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153 You know, I don’t think anybody took fuller advantage of his celebrity than Howard. He could get away with anything. —Peter Mehlman, writer and producer for SportsBeat In the late summer of 1981, ABC presented an entirely new sports program called SportsBeat. It was created by and starred Howard Cosell as a concession to him from the executives at ABC, who knew that he was getting tired of his role and his position within ABC Sports. In fact the hard feelings between Cosell and his employers seemed to be mutual by this time, if they had not been for some years. SportsBeat was an in-depth interview and investigative journalism program. Those who worked on it recall it as being like the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, only focused on sports. The one thing that made it different from other sports programming at ABC was that it was not under the aegis of ABC Sports. In fact, SportsBeat had its own floor at the network ’s New York offices. The separation was no accident. It was a reflection of Cosell’s own alienation from other sports programming and from the network. During the first half of the 1980s, Cosell would end his major contributions to television sports broadcasting. He covered his last game for Monday Night Football in 1983, his last baseball game in 1985, and his last boxing match in 1982. During these years, however , he considered SportsBeat to be his top priority and hoped that it would become the crowning achievement of his career. SportsBeat won critical praise, but it also lacked a strong viewership, and by 1985 it was off the air. Cosell, of course, blamed the network, whose executives he accused of trying to meddle in the content of the program. The executives, in turn, claimed that SportsBeat was a financial drain that failed to build an audience. Whatever the case, television—and 7 Balancing Accounts 154 chap t er 7 particularly sports television—was entering a new era. By the 1980s, the arrival of cable television and all-sports networks such as ESPN posed a variety of new challenges for the networks that would dramatically change sports programming. Cosell’s decline at ABC coincided with these changes to the structure of television. No longer would a single voice like Cosell’s be such a commanding presence as it was during the years when three networks, all centered in New York, dominated the medium in the United States. In the early 1980s all three major networks promised to create programming that would combine television journalism with sports coverage . Cosell took the challenge posed by NBC seriously, largely because his daughter Hillary was now a producer for NBC Sports. After starting as a monthly program, SportsBeat began regular weekly broadcasts on February 7, 1982. Unlike Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell or Battle of the Network Stars, SportsBeat promised to allow Cosell to develop a serious and critical exploration of the issues important to sports. It was billed as television’s only regular show dedicated to sports journalism.1 Indeed, the network provided Cosell with almost total freedom to shape it as he wished. He staffed it with young producers and writers, who not only were cheaper than more seasoned professionals but also would be less likely to take offense at his personality. Indeed, many who came to work for the program arrived having known Cosell as viewers and fans and had a kind of reverence for their new boss. Jimmy Roberts, now an author and anchor, reporter, and commentator for NBC Sports, worked on SportsBeat. “My impression of Howard before I met him,” recalls Roberts, “was . . . [that] he was a larger-than-life figure. And after I met him, I realized he actually was a larger-than-life figure.”2 In many respects, SportsBeat served as a metaphor for Cosell’s position as the biggest name in sports and yet, simultaneously, the ultimate outsider to the sports establishment. Cosell headed the program as an independent operation, apart from the direction of ABC Sports, and it drew concern from company executives almost as soon as it went on the air. Predictably, Cosell felt in turn that the network was not giving SportsBeat the respect he thought it deserved. In an unidenti fied clipping in the collected papers of Roone Arledge, a short article about SportsBeat quotes an unnamed producer saying: “We’re putting together a weekly half-hour show in three segments, with a...


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