympics, in the years that followed?
It likely defined his career. The TV world was a lot smaller then. The tragedy in Munich made him a household name. (This was seven years before the birth of CNN, ESPN and cable altogether.) There were three networks, no Fox, that was it. He was there for one of the most important days, not only in the history of sports TV, but TV as a whole. The compassion and journalistic standards he demonstrated were remarkable.
Back from Munich, he was heaped with many accolades for his tireless effort. In fact, there were large bags of mail from viewers, sharing with him the impact that he had on them.
But I sensed that he had an uncomfortable feeling of sorts. Yes, there was the praise for his coverage, but he was also pained by having his name so closely identified with such a terrible and awful event, 11 lives were lost. His remarkable coverage of an unforgettable tragedy, catapulted his career to an unimaginable level. It is one of the best remembered moments in the history of television. His words “they’re all gone,” live on poignantly, a powerful stamp on a heartbreaking chapter.
Jim McKay’s name is also synonymous with Wide World of Sports. He hosted the program for some 27 years. Can a show like it thrive today on network TV?
I don’t think so. Television programming has ballooned. For one thing, in the golden years of Wide World, there weren’t the dedicated sports channels that there are today. Back then, gymnastics, track ‘n field and car racing were featured on Wide World. Now each one has its appointed place. In its heyday, Wide World was as much a travelogue that would touch on venues’ histories and cultural differences. Programs were unique. There are lots of places today to find the parallels for an AJ Stewart or a Peggy Fleming. Yet the series helped create superstars like Muhammad Ali and Bruce Jenner.
So you followed in his footsteps going into television, why in management and not on-air? Any such on-air ambitions for you?
As a kid, I was a big Yankee fan. I would do these make-believe broadcasts, as though I was calling Yankee games. Later, I had an opportunity to travel with my dad on his assignments and initially do things like clean up the broadcast area and do similar busy work like bringing refreshments to the booth and into the truck. There was another factor. Succeeding on-air today requires painstaking steps, from one small market to the next, until you’re recognized. I always seemed to have a penchant for production.
What was your path to the executive suite?
After I graduated from Duke, I spent a couple years at ABC Sports in production, beginning in 1977. It gave me an opportunity to learn from phenomenal production people like Chet Forte and Chuck Howard. By 1979, I wanted to get out from underneath my father’s shadow. It was then that Geoff Mason and Don Ohlmeyer, two legends in the business, were leaving Roone and ABC to help prepare NBC for the 1980 Olympics, so I joined them. As things evolved in the early 1980s at NBC, I had an opportunity to get more involved in rights negotiations including the Olympics at NBC.
So you left NBC Sports as a young V.P., and for that matter, leaving the network television side altogether to join IMG. Barry Frank was running TWI, the company’s television and production arm. He himself was a former head of CBS Sports. How did he help shape your career? Richard Sandomir in the New York Times called him an impresario.
Interestingly, when I was finishing up college, Barry offered me a job at CBS. But I thought that I’d be better suited for ABC. Barry launched the production division of IMG, TWI, and he represented, among other entities, Wimbledon. I worked at IMG for nine years. Barry was a master program creator and negotiator. His name was behind Superstars, Battle of the Network Stars, Survival of the Fittest and the World’s Strongest Man. I learned a ton from him about the business side of TV.