Yesterday, I tried to post an interview with the amazing Kelli Lawrence, who runs the great blog State of the Skate and recently authored the book Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport. In the hustle and bustle, the interview was deleted and the post went up anyway. I am so sorry to Kelli for that and I have posted the full interview here. Skating on Air is a great read for any skating fan. It is a thorough and engaging history of the sport on air (both in television and film!). I loved learning and relearning about some of my favorite skaters and reading the behind-the-scenes stories.
So here is my interview with Kelli:
Required Elements: Tell us a bit about how the look of skating on television has evolved. What are the biggest improvements in things like production and camera placement? And where is there still room for improvement?
Kelli Lawrence: First off, it’s probably important to note that those involved in the production of skating on television—I’m speaking based on the US directors/producers I spoke with, but it likely applies worldwide—are VERY fond of the sport. If they weren’t when they were first assigned to it, they grew fond of it in short order. And they try to demonstrate their respect for skating by way of their coverage. For Doug Wilson (of the ABC/ESPN days) and many that have worked with him, that means giving things an artful touch, faithfully choreographing the camerawork to match the programs (which they spend many hours watching in the practices). For David Michaels (formerly of CBS, now with NBC) and other directors past and present, it was more about bringing skating down to earth and showing how much of a sport it truly is—they pushed to bring cameras closer to the rinkside, to get mics capturing what Michaels calls "skate noise," and to emphasize the rivalries that develop along the way.
When it comes to improvement it’s really a matter of personal preference I think Some are grateful for every minute of skating coverage they now get via NBC/Universal, but others dispute everything from the choice of commentators to the amount of time ice dancing gets on the small screen. Some complain about too many features on specific skaters (known as "fluff pieces"); others yearn for the stories such pieces tell.. Some want to see more close-ups on the athletes’ faces; others want more full-body shots. And it’s just as subjective for the TV director behind the controls. With any luck, they’re able to strike a balance between "giving the audience what they want" and letting their own personal style come through.
RE: You wrote in your book about a lot of skaters and events that had an impact on the popularity of skating on television. Which one skater or event do you think made the biggest impact and why?
KL: Well the Harding/Kerrigan incident of 1994 was so infamous—and such a game-changer—I devoted a whole chapter to it, breaking it down day by day, headline by headline. And of course it was the springboard for the pro skating boom of the mid-to-late 90s, which pushed skating into a brighter spotlight than ever… and contributed to the burnout/loss of interest that has arguably hounded the sport ever since.
But when it comes to individual skaters, I’ll choose three that impacted the business side of the sport as well as the artistic/athletic: Sonja Henie, who had the drive and determination to popularize the sport in America so that it could find its way to TV at all… Dick Button, who not only celebrated the sport on camera but, as the original rights-holder of the World Championships, shrewdly and diligently worked to make those rights as valuable as possible… and Scott Hamilton. I know his work as a commentator/analyst tends to rub die-hard fans the wrong way, but he’s brought an energy and excitement to this sport—as an amateur, as a pro, as the founder of Stars on Ice, and yes, as an analyst too—like no one else I can think of.
RE: Do you have a favorite skating television personality from over the years? If so, why do you like them?
As far as skaters-turned-commentators go…like most of us, I was weaned on Dick Button calling the events and can hear many of the Button-isms in my head no matter who is skating ("Good boy!" "You know, the axel is the most treacherous jump in figure skating!" "I’m sorry but that’s just an ugly position on that layback…" etc.) So he’s almost a favorite by default, but mostly because he’s such a PERSONALITY and has such a passion for the sport no matter where it goes. But among the more current choices—honestly, as long as any of them are paired up with Terry Gannon I think I’m a happy camper. Terry’s one of those guys who knew very little about skating when he was assigned to it in the mid-90s, but was a quick study and came to admire the sport immensely… and this is a basketball guy we’re talking about!
Honorable mention to Verne Lundquist, who hasn’t covered anything since the final "Ice Wars" in 2006 but, like Gannon (and Jim McKay way before him), gives a wonderful legitimacy to every event he covers). He also wrote a terrific foreword for my book.
RE: You've mentioned the US's lack of a new "Michelle Kwan" in recent years, and how that has contributed to the fall of popularity of the sport in the United States. Do you see anyone with potential to become our next Michelle or Sasha Cohen over the next few years?
KL: When I addressed this in the book I think I first talked about how everyone glommed onto Kimmie Meissner circa 2005-2006… she was seen so thoroughly as "the future" of US ladies, ESPN took her over to Worlds in ’05 (when she was too young to qualify as a competitor) simply to boost her recognition! But when her star faded a few years later—which happened to coincide with the time that ABC/ESPN lost all their skating coverage—there wasn’t another clear-cut heir to the throne in sight. The closest thing now, a few years further down the road, is probably Alissa Czisny—but since she has yet to make an Olympic team, I doubt the every-four-year fans know who she is. NBC didn’t even include her in its 2009 Worlds coverage (when she finished out of the top 10), so casual fans may have been unaware she was our U.S. Champ at the time!
Anyway, for whatever reason… it’s hard to watch a 14 year-old skating phenom and say "she’s next" without feeling a big old asterisk attaching to it: IF she survives puberty, injuries, poor coaching decisions, etc. Which is probably why Michelle Kwan became such a standout in the first place.
RE: Your book mentions the close relationships between skaters, producers, and commentators. In light of that, do you think commentators and producers do an effective job of keeping personal preferences out of their work covering competitions?
KL: I suspect a lot of it has to do with how long a particular skater has been around. Especially in that late 90s heyday, athletes like Kwan, Todd Eldredge, and Michael Weiss not only stayed at the top of their sport for a long time…but they participated in countless made-for-TV events. And they logged a lot of hours on the Grand Prix circuit (as did the ABC/ESPN crews for the first five years they had the GP contract). If a commentator falters on the matter of personal bias, I tend to blame it on human nature— knowing the skater’s story inside out, and sincerely wanting them to succeed.
As for producers, the story is likely the same except they have the additional responsibility of deciding who gets seen—and who doesn’t. That’s where watching the practice sessions at a given event comes into play. Back in 1996, for instance, ABC might not have considered Rudy Galindo a contender for ANY medal, let alone gold, based on his past history. But producer/director Meg Streeter noticed his marked improvement via the practices, and truly lobbied for his story to be told. Knowing his long-time struggles on the way to that unforgettable win in ’96, it’s no wonder that Terry Gannon jokes his shoulder is still sore from Dick Button clapping his hand on it excitedly during Galindo’s free skate!
RE: What do you think of the onset of live streaming online for skating competitions?
KL: I think it’s a sign of the times, and not necessarily a bad one. There’s still a lot of frustration out there that we can’t see as much skating on mainstream TV as we used to… but TV is a business first and foremost, and like many other niche sports, viewership simply isn’t what it used to be… which means the coverage has to go elsewhere. Let’s face it, we got spoiled in the 90s! And even when much of the coverage moved to ESPN in the 2000’s, it was still a LOT of coverage.
Overall I think it took The Powers That Be in figure skating a little longer than it should have to say "OK, the good old days are over… so how do we roll with the times and still make a profit?" It seems to me that they should’ve made YouTube their friend three or four years ago; really used it as a promotional tool rather than yanking fan posts from the most recent competitions. But I can’t help but wonder if the Davis/White "Bollywood-inspired" original dance from 2009-10 (and its bazillion YouTube hits) helped turn the tide… this year the ISU got its own channel and brought Junior Grand Prix coverage directly to YouTube!
So I’m glad for the internet coverage in all its forms, and understand why it has to be that way… but I’m all the more excited to see anything on NBC, especially in a non-Olympic season. I think it’s the only way to inspire kids, and draw new fans to a sport that still needs them badly.
RE: Any interesting anecdotes from skaters or producers that didn't make it into the book but you want to tell?
KL: I know I’ve got some, and at some point hope to post some "extras" at my State of the Skate blog… but to be completely honest, I haven’t cracked open my notes in well over a year! It took a few years to get the book done (meaning from proposal stage to its release), so once I’d turned things in for the final time I had to close it all up and walk away for a while. But there were sometimes little things I just had to find a way to include—like (producer) Meg Streeter’s story about having to hold Scott Hamilton’s retainer during an interview, back when she was a lowly production associate… or the way the CBS production staff ran a pool for guesses at how many times Hamilton would say "Nicely done" on the air during a given Olympics… or how Peter Carruthers first got interested in commentating when he approached the ABC staff back in his competitive days, asking if he could take a look inside the production truck (and they obliged him). Luckily, I found a place for all those mini-anecdotes—and plenty more—by way of (several) Appendixes.
Kelli added that she had hoped to interview Peggy Fleming and Dick Button because they are so important in skating's broadcast history, but Fleming indicated through her agent that she would not be able to set up an interview, and Button sent an encouraging note but hopes to write his own book some day.