Last weekend marked 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 national championship. 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 Feb. 9, 1957 telecast between Carolina and their arch rival 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 p.m. 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 three 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.
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.
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.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.