When Newsday readers picked up their Sunday edition on Feb. 12, 1978 – 40 years ago today – they found a feature new not only to them but to most newspaper readers in the nation.
It was called “TV Sports,” a column by Stan Isaacs, a Newsday fixture since the mid-1950s, who was charged with covering not sports itself but the coverage of sports.
That might not seem unusual now, but it was then, at a time when there was no ESPN or WFAN or World Wide Web or blogs or Twitter or iPhones or kale smoothies.
Only The Boston Globe employed a fulltime TV sports columnist, Jack Craig, before Newsday tabbed Isaacs, which opened the floodgates. By the 1990s, most major newspapers had one.
On the way from there to here, almost everything changed, including the topics themselves. Isaacs’ first column was about boxing, as was his second, as was his third, all in a five-day span.
The first focused on TV ratings for Muhammad Ali’s fights, which by 21st century standards are difficult to believe. His bout against Earnie Shavers in 1977 averaged 37.3 percent of homes.
Isaacs wondered how that week’s Ali-Leon Spinks bout on CBS would fare against a strong ABC slate featuring “Eight is Enough,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Starsky and Hutch.”
Not to worry. By the final half hour of the bout, the rating in New York was 44.9 percent of homes, a number that in 2018 is science fiction for anything other than the Super Bowl.
The highest-rated prime time shows of that TV season were “Laverne & Shirley,” which averaged a 31.6 rating, “Happy Days” (31.4) and “Three’s Company” (28.3).
“Monday Night Football” ranked 16th at 21.5.
Point is: Times change.
On Feb. 12, 2008, Newsday invited Isaacs to author a guest column. He wrote that the biggest difference in sports television since 1978 had been the rise of ESPN.
In December of 1979, he had holed up in a hotel room near Bristol, Connecticut, and spent 24 hours watching the network for a piece in which he wrote, “Title this, ‘I Was a Sports Junkie for a Day’ or ‘I Have Seen the Future of TV Sports and It Makes Me Giggle.’”
“I lay on a bed gaping at basketball players leaping, hockey players high-sticking, go-karts buzzing and karate fighters flailing,” Isaacs wrote in 2008. “I liked best the U.S. Table Tennis Championships. I suffered most with something called China’s Fourth National Games, which included motorcycle races, parachuting competition and model-boat racing.”
(When Isaacs died in 2013, the headline on his obituary in The New York Times called him a “cheeky columnist.”)
Isaacs wrote in 2008 that he took satisfaction in the success of announcers he touted early in their careers, such as John Madden, Bob Costas, Tim McCarver, Mary Carillo, Keith Olbermann and Al Trautwig.
He concluded the guest column this way: “I acknowledge that sports TV is better than ever, particularly because of the incisive journalism of ESPN and HBO. But sometimes less is more. We would be better off with something less than the inundation of sports on TV we are being served now.”
Ten years later, the inundation makes 2008 look quaint in comparison. Meanwhile, most of the newspapers that used to have a full-time sports media writer have cut back, faced with more pressing staffing priorities.
But the subject continues to be of strong interest to readers, an insight Isaacs and his bosses had four decades ago. Witness the massive web traffic generated in recent years by WFAN’s former afternoon host, Mike Francesa.
Isaacs retired in 1992, but the beat he created is Newsday’s version of being a Steelers head coach. Only three people have occupied it in 40 years: Isaacs, Steve Zipay and me. It’s an honor to be in their company, and yours.
Thanks for reading!