|The Producer Page:
IN THIS ISSUE...
I do a 5pm newscast, so between 4 and 5 I'm a bit busy doing what a producer does in the final hour. But one day I hear an anchor and several other people start laughing. Of course, I had to stop and see what was going on. Turns out a competing station with a 4pm newscast had a guest on talking about "finger sucking." Maybe she should have chosen thumb sucking, but by the end of her report and interview she had switched the first letters of both words and said singer _ucking. Yes, live on the air. She buried her face in her hands, the anchors kept it together pretty well. From what the columnists in town say, that woman won't be back on the air.
I CAN'T BELIEVE HE SAID THAT ON THE
The fill-in noon anchor mispronounced the word "Oriole". The story was about how the Major League umpires were threatening to boycott the New York and Baltimore games. Instead of saying "Orioles", the anchor said "Oreos". He didn't just say it once, but twice. During the break, the crew and control room all mentioned how they like their Oreos. Also, I let him know what he said, and he just chuckled. I told him at least Baltimore has The Ravens. He said.. "oh yeah.. the Raisins". It was lunchtime, maybe he was hungry. I told him he couldn't ever work in Baltimore.
I CAN'T BELIEVE HE SAID THAT ON THE
Speaking of on-air bloopers, when I was in high school, I had a weekly sports-talk show with another guy. One day he opened the show and began the first story, and I wasn't paying attention to him, because I was getting ready for my first story. But then I noticed the engineers in the booth falling down laughing and losing control of themselves. I signaled "What's going on?" and one of them wrote some words on a piece of paper and showed it to me through the window. It said, "Good aftersports, noon fans!" When I realized that this was how my partner had started the program, I couldn't keep it together and I lost it on air, which then caused my partner to break up. The faculty advisor mercifully shut down the program before we did any more damage.
He's friends with the "Agony of Defeat" guy, he attended the wedding of Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci in Bucharest, he has 16 Emmy awards, and he is still moved when he recalls the victories of Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton. Thirty-three years after joining ABC Sports, Doug Wilson is as passionate about his business as ever. He's just back from Innsbruck, Austria, where he's working on an upcoming figure skating show. He's visiting his son's family in Cincinnati for Thanksgiving, when I talked with him.
Q: What have we seen on TV that's your work?
A: Since 1964, I've been involved with ABC's Wide World of Sports. I've covered 40 sports, and in the recent decade and a half I've focused in on figure skating. In fact, since 1964 I've been involved in 95% of the figure skating that ABC's ever done. The figure skating community has been very, very good to me! (laughs).
Q: What are some of your favorite moments from your career so far?
A: There've been so many poignant moments in 33 years. I've been so lucky to have been on the team working with extraordinary people and becoming friends with extraordinary people. I've been to ten Olympic games. Various moments in those games stand out. I covered the gymnastics in 1972, when Olga Korbut became a household word overnight. In skating, the Scott Hamilton victory, the Brian Boitano victory, the Dorothy Hamill victory in 1976, which I produced ... and I'd chronicled her career through the middle 70s. She's been through a lot in her life, but she has a lot of dignity and a great sense of class.
I produced the Ohio State - Michigan game when Woody Hayes went in with the number-one team and came out with a loss. I produced it the next year in Columbus when he came back and won. Last year, I directed the Michigan - Michigan State game, which was another upset, in blizzard conditions.
I'm very proud of "Canvas of Ice," a special that Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt starred in. Brian after the Olympics had a dream to skate on a glacier in Alaska. He came to me and told me. I said, "Nothing's impossible," and by golly we went to Alaska, a three-and-a-half hour RV ride out of Fairbanks. Then another helicopter ride into the wilderness. The pilot found a primeval lake next to a glacier. It took three-and-a-half days to do two performances. We had 6 or 7 cameras. Also Brian was very responsive ... it was a spiritual experience for him to be out in the middle of nowhere. It looked like it was about 35 degrees, but it was really 20 below and he couldn't be on the ice for more than 10 minutes at a time.
In 1980 , for the Wide World of Sports, it was the first visit of American figure skaters to the People's Republic of China. Things were not as they are today in China. There was only one hotel, and much of the crew slept outside on mats. But we had an incredible experience. The Chinese people were wonderful, gregarious and appreciative. I remembered back around 1970, I'd watched a news clip from Tiananmen Square, an "I hate America" rally. It was frightening. And then a few years later we found ourselves in the same spot to find people appreciating each other through sport.
When you ask me about highlights, I have to put them in two categories. One is the shows themselves. The other is the relationships and friends I've been blessed with over the years.
I produced a show in Obersdorf, Germany, where the Agony of Defeat guy fell. His name Vinko Bogataj. I've been to his home and he's been to mine. When we did an anniversary show, we invited him to come. He didn't know he was a folk hero. I went up to the grand ballroom with him, and told him some of the greatest athletes of the century are going to be here and they're going to give you a standing ovation. He looked at me like I was crazy. We tried to keep him a secret, but McKay couldn't get halfway through his introductory sentence before everyone was on their feet. Mohammed Ali got his autograph!
Q: How and when did you get started?
A: After I graduated from Colgate, I went to New York and got a job as NBC page. I did that for about 6-8 months. Then I got drafted, and got myself into the Air Force Reserve, and got married when I got out in fall of '58
The people at NBC offered me my page job back. $49.50 a week, gross. Even then, that was rough. I had been in the Colgate 13, an a capella group. An alumnus named Harold Day had heard me, and offered me a job at ABC in production. ABC in the fall of '58 had just opened the network to daytime. They were building programming with American Bandstand. Also "Who Do You Trust,'' starring Johnny Carson, where I was an assistant. The pay was not much better, $60 a week, working in production, but my wife was also working as a production assistant. I thought by learning production I could be a better performer. I was a singer, dancer, I'd been in summer stock, and did theatrical stuff all my high school and college days. ABC's Wide World of Sports with Jim McKay and Roone Arledge treated sports as drama, and I always treated it that way. The only difference between a performance on a stage and a sports performance is that on stage the script has already been written.
Q: Your title is Producer/Director. Talk about the differences.
A: The producer's where the buck stops. When Roone Arledge first promoted me, it was to a position of producer/director. He really wanted me to be a producer. From his perspective, the producer's where the buck stops. During the late sixties and seventies, I produced mostly. Then, things evolved and changed and I ended up doing more directing. My directing colleagues would be mad at me for this, but it's the producer who has to live with the project. When I was producing I was never away from it. Home, work.. I was living with the shows. At ABC Sports we were also responsible for the creative format. Not really for the words because the commentators usually did that, although we did write for them some. (Never for Jim McKay, Jack Whitaker or Al Michaels!) It's a heck of a lot more stressful over the long haul. The stress is intensified during the actual event when you're directing.
Blocking is the process for the director. I go to the arena for practice, and pre-block the performances. It takes hours and hours of preparation to be able to direct a show. The director will see how the live show looks and sounds. The producer is responsible for the format and what is said. Ultimately, if the announcer says something the president of ABC Sports doesn't like, the president will call the producer first. The producer decides what you're going to do. The director decides how you're going to do it.
Q: Why is skating so popular now?
A: Having been involved in skating since 1964, it's never not been popular. It's a matter of degree. Look back to Sonya Henning (sp?). In Hollywood, she was the second-biggest moneymake in the 30s and 40s. Then along came Dick Button after the war. After that, Peggy Fleming. What I see is a graph that starts in the 30s and rises, and each Olympic year there's a peak, then a little dip. But the dip never goes down as far as it was before. The sport continues to gain more and more interest. Then, of course, the big thing was the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan thing in Detroit. So a lot of people who'd never watched figure skating before, watched. A lot of the people who watched for the first time, kept watching. The rules of quote amateurism have changed. It's the second-most popular sport on television. Last year we went up against the Final Four on CBS and ER on NBC, and came in second for the night.
Q: Skating is on all the time now. And not all of the tournaments can be equally important.
A: ABC Sports has what are the traditionally valid championships that go back to the turn of the century in some cases. We have the World Championships and the National Championships. Within the scope of our arrangements with those organizations, we have various events that we've made deals for, and some are less top-of-the-line than others. Like Skate America. It's still great, and attracts the top skaters, like Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge.
Q: Tell me about the early days on the Wide World of Sports.
A: The program's definition is at the top of the show every week. In those early decades, we had a calling. It was all new, everywhere we went was new. To go to Prague and take a big mobile van and drive it down the main street.. today you'd have an ENG unit and go live easily. As we used to say, they're almost as interested in looking at us as we are at them. It was year after year of doing 25 to 40 shows. I used to be on the road 6 to 7 months a year. It was tough on my late wife and my boys.
Q: Any touchy moments abroad?
A: I covered what was to be Nadia's final performance in Bucharest in 1984. We almost didn't get out with the tapes. They wanted to screen my tapes and I felt that was not appropriate from a journalist's point of view. I told the "KGB" guy I was going to do the scene set, and "if you don't take the tapes, I won't say anything about it but if you do , I'll tell." And it worked!
Q: Are you happy with the Wide World of Sports today?
A: Yes. It's not a matter of happy or sad. It's the evolution. Now, it's more about live events. It got its beginning with provincial events, like a rattlesnake hunt, wrist wrestling, and lumberjack championships. Most people in the US hadn't seen those things. Now they have. So we're more oriented to live events.
Q: How do you measure your success on a show?
A: The skaters know this: as soon as the the guy or gal at home is sitting there saying "What a great shot that is," I've failed, because they should be saying, "What a great skater." I'm an extension of them. I'm part of their dance.
Q: What's next for you?
A: The World Challenge of Champions. It will be taped in Innsbruck December 19th. We'll make three different programs out of it, to air on the 11th and 18th of January, and sometime later, the exhibition skating. It's a Dick Buttons event.
You know, I've just started to skate. The Ice Theatre of New York gave me some skates. I got a skating lesson with JoJo Starbuck, the former national pairs champ. I took five lessons in Europe. It was marvelous. I may hang my skis up. It was so fun skating outside in St. Moritz. And I didn't fall too much! When I went to Chicago last May, it was very difficult to put the skates on and go on the ice in front of all these top skaters and coaches. They took some photos of me, and Dick sent me a critique.
I'm under contract with ABC till 2000. After that I don't know. I don't think I'll quit, but I'll be 65.
I've been so lucky, if I complained I'd be a terrible ingrate!
In addition to Wilson's pile of Emmy awards, he was the third recipient of the Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports, and he was the second recipient of the Spirit of Giving Award, from the US Figure Skaters Association.
I know most of you read ShopTalk, so you're up-to-date on last month's conversation about KENS-TV's "Perverts in the Park" sweeps piece. If you're not a ShopTalk reader, here's the very brief version: The story was about homosexuals using a local park for sexual encounters. KENS-TV caught some of those encounters on tape. The story that aired included some graphic video of oral sex between two men. Much of the video had been digitized, but this portion either had not been digitized at all, or the digitization was ineffective. After the piece was over, the anchor apologized to the viewers for what they'd just seen. The station's public response was that no one had screened the piece before it aired, because it didn't get finished until the last second.
Much of the debate on ShopTalk was about the role of the producer and management in allowing the story to air. It's all about accountability and responsibility and authority and power. Some have argued that the producer should have killed the story, since it wasn't ready for screening before it airtime. Others say a producer can't and won't do that.
The truth is, it's not too hard to imagine something like this happening in other newsrooms. It's not too hard to imagine being the producer to whom it happened.
You know the scenario: the reporter and photographer and perhaps a manager have been working on the story for a while, and you've had nothing to do with it. You know it's airing Tuesday night, and it's called Perverts in the Park, and that's about it. Naturally, since you weren't in on any of the advance planning, you assume someone else is taking care of the sensitive video issues. And then it happens. Blowjobontheair.
We can all take lessons from this episode.
Number 1: planning for sweeps. Does your newsroom keep stories secret until day-of-air, even from you, the producer? Insist on more knowledge. Ask for a story description, and ask whether there are any special concerns about the story.
Number 2: Are reporters assigned to work with producers on their pieces? If not, this may be something you can change. Ask the news director if you can be assigned to work with a reporter on a sweeps story. The news director will usually be happy to comply, and the reporter will usually welcome the input. If you're the producer on the piece, you'll know the issues. You'll know if there's sensitive video. You'll know if the editing is running late. You will have talked with the editor about digitizing ALL the video. (Producing the story doesn't necessarily mean you have to go out and shoot it with the reporter & photographer. You can talk about the story with the reporter, assist with some research, make some phone calls, work on graphics and preproduction, and suggest copy changes. You've been involved, and you know what the story's about. It's in your newscast. If nothing else, you'll tease it better!)
Number 3: know your power and its limits. Can you really kill a major story because it's late? Will the news director stand behind you if you do? The answer to that can come only from the top of your own organization.
Bottom line: It is your newscast and your responsibility, but you may not have absolute power over what's in it. You need to maximize your power until it matches your level of responsibility. Ask your news director what would happen if a major story aired in your newscast, and it contained serious nudity or cursing. If the first words out of your ND's mouth are, "How could you let something like that happen?" .. then you know you need to be butting in, asking questions, and generally getting in the way when the big stories are being put together. Don't let someone else's mistake flush your career down the toilet.
Yes, I'm expecting to hear some feedback on that commentary. Send it, and I'll print it.
From an anonymous source...
I'm a former reporter and now the senior producer for special projects at WTVT in Tampa. It takes a different breed of producer to fulfill the responsibilities in this arena. You must have the gut instincts of a reporter, the scheduling knack of an assignment editor, the visualization skills of a photographer, and the creative flair of a post-production editor. Producing in special projects carries with it the pressure of deadlines, especially during "The Books" because the stories coming out of the unit are highly promoted and have a significant investment of time and money. One thing I try to get across to my fellow show producers is the idea that they must think of the overall impact of what they do instead of taking it day by day. By that I mean don't think your job begins at 9am and ends at 6:30pm or whenever your shift ends in the newsroom. When you're a producer you're also a journalist and that carries with it the responsibility of getting involved in your community which ultimately leads to developing contacts and viable story ideas. I can't tell you how many people are "geographically challenged" in the newsroom. They can't tell you where a neighborhood is, how to pronounce the name, and don't know the civic leaders of a particular community.
Some of this lack of knowledge comes from isolation. In-house show producers rarely leave the newsroom. The same is true for mid-level news management. Thus, they become dis-connected from the community they serve. Every once in a while it's healthy to get a good dose of reality and step out of the building. Not only to get a whiff of fresh air but to sniff around and be amongst the people who make news in your community.
Sometimes when I bring this concept up to various colleagues it's often met with a response that sort of goes like this: "We all know what it's like out there. We've done it before!" (Well, ask yourself when was the last time? What day, month, year, or decade?) "That's not my job. We have reporters who do that!" ( So, if you call yourself a producer the responsibility of being a journalist belongs to someone else?) "I'm too busy trying to stack a show! (Oh, so you don't need insight from the outside world to develop a better show?)
Every news organization needs to take time and get their in-house people outside. This kind of exposure on a regular basis can give producers a fresh prospective on life which will ultimately impact the way they approach their jobs. Who knows? You may even get to like it out there and break some stories of your own.
PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE
Some changes at WKRC in Cincinnati: Alan Baker is the new 6 pm
producer. He joins us from Providence, Rhode Island. Angela Hursh
recently arrived from Toledo to become the new 12 News Saturday producer.
Ted Wilson is promoted to Senior Producer, and will continue to
produce the 11 pm newscast.