Sunday, February 05, 2017

A Better Seat Than the 50 Yard Line: Football meets the video age


When ABC first broadcast Monday Night Football on September 21, 1970 with a contest between the home team Cleveland Browns and the defending champion New York Jets, it caused a sensation. For the first time, Americans could watch their favorite television sport right in prime time.  ABC's gamble paid off with consistently high ratings and by changing the nature of televised sports. With sports no longer tied to the "weekend ghetto," Monday Night Football paved the way for twenty-four hours of sport in our homes.
Or did it? In the dim, barely charted (let alone rated) days of early TV, the days of the 5" large screen TV's, the days before TV Guide, and even the days before Uncle Miltie, professional football was crashing its way into the homes of, not millions -- yet, but thousands of homes.

The early days of TV were truly a wasteland: broadcast "days" were often only a few hours long with much of the time filled with test patterns (thousands of people actually "watched" these on a regular basis both because of the novelty of an images from miles away being beamed into their homes and the commercial-less music which accompanied them).

It wasn't long, though, till television, realizing it was a visual medium, found sports -- a spectator event. And what better spectator event than football? As early as the fall of 1945, the fledgling NBC television network (actually a single station in New York City) broadcast the Army-Columbia University game. The next year when CBS took Columbia's home games, NBC began to carry the Naval Academy's games.

But what about pro-ball? Hadn't the NFL been around since 1933? With TV limited to a few big cities (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. -- just think, Los Angeles without TV!) the league was afraid of losing attendance in those major cities (no one had thought of the home team blackout yet) and wanted nothing to do with the new-fangled business.

Luckily for TV viewers (whose numbers were increasing daily) there was another pro game in town. Competing with the NFL in those days was the All-America Football Conference which was willing to gamble its gate receipts for the exposure TV would give it.

Would ABC take the challenge? NBC? CBS? Which of the big three would make history? Well, none of them. In that primordial past, the dream of a fourth network was a reality in the form of the DuMont Network (which when disbanded in the fifties became Metromedia which in turn was disbanded recently to become part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire and a fourth network once again in the form of the Fox Network!).

Though not on ABC and not on Monday night (the game was on Saturday, September 14, 1946, 8:00 p.m.), the game was a success. Broadcast through DuMont's New York station, WABD (and through one of the first TV cables to Washington D.C.'s WTTG) with play-by-play handled by later quiz-master Dennis James. James was assisted from the New York studios of WABD by Tom Carr who introduced the players and gave the first half-time show. The game got off to a bad start when transmitter trouble in New York kept the first ten minutes of images from going out. The problem was soon solved and the transmission of the game was remarkably modern in its use of three cameras (the DuMont-built cameras used the recently developed RCA Image Orthicon tube to provide excellent images) to give viewers close-ups, long-, and medium-range shots.

Another modern aspect of the game was that it had (gasp!) commercials. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company (nothing new under the sun, right?). The commercials themselves, however, were a bit primitive when compared to today's video extravaganzas. Variety reviewed their performances as follows:

Ford commercials, also handled from the studio via slides, looked more like a plug for kids' animal picture books than for Ford cars. Idea is something new, though, which is all to the good and the sales pitch never interfered with the scanning of the game (scanning, it might be noted, was the early term for televising).

The AAFC, the DuMont Network? What other names from the past can we dredge up? Why, the names of the teams of course. That historic evening in September saw the clash of the mighty New York Yankees (the football Yankees that is) and the Buffalo Bison (later to be the AAFC's Bills and much later, in another league, the AFL Bills) in New York's Yankee Stadium. These were the days when football players had real football player names. The Yankees were led by such immortals as Clarence (Pug) Manders, full-back; Roman Bentz, tackle; Bruiser Kinard, tackle; and Spec Sanders, full-back. The Bison were led by such equally illustrious names as Harry (Hippity) Hopp, quarterback; and Lou Zontini, full-back and place kicker.

Unfortunately, this historic game was rather dull (though not if you were viewing it at home) with the Yankees winning easily 21 to 10.

At 9:30 p.m. that September night, Dennis James signed off after the first televised pro football game. But it wasn't to be the last. By 1948, the NFL realized TV was here to stay and signed a contract with ABC to broadcast selected games of the Washington Redskins, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles. A little over twenty years later, ABC brought televised football full circle by again broadcasting prime-time pro football and achieving a viewership that would have astounded those early pioneers.

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