By Alina Adams – Originally published on Soap Opera 451.
Long before I worked in televised figure skating, I knew the name Doug Wilson. Doug Wilson was the man who, more or less, invented televised figure skating. Or, at least, televised figure skating that we now take for granted as: The Way It Should Be Done.
I was privileged to work with Doug at ABC Sports, when I was a Figure Skating Researcher for a few years.
Now, Doug has written a book, The World Was Our Stage: Spanning the Globe with ABC Sports about, well, his spanning the globe with ABC Sports, which includes figure skating, gymnastics, and much, much more.
In 1998, I interviewed Doug for a book of my own, Inside Figure Skating, especially the chapter entitled Lights, Camera, Axel: How Television Changed Figure Skating.
In honor of Doug’s new projects, I’ll be excerpting that chapter here today and in the weeks to come.
In June of 1996, “Skating Magazine,” the official publication of the USFSA, delivered to every one of its 125,000 members, asked their readers to vote on which development had the greatest impact on figure skating in the U.S. in the past 75 years. In last place came the “Harding/Kerrigan” incident of 1994, often cited by those outside the sport as the key turning-point in skating’s transformation from a once-every-four-years curiosity to the second most-watched athletic endeavor (after football) in America.
1994 Olympic Silver Medalist Nancy Kerrigan herself, resents such talk, taking offense at the idea that a person being hurt is judged, by some, as “the best thing that ever happened to skating.”
And the readers of “Skating Magazine” agree with her. When asked to name the recent development with the greatest impact on skating, nearly 40% chose “Television.”
ABC-TV’s director Doug Wilson concurs, “Nothing significant happened in the evolution of figure skating that was not influenced by television. Skating changed because of the size of the audience witnessing it. How many spectators attended the U.S. championship in Cleveland in 1964? It was a grey, cold, unfilled site. Peggy Fleming was a new name.”
Four years later, however, following ABC’s first-ever in-color broadcast of the 1968 Olympics, Peggy Fleming was a household word.
Recalls Wilson, “The popularity of skating on TV was caused by the genuine, extraordinary qualities of the sport. TV not only showed that it was a sport that had extraordinary requirements, but that it was star-oriented, (with) dedicated, terrific, and, for the most part, interesting people. Because in order to be very good in figure skating, you have to be an extraordinary person. I remember the first time I realized Peggy Fleming had this great, marvelous, quiet sense of humor. It was 1967, and I wanted to do a piece on school figures. I thought, I’ll get the camera over the ice, and have Peggy do her figures. We stepped on the ice. She had skates on, I didn’t. And she says, with that devilish smile, ‘You better take my arm. You might fall on your… ear.'”
Starting with Sonja Henie and up through coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics, television has perceived that skating is a personality driven sport. And that they were the perfect medium to bring those personalities to the attention of the international public.
Wilson stresses, “The moment a skater steps on the ice, their best friend is television. We’re there to enhance what the skater is trying to say emotionally with their program. Each camera is an extension of the choreography. Television is better than a twelfth row center seat at the ballet. Television puts you on stage with the dancer. It becomes a pas de deux.”