FOUR years ago, Rick Davis, then an expert commentator on TNT's World Cup soccer telecasts, couldn't even get his own parents to stay tuned.
``They got so frustrated by the commercial interruptions that they turned me off and put on the local Hispanic station's coverage,'' he says. This, despite their not knowing Spanish.
Things will be different this time, Davis reports happily. Both ABC Sports and ESPN, his two employers for the first US-based World Cup, are committed to broadcasting the 1994 Cup matches without disruptive ads.
This isn't to say that coverage of the world's grandest sports championship will be commercial-free. Far from it, given pregame, postgame, and halftime messages. But the millions of viewers who will watch the American feed of this month-long tournament, which begins a nine-city United States run June 17, won't have the TV sponsors to blame for missed goals or visual choppiness. Both ABC and ESPN have adopted no-blink strategies.
The sport practically necessitates it, with two 45-minute halves in which the action is continuous and the clock never stops. ``The clock will be on the screen the whole time, and with that clock will be a sponsor logo,'' says Jack O'Hara, an executive producer with ABC, which will air 11 games, including the July 17 final. ESPN will handle the other 41.
O'Hara says the clock, though small, is ``big enough to read. I think we owe the advertiser that much.'' There is no audio component to the clock display, but every 17 minutes ABC plans to run ``billboards,'' a common practice in televised sports events. These generally utilize an announcer voice-over and a commercial graphic set over a wide-angle shot of the playing site.
From experimenting last summer during telecasts of several World Cup tuneup games that were a part of US Cup '93, ABC learned that proper positioning of the clock is important. Placing the clock in the lower-right-hand corner proved to be a mistake. ``One thing we learned is that that's where the ball keeps going,'' O'Hara says. ``The ball disappeared a few times, and that's bad.'' For World Cup games, the clock will be moved to the top of the screen, where it will only obscure crowd or sky.
Neither ABC nor ESPN is the ``lead'' network on this occasion. The European Broadcasting Union is supplying the international ``feed,'' and it's up to ABC and ESPN to choose the pictures they want.
Given EBU's experience in televising soccer, the camera work appears to be in good hands. The challenge for the American networks is one of packaging and presentation.
Much may depend on the on-air people. They have the tricky job of communicating to what could be a widely disparate audience, from diehards to those totally ignorant about the sport or interested only in the US team.
``I think we're going to draw a lot of people who wouldn't normally watch sports on television,'' says Roger Twibell, who will do play-by-play coverage for ABC and ESPN. ``It's going to be similar to the Olympics in that regard.'' The choice of veteran Olympic anchorman Jim McKay as ABC's studio host will introduce an old friend to many viewers.
Twibell, who broadcast North American Soccer League games before the league's demise in the early 1980s, knows many novices will be watching. The telecasts will not baby them, though: ``We're not going to ... go back 15 years and start explaining all the rules again,'' he says. ``That's the worst thing we could do. This is not a difficult game. You've got 22 guys on the field, two nets, a ball, and each team trying to score a goal.''
Davis concurs: ``The telecasts will not be an outright clinic. The game is going to tell its own story. In many respects, the excitement is built-in.''
The electric atmosphere of stadiums packed with the cheering, dancing fans of 24 competing teams could be all the elixir TV needs to hook viewers. But once the scene is set, O'Hara says ABC plans to ``minimize the the number of times we leave the field.'' Even replays, a staple for American viewers, will be used sparingly. Those used on ABC will occupy the whole screen, so the directors must time them carefully, delaying them when live action dictates.
``Never before in soccer history has an entire World Cup been available [on television] in English in the United States,'' says Alan Rothenberg, chairman of the World Cup USA organizing committee.
As a result, coverage of the tournament could be a key factor in lifting soccer beyond being simply a popular youth participation sport to a major attraction for spectators.
``In that sense there is a significant amount of pressure ... on all of us,'' Davis says of the ABC and ESPN broadcast teams.
O'Hara realizes this is soccer's ``big opportunity,'' but he says he doesn't believe anyone at ABC should be unfairly burdened. ``I view our mission as televising this event, not ensuring the future of soccer in America. That's beyond the capability of TV.''