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Sports TV: Time Out for an HBO Hype Bowl

Night after night you get jock “news,” the spewing of industry-promoting scores, “big plays,” cozy interviews and cutisms that have always made up the bulk of local and network sportscasting.

Although stats, lightness and videotape are necessary to the mix, there should be more to sports coverage than this. Yet only rarely--about as often as a mega-star athlete like Magic Johnson discloses testing positive for the virus that causes AIDS--do the TV cheerleaders who regularly report on the sports business lower their pompons long enough to assess or question the impact of the sports business.

Symptomatic of what ails sportscasting is “Play by Play: A History of Sports Television,” a myopic and superficial two-part special airing at 10 p.m. Tuesday and Dec. 10 on HBO.

Masquerading as reporting, it’s an uncritical celebration of sports TV by the people of sports TV, a virtual highlight reel interwoven with self-congratulatory rhetoric. This is supposed to be a case of the medium looking at itself. Just as athletes instinctively pat each other on the rear, however, TV people appear unable to resist patting themselves on the back.

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Produced by Ross Greenburg, “A History of Sports Television” resonates a symphony of zoom lenses, sound bites and dramatic replays, ranging from anecdotes about veteran sportscasters to NBC’s infamous “ ‘Heidi’ incident” in 1968 (final come-from-behind game-winning minutes weren’t shown so the movie could start on time) to the earthquake-jolted World Series in 1989.

What we have here are “two unprecedented hours,” gushes Jim McKay, who shares anchor duties on the special with his ABC Sports colleague Brent Musburger, Bob Costas of NBC, former NBC sportscaster Curt Gowdy, Pat Summerall of CBS and Jim Lampley, who moonlights at HBO Sports in addition to being a news anchor at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.

As always, McKay proves he can hyperbolize with anyone, for a Super Bowl of self-praise and frivolity is hardly unprecedented.

There’s a moment in Part I that looms as a defining metaphor, when Costas asks: “Is TV’s impact always beneficial?” For an instant, as you wait for the other Nike to fall, things look promising. But instead there’s an immediate cut to Lampley, who introduces that famous NBC sequence showing football analyst Ahmad Rashad making a live marriage proposal to then Phylicia Ayers-Allen during an NFL game, and her accepting.

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What counts most, apparently, is that TV’s impact was beneficial to them.

But what of other TV matings? While heading his network’s sports division, Roone Arledge, ABC news president, became the Frank Lloyd Wright of Sports TV, creating such boldly futuristic edifices as “Wide World of Sports” and “Monday Night Football.” On HBO’s program, though, he cites the Olympics as the sports event most influenced by TV.

That ignores the extent to which TV money has completely altered the character of just about all sports, especially in the United States. In fact, sports and TV have virtually merged into a single incestuously self-feeding entity. For example:

* TV’s marriage to pro football: The latter was a stump on the major sports landscape before being transformed by television into an entertainment and cultural behemoth rivaling baseball. The process included inflating the TV/Madison Avenue-manufactured Super Bowl into a Goodyear blimp of a spectacle that today dwarfs the championship game being played on the field.

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* TV’s marriage to boxing: The medium has radically reshaped boxing. At various stages in this relationship the competition for major bouts became so intense that networks made their own exclusive deals with big-name fighters (as in HBO’s with Mike Tyson), putting them in the cozy--and ethically questionable--business of staging and promoting fights as well as televising them.

* TV’s marriage to college basketball and football: Due to TV, the size of the collegiate basketball playoff field has quadrupled in recent years, and there are so many football bowl games that even mediocre teams with 6-5 records now have a shot at post-season play.

* TV’s marriage to the entire sports economy: Here we have a classic symbiosis. The medium creates more and bigger games to finance those huge contracts with professional sports, which needs this money to pay epic salaries to professional athletes. These salaries give athletes an even more exaggerated sense of their worth, leading them to demand even higher salaries that can be paid only if professional sports ups the ante from television, which must then increase advertising rates to pay for the higher contracts. To justify these increases, TV must promote, not tear down, the sports industry it’s selling and profiting from. Thus, everyone is on the same team.

This mentality inevitably has moved down the life chain to local news, where sportscasters frequently view themselves as extensions of the industry they cover.

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When KABC-TV’s Jim Hill got the first local interview with Magic Johnson after Johnson’s AIDS disclosure because they were personal friends, for example, no one seemed to question the propriety of Hill being that cozy with an athlete he regularly covers as a reporter. On the contrary, former pro footballer Hill’s camaraderie with athletes has always been used by his employers as a selling point.

Mentioned too sparingly in the HBO program is that former ABC war horse Howard Cosell, who may be overbearing and self-aggrandizing, but at least has been a tough critic of sports and sports broadcasting (although not of himself). With justification, he has lamented the absence of hard-hitting journalism in sportscasting.

With rare exception, about the only place on television where sports is regularly examined in any depth these days is the ESPN talk series “Up Close With Roy Firestone.” (You should know that this is a show on which I have appeared from time to time in a peripheral way.)

But you won’t find anyone in “A History of Sports Television” taking a hard look at sports or television. That’s because, in this case at least, teammates don’t attack each other.

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