Re: "Larry Merchant and HBO"- Thomas Hauser article
More negotiations followed. HBO refused a request from the Kellerman camp that it sweeten Max’s contract by relaxing an exclusivity provision that precludes him from appearing on ESPN. Merchant made several concessions with regard to terms that Greenburg had initially promised but later withdrew.
Finally, on June 8th, HBO issued a press release announcing that the network and Merchant had agreed to a new contract. “We are delighted to have one of sports television’s most respected broadcasters continue to call them as he sees them,” the release quoted Greenburg as saying. “Larry is an institution at HBO. Sharing the workload with Larry will be Max Kellerman, which essentially gives us two formidable broadcast teams on World Championship Boxing.”
Informed sources say that Merchant’s contract with HBO provides for the following: (1) Merchant will work half of all World Championship Boxing and up to six pay-per-view shows per year; (2) to ease Boxing After Dark’s transition to a new announcing team, he will work two BAD shows each year; and (3) he will have first priority on all fights outside of the United States. Beyond that, HBO will determine which shows Larry works after “meaningful consultation” between him and Rick Bernstein.
As for how things will play out, Merchant and Kellerman are said to have overlapping expectations. But each of their contracts is “pay or play,” an industry term which means that HBO can apportion air-dates between them as it sees fit as long as it pays them.
It would be unfair to Kellerman to judge his work against the standard that Merchant has set. Max should be allowed to rise or fall on his own merits. But he’ll be under a lot of pressure in the months ahead. And by refusing to work Boxing After Dark, he has created an opening for whoever fills BAD’s lead-analyst slot. As Earnie Shavers once said, “When you marry your mistress, you create a vacancy.”
Meanwhile, HBO has a new set of problems as a result of the resolution of L’Affaire Merchant. An announcing team is a network’s representative to the viewing public and, where boxing is concerned, the only constant the public sees from show to show. HBO is now in a situation where its flagship product (World Championship Boxing) has a schizophrenic identity. Some football teams have a quarterback controversy with two guys switching back and forth. HBO is on the brink of a lead-analyst controversy that will aggravate some viewers and create a certain amount of internal discomfort.
Greenburg’s critics say that his handling of the situation typifies a larger malaise within HBO’s boxing program. Dan Rafael wrote recently that Ross “bungled the entire Larry Merchant affair from Day 1, handling contract negotiations with his irreplaceable star analyst like a rookie instead of a seasoned executive.” One member of HBO’s production crew likens Ross’s championing of Kellerman to Coca Cola’s ill-fated product improvement (“new Coke”) of the 1980s.
And more than a few feathers were ruffled on June 8th when the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner took place. Showtime CEO Matt Blanc and Ken Hershman (who runs that network’s boxing program) were there to see Steve Albert receive the Sam Taub Award for excellence in broadcast journalism (which was bestowed upon Merchant in 1985). Larry, as noted earlier in this article, was honored on June 8th for his long and meritorious service to boxing. Greenburg chose not to attend the dinner.
Still, as Seth Abraham notes, “One of the marks of good leadership is the ability to recognize that you’ve made a mistake and the willingness to change course. I think it’s to Ross’s credit that he took a step back, re-evaluated the situation, and changed his mind as far as Larry’s future at HBO is concerned.”
That brings us back to Merchant. On June 9th, HBO asked if he would be willing to cover its June 16th Boxing After Dark card at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Larry agreed and, the following weekend, flew from California to the east coast, did the show, and (on two hours sleep) flew back to California. At age 76. That’s a team player, the guy Greenburg wanted to terminate.
Merchant is satisfied with his new contract. “It worked out as well as I could have hoped for under the circumstances,” he says. “It’s a fair deal. It gives me time to do a few more things, personal and professional, that I want to do and keeps me involved with boxing. I’m satisfied.”
Then Merchant is asked what he thinks will happen with boxing at HBO over the next few years.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “One or two guys can change everything. And those guys can be in the ring or out of it.”