Reliving the toughest hour in network television

Topeka Capital Journal
August 21, 1995

HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. – Three men who once were responsible for the production of “the toughest hour in network television” had a reunion here this week. They recalled the horror stories, the good times and bad, and marveled once again that even one show got on the air, and agreed it was a miracle that more than 190 shows made it without a mishap over a 13-year period.

We met here because this is where Bill Flemming, the former ABC-TV sports announcer, spends the summers. Kemper Peacock, the New York City film editor and producer, and yours truly made the long trek here to the far reaches of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

When we were involved in the show, Flemming was the host and Peacock led the production team that actually did the work period as executive producer of NCAA films, I was responsible for the overall operation and for delivering the show to ABC on time. That meant I carried the beads and led the prayers that nothing would go wrong.

The show was College Football Highlights, which aired each Sunday morning during the season.

What we did was film six or seven college football games all over the country on Saturday afternoon, and then put highlights of those games on the air Sunday morning in a neat one-hour package. A sympathetic TV critic gave it the “toughest hour” label.

It sounds pretty simple, and it would be now, but back when we started in the late 1960s, it was considerably more complicated than planning and pulling off the invasion of Normandy.

We had to assign camera crews to the games, and then hope they didn’t miss any crucial plays.

We had to hope they got out of the stadium in time to get the film on a plane to Chicago, where we put the show together.

We had to pray bad weather or mechanical problems didn’t prevent the plane from taking off and that bad weather didn’t prevent it from landing in Chicago.

We counted on off-duty Chicago policemen we hired as couriers to find the film at the airport and deliver it to the film lab. We had to hope nothing went wrong there. The processed film then went to an editing facility where Peacock and his crew cut it to the exact time it had to be. A team of writers then wrote the narration.

Then it was on to still another facility where the film was transferred to videotape. Now it was time for Flemming to appear, and we had to hope he did.

He would announce a game live on ABC on Saturday, then fly, usually in his own plane, into Chicago. He would get a little sleep then report at about 6 a.m. to put the open and close of the show on the tape, and to narrate the game action. Music and sound effects went on at the same time.

Finally, the tape in a backup had to be delivered to ABC in the Chicago loop by 10 a.m. We didn’t always make it by 10, but the show never missed getting on the network at 11 a.m. Central Time.

There were some close calls.

Once, the cab taking us to ABC tore down the Kennedy Expressway at more than 90 mph to make it. We had a couple of lab breakdowns and power failures that threatened us, and there always were technical problems. But the show went on.

Flemming was not a temperamental star, although he occasionally gave us a big-league outburst over mistakes in the script. He knew college football as few men did, and if a writer put the wrong first name on a player, even an obscure player, Flemming would spot it and stop his narration to shout, “Who wrote this garbage?” He wanted the show to be as good as it possibly could be under the circumstances and would stop everything while frantic research was done to determine if John Smith who kicked the winning field goal for Auburn, for example, was the son of Joe Smith, who played there in 1947.

One Saturday night Flemming flew nonstop from his game in Texas and landed at Chicago Midway Airport in marginal weather with red lights on his instrument panel telling him he was low on fuel. Next morning he took off in lousy weather for his home in Detroit. He broke through the overcast into bright sunlight, set the autopilot, and began reading the paper he had brought with him.

“That was a mistake,” he said this week. “I went to sleep, and woke up with a United Airlines pilot calling me and telling me the center had been trying to raise me for about 25 minutes. I looked at my watch and figured I had been asleep about half an hour.”

He saved face by pleading radio trouble. He even did an imitation of a radio voice that was cutting in and out. Controllers were sympathetic, telling him where he was and getting him back on course.

Flemming was at the University of Michigan, preparing to become a doctor, when he became an announcer for the school’s FM radio station.

It was on the air 40 hours a week, but FCC regulations said it had to be on 50 hours. It was decided to make up the difference with sports, so Flemming started doing every sport imaginable.

He became an expert.

He forgot about being a doctor and joined a Detroit TV station. His big break came when NBC’s today show visited Detroit and its sports announcer, Jack Lescoulie, became ill and returned to New York. Flemming filled in, and his career soared.

ABC hired him for football, and his background in a variety of sports also made him a natural for Wide World of Sports. He had a good run at fame and fortune, and now spends summers here and winters in Marco Island, Fla.

He also keeps his hand in by producing syndicated sports shows, but says it’s tough.

“Today’s young and ad agency people think Bud Wilkinson has something to do with razor blades, and think Red Grange must be some kind of farm show.

“They would tell us what we did couldn’t be done.”