Episode #71: Doug Wilson, redux!

December 2013
An interview with Doug Wilson, the ABC Producer and Director that I interviewed in 2008 on SkateCast #16. He contacted me again to talk about his new book, “The World Was Our Stage: Spanning the Globe with ABC Sports.” It’s full of wonderful stories of not only his coverage of figure skating, but so many sports and sports moments that are ingrained in our culture and memory. He talks about the changing role of female commentators, being able to talk with Irina Rodnina after the Iron Curtain fell, and why we should all listen to Carol Heiss1 hour, 06 minutes, 37 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On Carol Heiss:  She put into my mind something that I actually included in my book, where she told me the dynamics, the emotional conflict that a female skater has to have compared to a man. This is less true maybe today, but it’s a very valid thought. She told me that when a man goes out to skate he can be in harmony with his masculinity. He can go out there and be strong and powerful and muscular and energetic, and celebrate the masculinity that is within in. But a woman has to go out and have the same drive for victory and the same drive to be athletic, but she has to appear to be a ballerina, a lovely flowing inspiring gorgeous figure on the ice — even though at competitions she’s driven just as much by the will to win as a guy is. I thought that was a fascinating insight.

On writing his book, The World Was Our Stage: Spanning the Globe with ABC Sports: How long did it take to write? Oh, about 50 years [laughs]. I tried to write the book for a number of years, and I came to the realization that because I wasn’t a professional writer and because it wasn’t my work, that I couldn’t do it alone. You cannot write a book that has any quality to it as an extracurricular activity. It’s got to be something that takes over your life, and you focus on it. I was in contact with Tim Wood, our world champion as you well know [in 1969 and 1970], working on another project, and he told me about a woman who was writing for him. He introduced me to Jody Cohan, who grew up watching Wide World of Sports every Saturday, and who also was an athlete, a tennis player and a ski instructor. She told me her family was fairly sports-oriented because her mother never cooked dinner on Monday nights because of Monday Night Football [laughs]. So she understood the spirit of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, not just showing sports events but much more than that. It reflected what was going on in the history of our country, it overrode political barriers, it showed how people can connect in the ways that only art and sport and music can connect them. So we became collaborators, and she became my number one editor. She helped deeply with the research, and she was a pro. It took two and a half years, and it’s interesting, here is a person that I came to know very well, and we’ve only met in person twice. We were joined at the email hip for two and a half years on a daily basis [laughs].

On the reaction to the book: I have to express my gratitude to United States Figure Skating, they have been so helpful and supportive with it. I decided that part of the income from any sales at Skate America would go to the fund to support the team going to Sochi. The gymnastics community has also been very supportive. I covered more than 50 sports, but figure skating was the number one sport for me, and gymnastics was the other one that I got deeply involved with.

On his relationships with the athletes he covered: A number of them became lifelong friends. I was deeply honored to be invited by Sean McManus to speak at Jim McKay’s funeral, and then the Knievel family invited me to speak at Evel’s funeral, which was sort of life-changing for me. There were too many people in Butte, Montana, for it to be held in the local church, so they held it in the hockey arena, with 5000 people in the arena and the stage set up like it would be at one end of Madison Square Garden for a rock concert. And Robert Shuller, the man who baptized him six months before he passed away, presided over the service, and Matthew McConaughey spoke, and a number of fans, just an amazing gathering. And I was able to communicate how I felt about Knievel, and we laughed a little too. I remember saying, you know, Evel Knievel wasn’t actually a very successful motorcycle jumper. And there was sort of this silence, and I said, think about it. And they all laughed, because they all knew he had the record in the Guinness Book of Records for the most bones broken by any human being [laughs]. But then I was able to follow it up with the point I was making, which was that he may have had his thrills and spills, but he was actually a marketing genius.

And then the summer before last, my wife Betsy and I were in the Southwest, and I had a bucket list item, which was to drop in and see Muhammad Ali. I hadn’t seen him in person since 1986 just after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. So we went down to Phoenix and visited him at his home for about two hours. It was a poignant time. The reason I wanted to see him was to look him in the eyes and tell him the stories I tell about him in my show, and tell him what I was going to write about, and let him know that, because there are things that would surprise people. One of the stories in the book is about how in 1986 we were celebrating the 26th anniversary of Wide World of Sports, and I had been given the honor of producing the two-hour primetime special. And all these athletes were coming up to me in New York and they were going to be seated around the set. But there were two people I didn’t want to be in the crowd because I wanted them to be surprise appearances. One of them was Ali and one of them was Knievel. Well, about two days before the event, my phone rings, and it was Ali, and he says, hey, Doug, I hear you want to keep me in the green room, but I want to be out with the people. So he came to see me at lunchtime in the studio, the great big Studio One which used to be an indoor riding arena, and there was nobody there but the head stagehand, the property man, and he came over to ask Muhammad for his autograph. So Muhammad took the Magic Marker, went over and leaned on a packing crate, and seemed to be taking an inordinately long time to sign his name. And I was disheartened, he had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he was starting to slow down a little bit. So he came back and I talked to him a little bit about how we were going to do a 12-minute tribute to him as the climax of the special, because of who he was and because he had appeared on the show more than 70 times. So I said, the audience is going to see this taped tribute, and then I hoped to have you discovered under a spotlight at one end of the studio. So he understood, he got it, and then he left and the property man came over and said to me, take a look at this. And Ali had not taken that long time to write just his name. He had written: service to others is the rent we pay for our room in the hereafter. You know, people don’t expect that kind of thing from him.

And when the show was over, I rushed out to the studio floor to thank him. And you know, people don’t expect him to be gracious. They expect the wisecracking superstar. Well, before I could approach him and thank him, he said, I just want to thank you for everything you did for me tonight. And then, Allison, he hugged me. Those big world championship arms went around me for about 10 seconds, and it was the most heartwarming thing, I’ll never forget it. It’s those kinds of experiences that are priceless, and I just wanted to share them with as many people as possible. I wrote it mostly for my kids and my grandkids, but also for the alumni of Wide World of Sports – ABC Sports doesn’t exist as it once was, and we really did have a brotherhood and sisterhood with all that means as a family, so I did want to have at least one person’s perspective on it. I wasn’t a high powered executive, I was a guy out there in the trenches producing a show, and I thought there would be some value if that kind of perspective becomes part of the public and becomes part of history. It’s a history book, but it’s stories with a background of what was happening in the 20th century.

On some of the memorable adventures he had: So many people have been kind in remembering the production that Brian Boitano and I did up in Alaska where he skated in the wilderness. It was a 3 ½ hour drive out of Fairbanks so it was quite a happening. One of the things he kids me about is that when I went out on the first day, trying to figure out how we were going to end this, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun at the end of the show, he skates around and then he falls into a snowdrift and it’ll be funny and we’ll laugh. We rehearsed it, and he went off the ice into the snowbank and fell, and then lay on the ice, and he claims that I forgot to say ‘cut’ and left him lying there for about a minute [laughs]. I think every time he tells the story it gets to be a minute and a half, two minutes, longer that I left him lying there [laughs].  But what happened was, I went back and thought something isn’t right about this, thinking as the director, and I thought, you don’t take the current greatest skater in the world and have him end his first special tumbling into the snow. And out of that, thinking in the middle of the night, the show was called Canvas on Ice and this wonderful little pond in the wilderness of black ice, about a third of it covered with a layer of crusted snow. So I asked him, at the end of the music, could you just skate over into that little crust, and you just skate with abandon and feel the wilderness and skate freely. And he said, yes, I think I can do that [laughs]. And it turned out to be a lovely ending to the show.

There’s an underlying theme to the book that I hope comes out. I wrote a song that I put the lyrics to at the end of the book. When we were headed for the 10th anniversary in the show in 1971, I was walking around thinking, there’s got to be something more important than who won and lost a lot of games, something that we’ve learned that’s a little more important in what Howard Cosell used to call the fun and games department. And it hit me like a lightbulb had gone off, that I had seen something about human nature that’s unique to human beings, that we watch people go at each other, especially in violent sports, with every fiber of their being trying to destroy the other human being. And yet what happens most of the time when it’s over? They embrace, they shake hands, they walk away together with some kind of understanding that they had shared a common bond of competition. And sometimes we were fortunate to have seen them in situations where they had made sports history. And then it hit me, from five to ten years old I was in the Second World War. And as I grew up in those years, the country was dedicated to destroying our enemies, and it was a great sense of community focus in doing that. And I would suggest that in 2013 among our best friends in the world are the Japanese and the Germans. So it reflects itself not only in sport but in the wider vision of who we are and what we are.

On covering sports events: A skater is a greater athlete than someone who’s playing in the front four of the New York Giants. A figure skater has to have timing, strength, endurance, ability, hopefully grace under pressure, every single thing a football player has to have to be a great football player. But after that the skater has to be an artist, has to present and create emotion with what they do. So there’s a level beyond athleticism that the skater has that the football player, with all due respect to the football player, doesn’t have in the same way. And that was one of the things that made ABC’s Wide World of Sports what it was. You know, there’s the famous phrase, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But the key phrase for us was the next phrase: the human drama of athletic competition. That’s what our program was about, and we approached sports as sports theatre. We felt that the only thing that was different between what was on a Broadway stage and what was going on in Giants Stadium was that in the Broadway theatre, the script’s already been written. It was our job in the stadium or in the arena to follow the plot lines in whatever direction the drama was going, and our actors were the athletes. And is there any more theatrical a sport than figure skating? It’s got music, it’s got drama, and we all know it’s got elements of soap opera [laughs]. I competed in sports, I was a wrestler in high school and I played tennis and ran track and did a lot of things, I was sort of a master-of-none athlete [laughs], but I was interested in theatre and that’s why I did Wide World, I just immersed myself in it. Young people ask me, what do I have to do to get into television, and they want me to tell them to go to TV school and study cameras and all that, and I tell them the most important thing they have to do is learn how to write the English language. Because then you’ll know how to tell a story, whether it’s a 15-second commercial or whether it’s an eight-hour miniseries, and you’ll know how to edit and you’ll know how to put in the important things. That’s what television is, it’s a storytelling device.

On his memorable conversation with Irina Rodnina: I had this wonderful idealistic idea that our allies were the Soviets in the Second World War, and during the Cold War the Soviets were essentially our enemies. And I thought, couldn’t we override that problem by going to war together on something that was altruistic, like a war on cancer. We could take our medical knowledge and team up and treat it like a war, report on it every week on the news. And I’ll never forget, she looked at me with sort of a nice smile, and she said, that’s a very nice idea, but first you must feed the people. And I went, oh my goodness me. This was in Paris at this beautiful old restaurant, a historic place, and I had chronicled her career from when we couldn’t really communicate with the Soviet skaters. They were distant, and I don’t recall that we were ever really able to interview them. When she came off the ice in 1972 in tears because it was the last time she skated with her current partner, we couldn’t ask any more about why she was crying. And she told me how, at the height of the Cold War when the Soviet skaters were going anywhere to compete outside the Soviet Union, they were told by some commissar to not make any connection with any other athletes, particularly Americans. You weren’t allowed to fraternize with them, to drink with them, don’t give phone numbers or addresses, just stay away. And she said when she came to America, and she saw the way of life here, all the markets were full of goods and so forth,  and in the Soviet Union the shelves were bare. I have a physical trainer who is Russian and who lived there during those times, and yes, communism’s nice because everyone’s equal, but some are more equal than others [laughs], and people would go in a special back door of the store for goods if you were connected,  but if you weren’t you were waiting in lines for blocks for bread. And [Irina] came back and told her people what she had seen in the States, and they tried to tell her, oh, that was just propaganda, you were just taken to special places. They didn’t take you to the bad places. But she knew what the truth was. And then when glasnost happened and things opened up and the Iron Curtain was gone, she said to me that the same commissar who instructed them when they were leaving was now, when you go to the United States, be friendly and reach out to people. And she just looked at the guy and said, you’re the same guy who told me to do absolutely the opposite years ago.

The other thing she told me that was very poignant, which I had never thought of, was that it was very difficult for her father to accept this. He had grown up and been trained in the military to think of the United States as deadly enemies. And then to come back and find that we want to reach out and be friendly and we want the nations to get together – for her father, and probably for her grandfather too, it was like saying, you’ve wasted your life. You spent your life training to be an enemy of something that didn’t deserve to be an enemy. I was so moved by what she had to tell me.

On working with women broadcasters:  Jody and I probably spent the most time on the chapter on the biggest change in the workplace that I experienced, and that was the women. I wanted to write about it from the guy’s point of view. There’s been a lot written from the women’s point of view, and there’s no right or wrong here, but I did want to do it. My first production of figure skating was the 1964 US national championships, when Peggy Fleming won her first championship. There was only one woman involved in that production, and it was Carol Heiss who was doing the commentary with Jim McKay. One woman. In 2008 when I directed my last skating broadcast, the world championships in Sweden, I would say that 80% of the production crew were women. I don’t know what the count is at NBC now going toward the Olympics, but I’d like to think that television in general and that in television sports — there are still areas where you don’t have a woman in the booth, like doing commentary on the NFL, but you have a woman like Lesley Visser, who knows more about professional football than the NFL does [laughs] and has the complete respect of the players and the coaches, as well as the other women who do the sideline reports. But in general, certainly in news and in communications, and in the world of law, I think there are more women in law school than men, and more women in college than men. So I think there has been tremendous progress, and I think in some areas, like the CEOs that you mentioned, it’s still evolving. Even if the numbers are unsatisfactory, and understandably so, if you compare it to 25 years ago, I think there’s been significant change as well. In the world of communications, in publishing, in sports television, and in news, there’s been tremendous progress for women having areas of responsibility and communication, and their thinking goes into what’s on the air much more than it ever did in the early days. I remember talking to a legendary woman named Eleanor Riger, she was the first female producer that Roone Arledge hired, and there was a collage of sports photographs that covered a wall at ABC Sports. And I was standing there with her once, because I worked with her often, and she looked over the collage of 40, 50, 60 pictures, and said, the only female athlete there is a horse [laughs]. It was a horse that won the Kentucky Derby, and it was there at the bottom.

I enjoyed working with women because I felt always — let me preface this by saying that Jody and I went around and around on this, but women have something men do not have, and it’s maternal instinct and drive. I really believe this. Now there’s a debate here and I hope I don’t get myself into trouble about this, but women bring a level of caring and devotion to something that they really love in a way that is unique. It isn’t like guys don’t care, but I think women bring something on a level that is a little bit more devoted, a little bit more selfless, and a little more caring than a guy does. I watched it with the wonderful women I worked with, that helped me do what I do extremely well. I had women sitting next to me for most of 25 years helping me block camera work, and I had guys do the same thing — they did the same job and they did what was necessary, it wasn’t that they did a bad job, but Tami and Meg took it to another level, above and beyond what the guys did. I don’t know many things in life, but I do know one thing, men and women are different, and viva la difference [laughs]. My mother was a teacher and she had a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy, she taught at Hofstra College for years. And her heroes growing up were not movie stars, they were scientists. And I was influenced deeply by the devotion that my mother had to her family as well as to her teaching job.

On going to sell his book at 2014 US Nationals in Boston: After covering thousands of performances and I don’t know how many skaters, I never thought I’d be in a concourse in a booth selling something [laughs]. But I hope that your listeners will be motivated to drop by and maybe even to buy the book. As you can tell by this conversation, it’s much more than a sports book, and maybe enough women are curious about what I wrote that they’ll say, I have to get that book [laughs].

On whether he now has a “most embarrassing” moment to share:  In the early days when we did graphics on a little slide, you’d call for the slide to come up and you’d superimpose the slide over the picture. And we were doing cutting horse races in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and interviewing the winner of the event, the guy who drove his horse down the main street of Jackson Hole. And we wanted to put his name underneath him, but the close-up of his face was a little too tight, and if I put the graphic in, it was going to be over his chin or maybe over his mouth. So I kept waiting for the camera to come out a little bit, this was on tape so I didn’t have any control as a director. So finally I said “super” and the technical director put up the slide just at the millisecond when they switched to the shot of the horse’s head. So there’s the horse’s head and the guy’s name under the horse’s head [laughs]. That was probably the first, but I should give a little more thought to that because I’ve been embarrassed a lot [laughs].

As a director, I never left the truck totally exhilarated. There were a few times, one time was the coverage of Brian Boitano’s Olympic free skate, I was very happy, but even when people went great job, pat on the back, I always knew what I missed. All those monitors, all those things going on, if I’d used this camera or if I got a little bit later, I was too long on that half a second shot of Michelle’s face when she’s in the spiral — I always knew that it could have been better.  Although that isn’t embarrassing, because we all do the best we can all the time, and Lord knows I was the beneficiary of so many people’s great work, like the camera people and the people who prepared the profiles. I was the beneficiary and I lived in the reflected glory of great skaters for 45 years, and I’m still wallowing in that reflected glory of that greatness. All I did was watch and point cameras at them [laughs]. We worked hard because we wanted them to look good and to communicate what they were feeling, and that takes effort.


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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