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October 6, 2015

In His Time, Chet Simmons Changed Sports TV

by Allison Waldman, posted Mar 29th 2010 1:02PM
chet_simmons_espn_pioneerChet Simmons was a true television pioneer. The things we watch today and consider essential to our viewing, didn't exist before Simmons created it. You know that little show on ESPN, 'SportsCenter'? That was Chet Simmons. All this is important to appreciate because Simmons died last week in Atlanta at the age of 81. In his passing, it's time to appreciate that Simmons was a visionary television executive who had the gumption and wherewithal to make his visions a reality.

Simmons started in his career at ABC Sports, one of Roone Arledge's right hand men, and part of the team that came up with the 'Wide World of Sports.'

Today, the show is remembered as an Emmy-winning program that literally scanned the world looking but 'Wide World of Sports' was really groundbreaking entertainment. You saw things on that show that were new and different and always filmed brilliantly. Whether it was ski-jumping in Austria or cliff-diving in South America, 'Wide World' was exciting. And Simmons understood that sports fans craved more.

He moved on to NBC Sports, where he worked on that network's NFL broadcasts. Simmons was instrumental in many of the innovations we take for granted in football telecasts, including instant replay. Can you imagine a game today without replay? Simmons helped make the AFC, then perceived as the lesser half of the NFL, just as important as the old guard NFC.

What made Simmons a true pioneer, though, was that he wasn't satisfied sticking with the security and stature of network TV. In 1979, Simmons made the jump to cable television. He was part of the group that conceived and created an all-sports station called ESPN. At the time there were less than 20 cable channels to watch, and much of the country was still using rabbit ears and rooftop antennas.

What we think of today as a no-brainer, sports all day long with constant information updated, was a radical idea back then. I know that from the time I became a cable customer, ESPN has always been part of my regular rotation.

Simmons left ESPN after three years, to take on another risky start-up, the USFL, a football league to challenge the NFL. The fact that the league didn't make it doesn't change the fact that he had been an innovative force in sports and television. In later years, he was a consultant, lending his sage expertise to companies like MSG Network when they commenced broadcasting.

Simmons is survived by his wife, Harriet, and four children, but more than that, he's remembered as a man who made his mark on a medium and to this day, that mark remains indelible.

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