Episode #16: Doug Wilson

JUNE 2008
An interview with Doug Wilson, producer and director for ABC. For 50 years he covered over 40 sports, and has been particularly influential in how figure skating is covered on american television. 1 hour, 18 minutes, 57 seconds long.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: It was many many years ago. I had gotten misinformation about how a young lady had performed. I had been told, I had thought, that she had skated very well in her competition, in her performance. And so when I saw her, I went up to her and I said, oh, wonderful news about the way you skated today, congratulations. And I looked at her eyes, and I was devastated because I’d obviously hurt her feelings, and she obviously thought I was being a wise guy.  And I just…aw, I didn’t realize it until a few minutes later when somebody told me, and I went “oh”.

On starting his career in television: I wanted to be a singer, and an actor. And I had my English major degree from Colgate University, in upstate New York, and I’d been very active in the performance side of things there…and I came to New York and was looking for a job as a star. And there weren’t any openings for a star [laughs].  So I ended up as an NBC page. And I was on a CBS show and I wore my page uniform on that show and got a lot of laughs. And then I got my draft notice, and I was supposed to get married at the same time that all this was happening. So I was able to get in the Air Force reserves, and served six months…and I got married, a couple of weeks after the six months ended. And I didn’t have a job, and I went back to NBC and they offered me my page uniform back, and I said I didn’t think so. And there was a gentleman named Harold Day, a Colgate man and a friend of the family. And he had come to me after a couple of concerts [at Colgate] and said he could help me if I wanted to be a performer, but if there was ever anything else he could do for me in broadcasting, he’d put a word in for me.  So I remembered that and I called Mr. Day, and went into ABC and talked to him…And ABC at that time was about to go into a new venture. They were going on network daytime television [laughs]. They were building back from a program they’d put on the network called American Bandstand, from Philadelphia, and prior to that was a game show called Who Do You Trust with Johnny Carson. And they were going to build back to 11 o’clock with other programs, so they needed productions.  So I told them money wasn’t the issue here, I just wanted to get into the business, and I wanted to find out about production to help me be a better performer, blah blah blah, whatever I said. And I got a call the next day to come in and start work as a production assistant at $60 a week. Before taxes [laughs].  That first day at work, I was assigned to a live Chevrolet commercial on the Pat Boone show…and I was standing there next to the camera, holding up cue cards, and thinking “I want to be Pat Boone. There’s something wrong with this picture” [laughs].  But out of that came an immersion and a fascination with television production.

On sports (and skating) as theatre: I think the two sports I became most closely connected with over the years were gymnastics and figure skating. That related to my philosophy with ABC Wide World of Sports which was that the only difference between what was going on in a theatre, on the boards, and the only thing that was going on in an athletic arena, or in a stadium, was that in theatre the script had already been written. And our job as producers and directors of sports television was to follow the plotlines as they developed, and our stars, the actors, of course are the athletes. And being a music guy as I was, it was a perfect fit because it was ultimate drama. Skating particularly was absolute sports theatre. And I became more and more in admiration of what skaters did, and skating became very much a part of my way of life  and I became immersed in it. And as the years unfolded, a couple of things [happened]. I started producing less and directing more…and I began to see at that point, as I sat in that chair and began to look at the tape – I realized first of all that in competitive skating in general, you want to see their whole bodies. Because they’re speaking with their whole bodies, and they’re being judged by their whole bodies. But every once in a while when they’re skating you can get a great moment when you can get a good close-up of them for a second, even if it’s just for a second, and celebrate the great expression on their face if they’re exhilarated, or see the disappointment if not.

On what a good TV sports director does: If someone is sitting in their living room, looking at the screen, and saying, “Oh! What a great shot!” then I have failed. Because that means they’re paying more attention to my camera work then they are to the skater. It should be seamless, as seamless as you can make it, and you should be enhancing what the skater does, and make the skater look good. I once said – I think at the Chicago Professional Skaters Association meeting – I asked around, how many times a skater like Scott Hamilton or one of the great skaters, how many times in their life, from the first time they tried to accomplish it, had they done a triple axel? And I got answers of everything from 5,000 to 40,000 times.  And so my viewpoint is, and always has been, that the next time Scott Hamilton or Brian Boitano or whoever is going out on that ice, and they’re about to do a triple axel, they’ve done 40,000 rehearsals for that moment for our cameras. And we’d better do our best, we’d better respect that one thousand percent, and make every effort, do everything we can, to enhance the look of that triple axel. Because it’s an extraordinary thing to do.

This reminds me of a major ego moment for me [laughs]. We were up in Calgary at the Olympics, and when the Battle of the Brians was over – I had been chronicling Brian Boitano’s competitive life for a number of years, since the early 80s, and was particularly excited about his long program. And he and I knew each other, of course. And so when it was over, and I had gotten the shot that people have seen hundreds of times now, when he clenches his fist and looks up at the sky thanking God for doing so well [laughs] – that was a moment that of course all [of us] can appreciate, the greatness of a champion when they do their best performance when the pressure is greatest.  That’s the sign of a truly great champion, and he had done that. Well, I followed him and waited until the event was over, and waited outside the press conference. He still had his skates on! And he came out of the press conference and he saw me, and I embraced him and said, “Congratulations”, and I looked up at him and said, “Brian, tonight you were great. And so was I” [laughs]. And he said, “Oh, really? Did you get it?” And I said, “Yeah. We got it” [laughs].

On whether he has a favorite skating discipline: No, I don’t think I [do]. I think it depends – I am uplifted by greatness. And whatever discipline it is, whether it’s a Peggy Fleming or whether it’s Torvill and Dean or whether it’s Brian [Boitano] or Scott [Hamilton] or whether it’s the Protopopovs – it’s very interesting, too, we’ve all experienced it from the camera point, with my wonderful camera people, when we’re doing a host broadcast and we’re doing skaters with lesser abilities, we always feel like we’re struggling in the truck. Nothing’s working particularly right; [it feels like] something’s missing. And without exception, you get to the great skaters, and suddenly, we’re doing really well. Their greatness, and their capabilities, and their abilities to skate technically and to move people emotionally, directly affects the work that we do on television.

On whether he’s friends with people in the skating community: Oh, deeply so. I can explain it in a couple of different ways –  I’ll share this story with you. From 1988 to 1991 my late wife fought a battle with esophageal cancer, which she eventually lost. In 1990 the national championships were in [Salt Lake City], and it came to a point where I said to [my wife] that maybe this year I won’t be at nationals. And she looked at me and said, “But you have to. These are your people.”  And that probably sums it up. They’ve been so patient with me on occasions when I’ve asked for things that are probably beyond the call of duty. I’ve always tried to look at things from their point of view…They’ve been giving and supportive, and particularly during that time after I lost my wife in the early 90s, the skating community has just been wonderfully supportive. And then to be selected to be inducted into the Hall of Fame is just such an honor.







About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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