Robert Wussler; promoted entertainment in sports TV

By Richard Goldstein
New York Times / June 15, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

NEW YORK — Robert J. Wussler, a senior executive for the CBS news and sports divisions and president of the CBS Television Network in the 1970s and later the top aide to Ted Turner in the expansion of his cable television operations, died June 5 at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 73.

His death was announced by his spokesman, Arthur Sando, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Wussler, a native of Newark, took a job in the CBS mailroom after graduating from Seton Hall University in 1957.

He first made his mark with CBS as executive producer for news, helping to oversee coverage of the national political conventions, manned spaceflights, and President Nixon’s visit to China.

When he was named to head CBS sports coverage in the mid-1970s, Mr. Wussler presented athletic events with an eye to their value as entertainment programming.

He oversaw expansion of “The NFL Today’’ Sunday show with a staff that included Phyllis George, a former Miss America.

The CBS coverage of Super Bowl X between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys in January 1976 received an Emmy for an Outstanding Live Sports Special. It included shots from a blimp above the field along with instant replay, but also featured segments with the comedians Jackie Gleason, Jonathan Winters, and Henny Youngman.

“Conceding that professional sports have become little more than elaborate television productions, CBS has deliberately moved toward transforming its presentations into ‘entertainments,’ ’’ John J. O’Connor wrote in The New York Times, reviewing the CBS coverage of the 1976 Super Bowl.

Mr. Wussler became president of the CBS Television Network in April 1976, but he returned to the sports division in fall 1977 during a reorganization.

In March 1978, he announced his resignation from CBS, effective a month later, in order to start an independent production company to be financed by CBS.

He left on the eve of a Federal Communications Commission meeting to determine whether to penalize the network for its series of specially promoted tennis matches billed as “winner take all,’’ when, in fact, the players had been paid large fees whether they won or lost.

The FCC went on to find that CBS had deliberately misled the public in connection with the players’ fees — Jimmy Connors won all four matches in what was billed as the Heavyweight Championship of Tennis — and had violated standards for promotional considerations involving the hotels hosting the matches. In July 1978, the FCC announced that it would punish the network by shortening the length of a license renewal for one of the five television stations that CBS owned.

Mr. Wussler denied having any specific knowledge of the financial arrangements for the tennis series, and when he resigned, he said his departure was unrelated to the inquiry.

Mr. Wussler was hired by Ted Turner in 1980 to help run the fledgling Turner Broadcasting System, and he guided its international expansion as senior executive vice president.

In Mr. Wussler’s years with Turner, TBS grew from a superstation known mostly for its coverage of Atlanta Braves baseball games to a media enterprise including CNN, a new TNT network, and the MGM film library. In 1986, Mr. Wussler helped create the Goodwill Games between American and Soviet athletes.

Mr. Wussler left Turner Broadcasting in 1989 to become president and chief executive of Comsat Video Enterprises, and he remained with the company until 1992.

Correction: A photo that ran with an earlier version of this obituary was incorrect.