Category Archives: Early Months

laying the groundwork, setting the stage

December 4, 1978 – Introducing The Plan In Denver

Denver, Colorado – As the calander turned to December discussions with cable operators, the NCAA and potential investors stacked up before the Christmas holiday break.

On this day 33 years ago, I left Hartford’s Bradley Field for a one day round trip to Denver to introduce our initial proposal to Gene Schneider, President of United Cable. He was an industry pioneer in the 1950’s and was known to be the first to sign for, promote and sell the latest idea. (Our Plainville office was in his United Cable office as noted earlier).

With two of his Regional Vice Presidents sitting in to hear wht I had to say I plunged in. “We plan to deliver a 24-hour sports service to the cable industry for just a penny a day,” I announced enthusiastically. Not an eye even flickered. Here I had jsut introduced this spectacular idea and no one else at the table was even remotely excited.

At that point I heard the first of what would be many, “It’ll never work at that price,” comments among other doubts. After a few more minutes of “why it won’t work” pronouncements, Schneider said other new services (I might add that none of them proposed 24 hour service)  were asking for a nickel or a dime and we won’t pay them, and you’re asking for 30 cents a month. It just won’t work on that basis.”

After an hour of being told all the reasons our plan would not work, I promised to rethink the proposed plan and return later in the month. Then it was off to the airport and back to Hartford. Reworking the proposal would be done, but I was already looking ahead to NCAA and investor meetings next week. There would be much work done before Christmas arrived.

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November 18, 1978 – ECAC Soccer -Demo # 2

Storrs, Connecticut – Overnight the remote truck ahd been moved form the UConn Fieldhouse to nearby Gardner Dow Field for the ECAC playoff match between UConn and Rhode Island. This proved more difficult than basketball. It was outdoors instead of indoors in a controlled environment and our camera locations were poor and no one working the game had ever televised or broadcast soccer before.

Nevertheless, we had produced and delivered a basketball game and a soccer match to the cable world in just a sixteen hour time span from two different locations on the UConn campus. While the polish and high-quality of today were lacking, we attracted enough interest at the local cable level to receive a few calls asking for more.

The cable press also made fleeting (but, to us, extremely important) note of our debut.

More importantly, the Bristol Redevelopment Authority and RCA Americom were impressed with the effort.

Enthusiasm was high, everyone involved was exhausted, but excited, and without hesitation, we roared ahead with plans to do more demo events with UConn after the first of the year.

November 17, 1978 – UConn Basketball First Event on the E. S. P. Network

Storrs, Connecticut – Here we go!!! Peter Fox put together a pregame package. Lou Palmer was ready to go with his play-by-play. Guest announcer to work with Palmer was long-time WTIC Sports Director and Connecticut radio legend, Arnold Dean. Lou and Arnold were both fixtures on the Hartford 50,000 watt powerhouse station.

Scott and Ed worked right up to game time calling cable systems and asking them to carry the exhibition basketball game between UConn and Athletes in Action so that they could see what was coming to cable TV.. We have no idea how many systems might have actually carried the event, but we did discover that many system managers watched the feed in their office. Enough managers did show the game to produce a gratifying – albeit meager – viewer response.

At halftime, Arnold interviewed both John Toner and me. While viewers might have wondered about the glowing future we predicted for the E. S. P. Network in particular, and cable TV in general, we now know that we probably understated the potential.

It was only an exhibition game for the UConn Huskies and, in truth, it wasn’t much of a game. However, unknown to them at the time, a few systems and some viewers scattered around the USA witnessed the first images of what has become the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

November 15, 1978 – Network staff doubles

Plainville, Connecticut – With the “demo events” events on the immediate horizon (just 2 days away), Lou Palmer, who carried the title of Director of Programming, and Peter Fox, our first Executive Producer, officially went on the payroll November 15. Employee # 6, Bob Ronstrom, wasn’t officially on the payroll until December 1, 1978, but he was already working with Scott and JB Doherty putting budgets and projections together.

Lou and Peter took charge of production details for our “demo weekend” and even with the very short time available, they pulled it off as you’ll see in future posts.

Ed was keeping the Bristol Redevelopment Authority up to date as well as recruiting cable systems to carry our upcoming events.

I was calling NCAA TV Committee members and by the weekend, all six of us were immersed in the UConn “demo events.”

October 16, 1978 – John Toner, UConn and “Demo events”

Storrs, Connecticut – The opening minute of my convesation with John Toner was illuminating. Following a question about my impression of the NCAA meeting, John said, “…I’ve talked to Tom (Hansen) and they like your idea. Walter (Byers) is interested, but he has his doubts about your ability to pull it off.” He went on to say we should follow Tom’s advice about mailing details to all of the TV Committee members  and then do the follow up calls. I said, “They’re already in the mail.”

Next we turned to the UConn program that we had been discussing before we ever thought of going to Shawnee Mission. I suggested that the proposed UConn schedule would be incorporated into whatever arrangement we ultimately made with the NCAA. Toner agreed and we moved on to a very pressing need for our fledgling network.

We desperately needed to show the world what we had in mind for our all sports network – in other words we needed to produce some live games from a college campus and send them to cable systems around the country. Ideally, our “demo events” would be back-to-back on the same day or on consecutive days to give both the NCAA and cable operators a brief look at the concept. We had to produce something before we could move forward.

“Will you allow us to originate a couple of games before the end of the year?” I asked.

“What did you have in mind?”

“We’d like to combine a basketball game with one other event, either on the same day or on consecutive days.”

“Would you consider soccer?”

“Certainly” I answered, “but the season is almost over.”

“You’re right, but we will be hosting an ECAC playoff game on Saturday morning, November 18, and we do have a basketball game the night before.”

“Sounds perfect,” I said, “can we count on doing those two games?”

“Yes, I think you can. I’ll let you know tomorrow, but I don’t anticipate any problems.”

We had our “demo events” and on Friday night, November 17, 1978, the E. S. P. Network sent the UConn vs. Athletes in Action basketball game to any cable system capable of receiving a signal from RCA Satcom 1. The next morning we did indeed do the ECAC soccer playoff game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 11, 1978 – Introducing the concept to the NCAA

Shawnee Mission, Kansas – Armed with six shrink-wrapped presentations of our plan to make NCAA events the center piece of our 24/7 programming concept, I confidently walked through the door of the NCAA Headquarters. I was ushered into a conference room to meet with Tom Hansen and Dennis Cryder.

Turned out the meeting didn’t last long, but I did learn that the NCAA didn’t plunge into new ideas as fast as we did. As many of us do when we encounter some that has never been done before, Tom and Dennis were skeptical. They asked a lot of questions, but gave no indication that any of what I had presented would be endorsed by the NCAA anytime soon. As a matter of fact, Tom said that the concept” might” be presented to the membership fr approval at the National Convention in 1980 – 15 months away. Discouraging news at the moment, but at least the concept had been introduced.

Myriad meetings, phone calls and plane trips later the NCAA turned from skeptics to enthusiasts. Fortunately, the conversion didn’t take 15 months. Executive Director Walter Byers appeared at a TV Committee meeting in Kansas City on January 25, 1979 to ask some questions and start the ball rolling toward a contract that resulted in the first formal programming agreement between the NCAA and the E. S. P. Network (ESPN) on March 1, 1979.

 

Two Exciting Weeks – Sept. 20 – Oct. 3, 1978 – Financing and Transponder

Financing and Transponder dominated this stretch of time. On September 20, K. S. Sweet and Associates (Tom Cushman and JB Doherty) said, “We believe we can help in several ways.” Those ways turned out to be interim financing, writing a business plan and helping us present the plan to potential investors. Great day!

SEPTEMBER 27, 1978: Confirming several conversations with Dennis Elliot at RCA Americom, JB, throughout the week leading to this day, had told us that the E. S. P. Network was indeed going to be announced as one of the transponder lessees. Today it happened!! Harold Rice, RCA Americom VP of Marketing, made it official and advised that a followup “Mailgram” was on its way. (Remember that this time period is way before computers, internet, etc. The physical confirmation arrived 6 DAYS LATER). The technology backbone was in place. Clearly, September 27, 1978, ranks as one of the most important days in the life of the E. S. P. Network and ESPN.

JB and I met with Dennis Elliot on October 3 to update him our plans. Since the “Confirming Mailgram” hadn’t arrived in Connecticut by the time of our scheduled meeting, I confess that I actually had a fleeting thought that Dennis was about to tell us that RCA had changed their mind. That thought was dispelled with his opening question, “What is it you have in mind for programming your transponder?” Alert to his use of the words “your transponder,’ I breathed a silent sigh of relief. We still needed programming content, advertising, subscribers and more financing, but from this day forward RCA Americom was solidly on our side – they wanted us to succeed and were prepared to help us launch the newest phase of content distribution o the budding cable industry. It turned out to be an amazing success for bot companies.