How an idea called the '10-Minute Ticker' changed the way we watch sports

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

Long, long ago, there was a time when the Chicago Cubs were bad at baseball, when football games were taped on a videocassette recorder and when you could watch a sporting event and have little idea what the scores of other games were.

It seems preposterous now, when we have the Yahoo Sports app and NFL RedZone and any other of a thousand ways to keep you constantly in the loop, but back in 1986, football fans mostly watched the game in their region and didn’t change the channel. This was before fantasy sports, so there wasn’t much need to check on Al Toon’s yardage total. Networks didn’t have a scroll at the bottom of the screen, or even a score box, so the score of out-of-town games would appear occasionally and the announcers would make a comment or three about how the Bears had taken the lead and that was about it.

There was no consistency on when an out-of-town score(s) would appear or even which game(s) would be mentioned on your particular broadcast, leaving viewers at the mercy of producers to keep them informed, which may or may not have happened and definitely not on a timely basis.

The randomness of information was particularly frustrating for viewers late in the season when interest in division rival games piqued as their team battled for a playoff spot. You didn’t have to know the score, but you were still dying to know it.

So an executive producer at NBC named Michael Weisman came up with the idea: post every score from around the league six times an hour. He called it the “Ten Minute Ticker.” Why 10 minutes? He liked the alliteration.

(Courtesy of NBC Sports)
(Courtesy of NBC Sports)

“We didn’t compress the screen back then,” he explained to Yahoo Sports. “Now the score is along the bottom. So we would just put [the score] over the picture you were seeing. I would call the producer [of a particular game] and say, ‘Put the other game up!’ He’d say, ‘I can’t, it’s going to block the action and the ball is on the 10.’ ”

The result was that some games featured frequent updates and others showed few. Weisman figured the “Ticker” would regulate the updates and maybe woo some viewers over from CBS (which mostly carried NFC games back then) if they knew what time the score updates would appear. What Weisman couldn’t possibly envision was setting the stage for scoring updates we now expect by the second.

“It really was the beginning of forcing producers and directors and networks to look at the NFL on a national basis,” says Weisman, who has won 24 Emmys during his production career. “Even though you’re living in Detroit, you’re seeing Cincinnati. It really further forced a look at the game as a national entity.”

It was also part of the slow but sure evolution of team-first coverage toward player-first coverage. Fantasy football was well over the horizon, but continuous score updates naturally led viewers to wonder how a score had suddenly changed. It fed the growing appetite for individual performances, which to that point were mostly delivered via halftime and postgame highlights. The Ticker had no individual stats, but it challenged announcers to fill the time and space with details.

The Ticker wasn’t met by universal praise and was still being criticized four years after its debut.

“After two weeks of timing NBC’s Ten-Minute Ticker, I’ve decided that no one at NBC can tell time,” the Orlando Sentinel’s Bill Marx blared in 1990. “I’d hate to be serving detention in elementary school with my afternoon sentence based on NBC’s idea of 10 minutes. During Sunday’s Dolphins-Bills game, NBC gave scoring updates at 1:17 p.m., 1:47, 1:59 (12 minutes, not bad!), 2:42, 2:57 and 3:20.” And Weisman’s successor, the legendary Dick Ebersol, actually did away with the Ticker.

But in 1994, Fox entered the NFL picture and altered it with graphics that included the “FoxBox” with continuous time and score. There was, from that point on, always something on screen besides the game.

The way we watch sports had changed forever. And it started with the 10-Minute-Ticker 30 years ago.

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