- ABC Sports: The Rise and Fall of Network Sports Television by Travis Vogan
Considering the contemporary sports media landscape, it is almost difficult to remember that a time existed—and it was not that long ago—when sports-related programs were not abundant across a twenty-four-hour television lineup. Yet the stage was set for growth decades ago, and while ABC Sports was not the only factor in the development of today’s sports media colossus, it did, as chronicled by Travis Vogan, play a critically important role.
As suggested by the title, ABC Sports: The Rise and Fall of Network Sports Television documents the way in which ABC reinvented both itself and sports media, grew into a major network on a par with NBC and CBS, and eventually lost its dominant role in sports broadcasting after multiple acquisitions and the rise of new cable competition. While the focus is, obviously, on ABC and the visionary contributions of Roone Arledge, this extensively researched book is neither just a corporate history of ABC’s growth as a network nor indulgent TV nostalgia. Instead, it explores how television sports coverage, as it is known today, came to be.
In the process of telling the story of ABC Sports, Vogan—an established author and associate professor at the University of Iowa—explores early network history, the growth of the sports-media-entertainment complex, and the development of many practices, formats, and styles that have since come to be commonplace in television programming. The [End Page 106] book is especially strong, not because it is an encyclopedia of people, places, and things in sports history—although Vogan certainly includes copious details throughout—but rather because of the connections that are made between ABC Sports’ history and the broader American cultural, social, and media environments.
The first chapter discusses the beginning of ABC and its humble roots as NBC’s second-tier network. The second chapter focuses on the growth of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and the narrative style of sportscasting and human-interest coverage that it pioneered and used to create must-see programming out of otherwise obscure or unpopular sports.
Chapter 3 addresses ABC’s drive to become the primary home for Olympics coverage—ABC went on to dominate Olympics broadcasting for nearly two decades—and also considers how the network handled racial issues and controversy that arose from sports in the 1960s. Chapter 4 considers the launch of Monday Night Football, a program that ultimately reinvented football telecasts and the nature of prime-time television. Chapter 5 returns to the Olympics and focuses specifically on the 1972 Munich games, ABC’s coverage of the hostage crisis, and the effect that this reportage had on ABC’s news division.
Chapter 6 moves into the era of so-called trash sports and made-for-television sports events, such as Evel Knievel’s stunts and the “Battle of the Sexes” between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Chapter 7 chronicles the decline of ABC Sports, especially after the network’s purchase by Capital Cities and eventual acquisition by Disney, while Vogan’s conclusion addresses ESPN’s rise to prominence.
In the process of moving through this history, Vogan makes many connections to broader social issues that American society confronted in the later decades of the twentieth century. Some topics, such as the troublesome way that ABC both gave attention to female athletes while simultaneously perpetuating gender stereotypes, could be addressed in more detail. Yet, overall, the book does a good job of addressing social issues when relevant, without straying too far from the main topic, namely, the story of ABC Sports.
Overall, ABC Sports: The Rise and Fall of Network Sports Television is a book that many will find valuable. Both detailed and entertaining, the book includes a mix of content that will likely engage anyone with an interest in the topic. It should be considered recommended reading for scholars not only of sports media but of...