Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport

Interview by Vladislav Luchianov

By day she writes and does production for clients in corporate video and B2B magazines. She have also written for PSA (Professional Skaters Association) Magazine and SKATING which is official USFSA publication.

Kelli Lawrence is a freelance writer and producer which presents a new skating book: Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport. She is also the author of the popular blog State of the Skate.

Of all winter sports, none is so widely watched and commented upon by the media as figure skating, which is often considered the Winter Olympics’ centerpiece. This critical text examines the ways in which media attention has gradually altered and affected the sport, from the early appearances of Sonja Henie, skating’s gradual audience growth via television, and the ramifications of the scandals in the 1994 and 2002 Olympics.

The topic is illuminated by more than 30 interviews with commentators, skaters, producers, directors and others. In addition to numerous photos, illustrations show the compulsory figures for which “figure skating” got its name, as well as a sample of the charted-out “camera blocking” for TV directors. Appendices include collected anecdotes from early broadcasting experiences; a profile of broadcaster Jim McKay; and commentary on Carol Heiss’ 1961 musical Snow White and the Three Stooges.

WFS: How has come to you the idea of creation of this book?

Kelli Lawrence: Back in 2006-7, I’d written a number of different articles about a U.S skater (2006 Olympian Matt Savoie) and his coach, and was on board to write a book about him by late 2007. While researching the skating book market for that project, I realized there had never been a book done that studied TV’s relationship with the sport (a relationship that was coming to an end, at the time, in the U.S. with ABC/ESPN losing the broadcast rights). Long story short, the book about Savoie never materialized, and I pursued this idea instead.

What inspired you the most to write it?

I was a competitive skater for a few years as a kid, and I never would have given it a try if not for seeing Dorothy Hamill on TV, winning gold in the 1976 Winter Games. Having read a lot of skating bios, stating how many great skaters got their start by watching one skater or another on TV, I was saddened to see the decline in broadcast coverage—not just for my own sake, but for the sake of kids who might never get to fall in love with the sport simply because they never got to see it. Once I gave the topic more thought, I realized what an interesting narrative the whole skating/TV relationship is at this point, not just from the perspective of a former skater and a longtime fan, but as someone with a history in the video industry.

How long and difficult (if so) was the process of creation?

My biggest concern early on was getting people to interview for the sample chapter necessary to get myself a publisher—I knew I wanted key behind-the-scenes people from as many major U.S. TV networks as possible, but had no idea how to contact them. But within a matter of weeks I’d pinned down Doug Wilson (a producer/director of figure skating and other sports that spent over 40 years at ABC before retiring in 2008), David Michaels (producer/director involved with skating for 30 years, currently with NBC), and Rick Gentile (former executive producer of sports at CBS). All of them were extremely cooperative, and next thing I knew I had my sample chapter.

That was in the summer of 2008. I started shopping my proposal to agents and publishers near summer’s end; by Spring 2009 I had signed with McFarland Publishing. From there, I had my hands full for the next 18 months with phone interviews, email interviews, searching for photos, transcribing interviews, not to mention my regular freelance work and being a mom to two grade school-age kids! To be honest, I pretty much knew the way I wanted to tell skating’s story from the beginning.

I just wasn’t sure how to reach all the different people I wanted to speak with, nor did I have any confidence that they’d want to give me a minute of their time with me being an unknown writer and all. But by and large, people were very accommodating and kind. I do wish I’d been able to get the book out sooner than the end of the season (!), but I did the best I could—no rush jobs here!

As I know you interviewed many people related with TV companies for your book. Were these people open-minded during your work with them?

If we’re talking about their opinions on “what’s happened” to televised skating it depends what part of the skating/TV world they came from. The producers, directors, executives, programmers, etc. see everything more in terms of what works and what doesn’t—meaning what attracts the most viewers—and it doesn’t necessarily have to with anything changing in figure skating.

Those who are more directly involved with figure skating (Scott Hamilton, Peter Carruthers, Tracy Wilson, to name a few) tend to be more passionate about what’s changed within the sport. Suffice to say there’s a lot of frustration about the way the ISU handles, or sometimes doesn’t handle its business. By the way, Sonia Bianchetti (formerly of the ISU) agreed to an interview for the book but the ISU itself was not responsive to my requests.

One thing just about everyone I interviewed agrees on—the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident was a game-changer. Not just for the sport itself, but the public interest in it and TV’s reaction to that interest. I devoted an entire chapter to the goings-on of that 6-8 weeks between the original assault at U.S. Nationals, and the night of the Ladies Final in Lillehammer. Quite a few interesting side stories in there detailing how the whole thing unfolded.

Kelli, we both know that figure skating is much more than just a sport. In your vision, why many TV companies not interested in it?

The short version of that answer is that “it’s nothing personal” about skating itself—that is to say, TV is a business and they are “interested” in whatever works (meaning what generates the biggest audience/ratings, which in turn allows them to charge the most money for advertising). Unfortunately, skating just isn’t pulling in the ratings it once did.

It’s worth saying that everyone I spoke with, whether they were a videographer, producer, director, commentator, or executive, has either loved skating most of their life or come to love it by being involved with it. Those that don’t get to be involved anymore, such as the CBS folks who had it during the 1990s (and three Olympics) or the ABC/ESPN people, are the first to say they miss it very much.

But a lot has changed since televised skating hit its ratings peak in the mid-90s: judging scandals, the scoring overhaul that followed, TV viewing habits in general, the availability of the Internet, the rising popularity of other winter sport, the list is fairly long, even if you don’t include some of the changes specific to broadcasting in the U.S. As one of my interviewees said, it’s not just one thing (that’s affecting figure skating’s decline in TV popularity) — if it was just one thing we could easily fix it!

In your vision, what figure skating officials should to do to regain the popularity of this sport on television?

For starters—and I know I’m not the first to say this—the ISU needs new blood. The only “term limit” for the ISU president is an age restriction, and Ottavio Cinquanta is on his last term because of it, but he’s been in there way too long. (I know I’m not the first to say that either!) Furthermore, there hasn’t been a president with a figure skating background in over 30 years. I guess what I’m saying is that a new leader—especially one with no ties to Cinquanta—would be a good start. And hopefully that person would be savvy enough to understand the way both skating and the media has changed over the past two decades, and work with the changes rather than against them.

And then there’re all the issues still to be had with the IJS (International Judging System). Many that grew up and/or skated with the old system are still resistant to it, TV producers have a hard time wringing any excitement out of it at times, fans lament that it’s still too subjective a system and even the long, drawn out wait in the Kiss’N’Cry can be a problem. But as Scott Hamilton told me, “They’ve got to dance with the date that brought ‘em”—in other words, find a way to make it work.

Oh, and while skating officials don’t have much to do with it, I tend to think skating’s popularity could get a boost in the U.S. if the right skater came along. Michelle Kwan was that “right skater” for a long time, but she’s proven to be a very, very tough act to follow.

I think that figure skating also carries great educational and cultural things. This is especially true nowadays when we can see a huge drop in the overall level of culture, especially among young people. Maybe it’s time for broadcasters to think not only about the benefits?

There’s an undercurrent of skating’s worldwide cultural impact in several of the things my sources discussed. Verne Lundquist of CBS (who I interviewed, but who also wrote a great foreword for the book) had a deep-rooted specialty in covering sports like American football, basketball, and golf—but he gives several examples of his around-the-world experiences with “our” sport that have endeared him to skating forever.

The broadcast team at ABC/ESPN has very fond memories of the crazy time when crews were sent globetrotting, and subsequently soaking in the culture, for the duration of the ISU Grand Prix. And back when features (also called “fluff pieces”) on skaters occurred regularly, they were often produced as a way to bring viewers into the less-than-familiar world of a skater from another part of the globe.

So I think broadcasters are already appreciative of the cultural benefits but in the U.S. at least, I’m sorry to say that anything coming across the commercial networks these days as “educational” or “cultural” is almost by accident. They generally leave that sort of thing to specialty cable networks or public broadcasting, neither of which has taken any interest in covering competitive figure skating that I’m aware of.

Internet broadcasting is developing very quickly. We already have such wonderful, high-quality resources as, Canadian Skatebuzz. They offer their services at fairly good prices. Will the TV companies fully compete with them?

U.S. Figure Skating definitely knows the benefit of regular TV coverage, and sounded pleased with their contract with NBC when I spoke to David Raith last year. Having said that in terms of the wall-to-wall coverage provided online, I think the closest we’ll get to that in the form of U.S. TV coverage is that which we got via Universal Sports last year (which was surprisingly extensive). And now that Universal has its own subscription service online, I suspect those of us who DO pick up that channel will have to be happy with what they offer and those that don’t will have to settle with the final flight/highlights that typically make up mainstream TV coverage. (And once it’s decided who will get the broadcast rights to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the amount of coverage might shift yet again.)

Now that services like IceNetwork and Skatebuzz are proving successful, mainstream TV really has no need to compete with them—the online stuff is for the die-hard fans of the sport, and the “big TV” (as one of my sources called it) is intended for more passive fans so they can keep tabs on who’s who from one Olympic cycle to the next. At this point, I’ll be happy for any competitive skating that makes it to the networks, particularly in a non-Olympic year. It doesn’t take a full-length event for a kid to discover it on TV, and become a part of it.

What are the main thoughts or ideas which you want to tell to the readers through your book?

There’s plenty of talk, particularly in the second half of the book, about the roller coaster ride that has been televised skating coverage since 1994. But Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport is about much more than that. It’s about how skating found its way onto TV at ALL in the days when boxing was the most dominant sport on the airwaves. It’s about how skating helped ABC thrive in the 1970s, and helped CBS hold its own in the ‘90s.

But one of the most important things I hope readers get from the book is a strong sense of the care and consideration that most broadcasters take in presenting figure skating on the TV (or Internet) screen. The directors often spend long hours studying skaters’ practices, trying to think of the best way to present their programs via TV cameras. The producers and videographers sometimes spend day upon day with individual skaters in an effort to tell that athlete’s “story” properly. Executives agonize over skating-related journalistic decisions. And commentators give a lot more thought to the way they do their job than some of us give them credit for. It all adds up to wonderful stories, some are fascinating, some are emotional, and many are quite funny!

With any luck, those stories will now be enjoyed and cherished by skating fans no matter what the sport’s broadcasting future.

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