When I was a kid, Saturdays had a particular rhythm. There was no sleepy-headed dawdling up against the clock while getting ready for school. Often, my brother and I would be up by 6:00 and out for adventure—thereby infuriating my mother, specifically because we’d awakened her on a morning when she could sleep late, and generally because we couldn’t get up in such timely fashion on any other day. We’d come in for breakfast when Dad did, and after that, we’d spend the rest of the morning dining from the smorgasbord of Saturday morning cartoons on TV.
The afternoons were different, however. On long, dull weekdays in school, we’d long for an afternoon of freedom. But many Saturdays, when we finally got it, we found it to be a different shade of dull. My brother and I would grow tired of each other’s company. The TV, which had offered such glorious variety on Saturday morning, could be a disappointment if there wasn’t a game on, and sometimes when there was. But if we could stick it out until late on Saturday afternoons, we’d often find relief in the form of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Wide World of Sports premiered 50 years ago this week. I remember its place in the rhythm of Saturday afternoons, and how it could seize our attention with something we’d never seen before. We were transfixed by the Acapulco cliff divers and the arm-wrestlers, and enchanted by figure-8 racing, in which cars competed on a figure-8 shaped track with precisely the entertaining consequences you would expect. We watched Howard Cosell spar with Muhammad Ali, in the days when the championship fights would be on closed-circuit TV in theaters one weekend but air on Wide World of Sports the next. We watched Evel Knievel cheat death, if not broken bones, time and again. The highest-rated episode in the program’s history was the October 25, 1975, show featuring a Knievel jump, which is as perfectly 70s a thing as there could be.
As we grew up and found more entertaining things to do with our Saturday afternoons, watching Wide World of Sports became less important—as did Wide World of Sports itself, in a television universe with more choices, including entire channels devoted 24/7 to what Wide World of Sports did for 90 minutes each week. But the show soldiered on until January 1998. ABC continued to use the title, if not the format, for Saturday afternoon sports programming until 2006.
Here’s a piece ESPN is running this week about the show’s anniversary.
Recommended Reading: At Retroland, the history of Cap’n Crunch cereal and its TV spots, which were created by the same team that created the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. And at Bloggerhythms, an appreciation of Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London”—a song you should know.
Hey, I got some music into this post after all.