By Alina Adams – Originally published on Soap Opera 451.
Last week, in honor of director Doug Wilson’s new book, The World Was Our Stage: Spanning the Globe With ABC Sports, I featured an excerpt from my book, Inside FigureSkating, where I interviewed Doug.
To find out who Doug considers to be a skater’s best friend (hint: It is neither man not dog), click here for Part #1 of the interview.
And read on for Part #2, where Doug explains the secret for getting on TV, how broadcasting fundamentally changed the sport, which skater got her first – and only – standing ovation thanks to television… and more….
For Wilson, the process to becoming the conduit through which television viewers feel like they’re on the ice with the skater, is one of “doing your homework.” He first came up with a strategy for plotting a skater’s program out on paper, when, in 1979, he watched Peggy Fleming drawing a diagram of her Olympic program, planning to send it out as a Christmas card. Realizing he could use analogous diagrams to plan his camera shots in advance, Wilson began inviting top skaters to draw their routines while their music played, and he made notes on the timing of their elements. Unfortunately, Wilson found that what he often ended up with at the end of the day, was a stack of scribbles. When directing “Pro Skates” in 1983, a lack of time to sit with the skaters and review their programs compelled him to ask his assistant to monitor the clock and take notes while Wilson watched the skaters rehearse, and called out camera-cues on the fly. This improvisation developed into the two-person system Wilson, and practically every other skating director, uses today.
For him, it’s a labor of love. His motto is, “The moment a director is about to display to the person in their living room a Triple Axel that Todd Eldredge has rehearsed 40,000 times for that moment — then, by God, that’s worth attention, it’s worth caring, and the value of that better be respected.”
And the skaters genuinely appreciate his efforts. In 1986, three-time U.S. Dance Champion Jim Millns, practicing for a multi-generational commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Memorial Fund, indicated his colleagues along the ice, and asked Wilson, “Do you know who these people are? They all grew up with you.”
One promising newcomer Wilson had pegged as a star from the start, was Janet Lynn. And, together, Lynn and television would pave the way for one of figure-skating’s greatest revolutions.
In 1972, when Janet Lynn competed at the Olympics, compulsory figures counted sixty percent of a skater’s score, the free skating forty percent. Janet Lynn was a brilliant jumper and spinner, and a mediocre tracer of figures. Her closest competitor, 1972 Olympic Champion Beatrix “Trixie” Schuba of Austria, was a lethargic free-styler. And arguably the greatest figure skater the world had ever seen. By the time the televised portion of the event, the free-skating, rolled around, Trixie was usually so far ahead, that all she had to do was remain alive to capture the title. Viewers at home, however, could not understand why Trixie was the winner, when Janet Lynn had skated so enchantingly only moments earlier. As a result, following the 1972 Olympics, a Short Program, worth twenty percent of the score, was added to all skating contests, while the value of the figures was reduced, making the final tally: Figures 30%, Freestyle (combined Short and Long Programs) 70%.
By 1990, the figures would be tossed all together. As skating grew in popularity, feedback from television viewers vocalized that figures were dull. So figures were out. But, before evicting them from competition, television would give Trixie Schuba the memory of a lifetime. At the 1972 Worlds, the champion finished skating her exhibition — a freestyle program that received lukewarm applause from the crowd — when Wilson instructed Dick Button to ask Trixie to perform a figure. Button passed on the message, but a confused Trixie went out to do another free-skating encore. The crowd was definitely getting restless, when Wilson sent Trixie out on the ice for a third time, urging her to skate that figure.
Trixie Schuba took her spot at center-ice, put out her hands, and pushed off to perform the figure. The crowd fell into a hushed silence. Then, when the audience realized what she was doing, the arena erupted into applause, building and building until it turned into a standing ovation, into Trixie’s first standing ovation ever.
For years, whenever producers of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports were asked by eager athletes, ‘how do I get on TV?’ their standard response was always, ‘Either win or be spectacular.’ At long last, Trixie Shuba got to be both.
At those same Worlds, another skater, one who didn’t win, fulfilled the second half of the command. Doug Wilson remembers being so smitten by a little girl with a big pink bow, that he broke precedent and, in the middle of the dance event, “flashed back” to show a ladies’ competitor who hadn’t won a medal. Because she was the future. “The horizon.” Thus giving the world their first glimpse of a teen-age Dorothy Hamill.