The end of a 62-year love affair

| March 14, 2019 | 2 Comments

by Tom Campbell, Producer and Moderator of NC SPIN, March 13, 2019.

This weekend marks the end of a sports era. Since I was around at the beginning, I want to join others in mourning the loss of over-the-air broadcasts of ACC sports.

Most pundits incorrectly credit the genesis of televised college basketball to the 1957 UNC championships. But it was actually UNC President Bill Friday, VP Billy Carmichael and band leader Kay Kyser who secured the license for university-owned WUNC-TV in 1955. TV was new, with lots of programming experimentation. Art Chansky, in his book Light Blue Reign: How a City Slicker, a Quiet Kansan and a Mountain Man Built College Basketball’s Longest-Lasting Dynasty, recounts the first televised game on WUNC between UNC and Wake Forest, using two cameras broadcasting in black and white from Woolen Gymnasium. There was no audio because radio stations, worried about competition, convinced the university to only show the video, something they termed “Broadvision.” Three more games were televised in 1956, before the February 9, 1957 telecast between Carolina and their archrival Duke, when commercial stations in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte were added. Carmichael and Friday ordered that a sledgehammer and picks tear out a hole in the cement block wall so the camera lens could display better views. The sold-out game drew a significant audience.

Castleman D. Chesley was a sports producer for NBC and noticed the interest in the undefeated UNC basketball team. He saw an opportunity. In 1957 my father, A. Hartwell Campbell, was general manager of WNCT-TV in Greenville, one of the few TV stations on the air. My dad recalled the meeting with Chesley, who immediately asked dad how big a gambler he was. He explained he was forming a network to televise UNC’s Eastern regional games in Philadelphia and the Semifinal and Final tournament games from Kansas City. To rent the television equipment, secure the telephone lines and hire the people necessary, Chesley had to guarantee a large up-front investment. The gamble was that the tournament was a single elimination event; one loss and Carolina went home. WNCT would have to commit to paying Chesley $25,000 and might only broadcast one game. The station would receive one-half of the ad availabilities to sell. Dad asked how long he had to decide and Chesley gave him 24 hours. My father immediately called Jack Minges, part of the family that owned Pepsi Cola franchises in eastern Carolina, telling Minges he either had the greatest promotional opportunity ever offered or the craziest waste of money. For $25,000, Pepsi could have one quarter of the advertising availabilities. Minges agreed and, along with four other stations, the network crystalized.

Tipoff time for the games was 10 pm. As a 12-year-old I got special permission to stay up to watch the black and white broadcasts, with the two final games going into triple overtime before the underdog Tar Heels beat Michigan State, then the Wilt Chamberlin-led Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA championship. You could barely read the numbers on the players jerseys; they looked a little like ants running up and down the court. Even so, an estimated 100,000 people watched the final game.

Buoyed by the great interest, Chesley secured the rights to broadcast 12 games in the 1958 season, along with 3 football games. Our Saturday afternoons were spent watching and listening to Jim Thacker, Billy Packer, Charlie Harville and Bones McKinney call the games. Chesley quickly partnered with Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting and expanded the offerings.

What Everett Case, the Indiana native, had started by coming to NC State, reached almost a fever pitch through television. The premiere event was always the ACC basketball tournament. Friday’s day-long schedule prompted many a person to develop a sudden “fever” and skip work. I plead guilty to joining that number frequently.

When the league expanded to include a number of teams in which I have no affinity or interest, then allowed TV to dictate game times, I began losing interest. In 2016 the ACC announced it was ending the over-the-air broadcasts with this year’s ACC tournament and forming the ACC Network. Alas, the 62 year love affair that began when I was 12 watching black and white telecasts has come to an end. It remains to be seen whether others will find the love affair over.

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

Comments (2)

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  1. Richard Taylor says:

    Like Tom, I bemoan the demise of free over-the-air broadcasting of ACC sports after 62 years on local TV stations throughout the region. But, not exactly for the same reason. We know this dramatic change is not about sports itself. It’s about money. ESPN can pay much more to the league than Raycom’s smaller network of local TV stations. With the ACC now having 15 teams, ESPN can expand the range of the former Tobacco Road conference to a much broader vision and wider national audience.

    But, ESPN and its brethren cannot bring the excitement of free college sports broadcasts to rural North Carolina farmers with TV antennas instead of satellite dishes on their roof, and sport fans who live too far out in the country to get cable TV. These hidden and mostly forgotten supporters of ACC sports — many who never attended or finished college — still have passion for “their” collegiate teams. Perhaps their loyalty to “our conference” has become irrelevant to big money sports.

    As a nine-year-old, I remember watching that thrilling 1957 championship black-and-white broadcast at my grandfather’s house, where UNC “Wilted the Stilt” from Kansas, 54-53 in triple overtime. My mother then took me to the RDU airport to watch the 32-0 National Champion Tar Heels return home on Eastern Airlines to some 10,000 cheering fans. Back then, no one ever imagined that free OTA broadcasts of ACC games would ever go away. Now, C.D. Chesley and those other early pioneers of ACC sports broadcasting may be turning over in their graves in disbelief. An important era in college sports has sadly ended. Significant local TV audiences and advertising sales have vanished. And even though Raycom will still produce games for ESPN, their branded association with the ACC and free TV will be sorely missed.

    Richard Taylor
    Ocracoke

  2. David McGowan says:

    Tom,

    It has been a long time. Hope you are well.

    I read with such a mixture of interest, remembrance and sadness your great article. Times they are,indeed, a-changing. I too remember watching that game. It was my eighth year as a Tar Heel growing up in Chapel Hill. As I recall, the game was on a Saturday night. Sunday morning on the way to church, as we rode down Franklin Street, I got my first look at all the toilet paper in the trees and the traffic light signal that came up out of the middle of the street in front of the post office bent double from the nights celebration. Sail With The Pilot, the announcers you mentioned and Bill Curry…At Glenwood Elementary School the slide projectors on the tall push carts that usually sat over in the corner of the classroom were replaced with TV sets and rolled to the front of the class so we could watch the tournament. What memories. I will wear black tomorrow in respect for what was no doubt a tremendous slice of the good old days.
    Thanks for the article, Tom.

    David McGowan

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