Monday, December 23, 2013

Interview with Kelli Lawrence, author of Skating on Air

How did you get first get interested in skating? How about broadcasting?

I saw Dorothy Hamill skate on TV during the ’76 Olympics and BOOM, that was it! I started with lessons that fall and went on to compete locally (the Chicago area) for about three years.

Ironically, it was when I got more into broadcasting that I didn’t follow skating as closely! I majored in radio/television at Drake University in the mid-late ‘80s, and was interning at an NBC affiliate during the 1988 Winter Games. I remember working the night of The Battle of the Carmens, struggling to keep an eye on the TV monitors in the back of the newsroom and wanting to cry when Thomas underperformed...

I was still watching skating every chance I got, but in college, those chances dwindled—and I didn’t know much about what was going on other than (maybe) who’d won Nationals/Worlds. Paul Wylie changed all that for me when he won silver in ’92; I was beside myself with happiness for him and my deeper interest in the sport was rekindled. As for broadcasting, I worked at TV stations as a director/producer for the first part of my career before moving into corporate video for a small publisher. I moved into freelance writing/producing from there.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I was working with a sports publisher in central Illinois when Matt Savoie (also from central Illinois) qualified for the 2006 Olympics, and initially suggested a book and/or video deal between Savoie and this publisher. When that didn’t pan out, I ended up writing a number of published articles about Savoie and/or his lifelong coach Linda Branan. This led to working with the Branans and the Savoies on a different book idea about Matt. And when that didn’t pan out either, I looked back at the research I’d done and realized no one had ever done a book that studied the unique relationship TV and skating had cultivated through the years. (This was right around the time when ABC had aired its final Worlds in 2008, so the idea of “broadcast history” was in the forefront of my mind anyway.) As someone with an inside familiarity with both skating and TV, my determination to write the book grew from there.

What makes skating stand out as a sport?

At first glance, it’s easy to say “the costumes”! But I think it goes much deeper than that. There’s music involved with every program, there’s grace, there’s mind-blowing athleticism, there’s drama. A lot of the people I interviewed for the book alluded to getting “hooked” on figure skating by these all-encompassing factors, and who can blame them?

So many skaters, accomplished or otherwise, decided they wanted to skate after seeing it on TV (often the Olympics). TV promoted interest in skating; in turn, ratings grew for the sport with each Winter Olympics. Then the Harding/Kerrigan incident erupted in 1994 and turned the whole dynamic on its ear! What a fascinating narrative figure skating has told, and continues to tell.

What kind of research did you to write the book and can you share any fun anecdotes about the process of writing it?

I started by tracking down three key people: Doug Wilson (producer/director at ABC from the early 60s onward), Rick Gentile (Executive producer at CBS Sports during the ‘80s/90s, when CBS was behind 3 Winter Olympics in a row), and David Michaels (the director behind much of the skating we’ve seen on NBC). From there I gathered names and contact info for others involved with skating, both on- and (especially) off-camera. When all was said and done I had over 30 sources: commentators, producers, directors, executives, production coordinators, videographers... the goal was to tell skating’s story in a cohesive way from all these individual perspectives, and I think the book gets that accomplished.

As for anecdotes—wow, so many! Each of the men I referenced earlier (Wilson, Gentile, Michaels) brought skating to the TV masses for DECADES, so each of them have a mountain of tales to tell. Sifting through what made the most sense to share with readers was quite the process. Then there were those I wasn’t sure I’d get to talk to at all—huge names in the sport such as Janet Lynn, Scott Hamilton, Kurt Browning, people like that—where I had to keep my fangirling tendencies in check as I went about the business of interviewing them (Talking to Browning came with the additional challenge of trying to pin him down for more than a few minutes since his show Battle of the Blades was just launching at the time—we did most of his interview in fits and starts on email.) Terry Gannon and Susie Wynne are both as engaging as you might expect and shared great behind-the-scenes details from the ABC late-90s heyday. Meg Streeter got her start as a production associate for ABC in the early 80s and ultimately directed skating for several different networks, so her perspective was invaluable. Ken Woo and Rob Dustin were the videographer and producer, respectively, who got the first post-attack interview with Kerrigan for CBS—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg on their stories (no pun intended!). I was also blessed to have a several key production people, especially Kirk Hepburn, Dick Buffinton, and Jack Morris, that contributed photos to the book from their personal collections. Having received no advance from my publisher, I was working on the tightest of budgets... so their offerings meant the world to me!

Something that struck me as I talked to all these people were the common threads shared... not just an across-the-board appreciation for skating, but an uncanny sense of community. Spending days or weeks in a production truck, on headsets, with the same 10-12 people will do that to you. I’d mention talking to so-and-so while interviewing such-and-such, and such-and such would say “Oh! How’s so-and-so been? Can you give them my best if you talk to them again?” It happened over and over. Skating has mass appeal, but it’s still enough of a niche sport that it attracts a band of personnel that is relatively narrow compared to those of other sports.

Who is your all time favorite skater?

No way to pick just one! I’ve mentioned some of my favorites already—Hamill, Savoie, Wylie, Browning. Someone like Michelle Kwan is far too important to be left out of any discussion of favorites, of course. Others, like Lynn, Peggy Fleming, and Toller Cranston were ahead of my time but the magic that is YouTube helps me “get” them in a way I couldn’t when I was younger.

In terms of the current crop of elite skaters, I have many soft spots… Akiko Suzuki, Takahiko Kozuka, Javier Fernandez, Kiira Korpi… and among the U.S. skaters I’m especially fond of Ashley Wagner, Alissa Czisny, Samantha Cesario, Jeremy Abbott, and Adam Rippon.

I felt like you did an excellent job of explaining why coverage of figure skating has decreased but I can't help but wish it would grow in popularity again. Do you think there's any chance it might? What do you think it would take?

Thank you! One of the challenges of writing a book like this was finding (for lack of a better phrase) a bright side… not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s often easier to locate problems rather than solutions. What hits us all particularly hard, I think, is how insanely popular the sport was in the mid-late 90s compared to the past 8-10 years. We got spoiled! Not many “niche” sports have attracted that kind of attention for that long… then came over-saturation, the judging scandal in Salt Lake City, the complete scoring overhaul, Kwan’s retirement, and all the other parts of “the problem” that I laid out in the book.

As for what a comeback in the U.S. would take… I steered clear of offering my own two cents in the book, as it didn’t seem relevant in the midst of so much expert opinion. But since you asked:

1) I think a U.S. champ with longevity and international success would be a BIG help—someone (or two) that people can really rally around. World and Olympic medalists like Mao Asada, Daisuke Takahashi and others are rock stars in Japan; skating’s popularity has never been higher over there (Same for South Korea, of course, thanks to Kim Yu-Na’s success.) Yes, the U.S. has Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and thank goodness for that! But historically speaking, this has been a nation of singles successes when it comes to skating. Hopefully Davis/White (and, before them, Olympic Silver Medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto) have planted the seeds for a more receptive/appreciative mainstream U.S. audience in the future.

2) I think the ISU (International Skating Union) needs to get its head out of the sand and realize the sports’ progress (for the skaters as well as the audience) is stagnating under current management. I’m not particularly optimistic about the odds on that, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the elephant in the room (or skating rink).

And 3) The folks at NBC had some sizable shoes to fill when they assumed the role that was held for decades by ABC (and then ABC/ESPN as ABC phased out its sports department). Talk about a brand! Talk about glory days! I honestly don’t think NBC—or any network—could pull it off. Especially when said network tends to give off the vibe that it is only covering skating in October and November because it hopes for a big Olympic ratings payoff, whereas ABC somehow seemed to genuinely care about the sport every time it took it to the airwaves. So… I think NBC needs to take a fresh approach, and try a little harder to meet fans where they are-- from commentator choices, to social media involvement and beyond. Don’t assume the viewers just aren’t there like they used to be… go find them. And cultivate some new fans of the sport while you’re at it.

One of the things I enjoyed reading about in your book was the history and evolution of the sport. I feel like one of the obstacles figure skating faces now is the IJS and how to communicate it to casual audiences. Do you think broadcasters could once again have an impact on the state of skating or is this something of the past?

I give them credit for continuing to try! NBC (and I think ESPN before it) has offered point “ranges” before events get underway as a means of explaining whether a program score is great, average, or abysmal. They’ve given little tutorials on the way elements are scored (typically led by Tracy Wilson, another great voice heard in the book). The commentators, especially newer ones who competed in IJS themselves, do their darndest to explain to viewers why a seemingly good jump is downgraded, or why this combination earned more points than that one. But explaining IJS kind of reminds me of the pieces ABC occasionally aired about compulsory figures: it can be fascinating for the hard-core fans, but can completely sail over the heads of the Olympic viewers. So they have to try and ride a very delicate balance between engaging new viewers, and driving them away in frustration.

Midway through the recent Grand Prix events, we started seeing a box in the upper left corner of the screen that totaled a skater’s technical score in real time (as they skated the program) while comparing it to the tech score of the current first-place competitor. I’ve no idea if they’re going to continue doing that, or what NBC has in store during February. But Scott Hamilton said something in the book about “dancing with the date you brought” with regards to dealing with IJS… and I respect any broadcast operation that continues to find new ways to “dance”, some ten years after the new system was launched.

I have always loved pairs and ice dance but these disciplines are the least popular in the United States--even with Davis and White being a dominant team for the past few years! I find this team incredibly appealing and likeable and I don't understand why their exposure has been so limited. Do you think NBC has made a mistake in not promoting their skates more during the Grand Prix season? If they manage to win gold in Sochi, as I am of course hoping they do, do you think ice dance could help revitalize skating's popularity? Why do you think ladies figure skating is the most popular?

This points a little to what I was saying about NBC needing a fresh approach. With Davis/White being pretty much the U.S.’s only hope for a figure skating gold medal this time around, yes, you’d think they’d get more buildup and more attention. But I think NBC’s decision is mired in history. The Winter Olympics have received regular U.S. TV coverage since 1960, and since then America has had more gold medals with the ladies than with any other discipline—6, compared to 4 for the men and none for pairs or ice dance. Ladies have traditionally been the centerpiece of the TV coverage… and despite the fact that the U.S. hasn’t seen a lady atop the Olympic podium since Sarah Hughes in 2002, NBC appears convinced that they are giving fans exactly what they want by keeping the centerpiece as-is.

And yes, I LOVE the thought of ice dancing taking off in the U.S. if they win gold.

Care to share any predictions for the Olympics?

Yikes! Well I’ve been talking a lot on my blog (State of the Skate) about the spoiler possibilities of Gumbyskaia—that is, Russian newcomer Julia Lipnitskaia (who recently won silver at the Grand Prix Final). Kim and Asada may want to pick up where they left off with their 2010 Olympic battle for gold, but I would not be shocked to see Lipnitskaia make the podium. Having said that, I really do think Wagner (2-time U.S. champion) has a legit shot at a medal as well. For the men, I’m okay with (heavy favorite) Patrick Chan of Canada winning the whole thing, so long as he is truly the best all-around athlete on the ice that night. As for the U.S. men, I’ve NO clue which two will even qualify, let alone how they’ll finish! Crazy amounts of up-and-down skating from them of late. Davis/White definitely have my prediction for ice dance, as we’ve talked about… for pairs, the Russian team of Volosohzar/Trankov are favorited, and rightly so. The German team of Savchenko/Szolkowy won bronze in 2010; they could upset, as they just did at the GP Final, but I’d predict silver for them. Caydee Denney and John McLaughlin will likely be our best finishers among U.S. teams, but I’d be surprised if they make it anywhere near the Top 5.

I should caution that I only had about a 60-70% accuracy rate with my Grand Prix predictions this year, so take my words with as much salt as you like :)

(note from Amy: aw I love Julia Lipnitskaia!)

Your book was published in 2011...has anything changed during the time of publication to now that you would like to comment on?

The good news is that things continue to evolve—maybe not always at the pace we’d like, but they do. I completed the text of Skating on Air just after the Vancouver Olympics ended in 2010, and as I awaited its publication I remember thinking “They better not award the 2014 Olympics to ESPN!” because there was talk of that at the time, and I’d have been mad for the book to have missed that.

So what has changed? Five things off the top of my head:
1) The ISU now has its own YouTube channel on which it keeps videos from all the Junior Grand Prix performances (the up-and-comers in the sport; JGP runs between August and October). This is significant because the ISU didn’t seem to know what to do with YouTube in the past, treating it almost as an enemy rather than a fantastic promotional tool.

2) Ashley Wagner has emerged as a leader among the U.S. ladies; in 2011 we didn’t really have one. (And Gracie Gold, current U.S. silver medalist who was an unknown in 2011, appears poised to do the same beyond Sochi.)
3) Twitter has become more relevant to the sport—not just for its “live Tweeting” capabilities during any international event, but because streaming links to said events can frequently be found there without difficulty. That used to be a much more covert operation!

4) Both the ISU and USFS (United States Figure Skating) have been slow to move with the times, as I mentioned... but just the other day, USFS set up for the first time a Google + “hangout” at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, following an hour-in-the-life of a few Olympic hopefuls as they went about their workouts. They streamed it live; they took questions from fans and had the skaters answer several of them. What a great use of technology, not to mention help fans get to know the skaters better! So I’m hopeful that experiments like that will continue.

5) This part’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but another change is the publication of two other books that cover figure skating from a broadcast perspective. One is by Doug Wilson, the veteran ABC producer/director I interviewed extensively for my book. The other is by Dick Button, arguably the sports greatest living legend on multiple levels. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince him to give me an interview... friends/insiders told me at the time it was because he was still saving his stories for his own book, so there you go.) I haven’t read either book yet, but I’ve heard (unsurprisingly) that both are stellar memoirs, rich in anecdotes, knowledge and personality. How does mine compare? It’s a comprehensive approach, with stories and perspectives not only from ABC folks but CBS, NBC, and beyond. It’s got the CBS perspective on three Olympic Games (’92, ’94 and ’98), during which figure skating found its biggest audience in the wake of the Harding/Kerrigan scandal. And it’s got a very detailed chapter on the day-by-day (or even hour-by-hour, in some cases) media coverage of that scandal. It has a wonderful foreword (as well as interviews) contributed by sports commentating legend Verne Lundquist, who is the quintessential example of someone who didn’t “get” figure skating until he was assigned to it, but quickly came to adore it!

But mostly, the difference in our books is in those words “comprehensive approach.” My book could never compete with the amazing, rich perspectives and experience of Mr. Button or Mr. Wilson, but Skating on Air tells an amazing story, woven together with threads from dozens of different storytellers... and I like to think it does it pretty well.

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