For all the missed shots and high-tech glitches that mark TV's coverage of sports nowadays, the medium still has its moments. One of those occurred on Saturday night when ABC's figure skating director, Doug Wilson, passionately romanced the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and whetted our interest for the upcoming show at Calgary.
As Mr. 6.0, Brian Boitano, started his gold medal-winning long program (page 38), he stood in a rigid Napoleonic pose for a full eight seconds. On the ninth, with great drama, Boitano turned his head to the left and began skating.
In the ABC control truck, Wilson knew what was coming. He knew the skater, the music and the program, and when Boitano turned his head, he was able to anticipate the moment. A split second before the count of nine, Wilson cut to a closeup of Boitano. It was Boitano's—and Wilson's—way of saying, "Let the show begin!"
Wilson's coverage of skating is unique. In no other sport is there a closer affinity between a TV director and the sport's participants. He is a TV choreographer. Not that he tells the skaters which jumps to try and when to try them (the networks have yet to go that far), but he does plot all his camera moves in advance, much the way George Balanchine choreographed a ballet.
January 18, 1988
"I've always approached sport not from the jock, locker room, fan point of view, but from the theatrical point of view," says Wilson. "To me, skating is ultimate theater." And, he might have added, the ultimate marriage between sport and the tube.
A former wrestler, ballet student and one-time summer-stock actor, Wilson, 52, has directed skating at ABC since 1967. At the Winter Olympics next month he will also direct the worldwide figure skating feed while on loan to the host broadcaster, CTV of Canada. ABC will pick up the feed, thus maintaining access to all of their man's pictures.
Wilson is a master of detail. One reason Torvill and Dean's Bolero performance at the '84 Games was a TV tour de force was that Wilson had seen their performance at the European championships in Budapest and taken notes, and so was able to heighten it with his cameras one month later in Sarajevo.
At the nationals Wilson and an assistant, former Canadian ladies champion Lynn Nightingale, spent several long days attending practice sessions of all the leading skaters. For each session Nightingale carried a stopwatch and Wilson a homemade map of the ice. As the skaters rehearsed to their theme music, he plotted the location of their every move and the number of seconds between each element.
Armed with these coordinates, Wilson knew which of his seven cameras could best cover a specific skater's move and exactly when each cut should be made. Voilà, the Boitano head turn. Here a corner camera captured the athleticism of a Jill Trenary triple jump by shooting it at ice level. There a cranemounted camera was raised just enough to perfectly highlight a Debi Thomas lay back spin. And here again a slow dissolve from one camera to another gave Caryn Kadavy's skating a suitably dreamlike quality.
Wilson can "make or destroy a performance as far as the viewer is concerned," says ABC's Dick Button. "He can distort a skater if he uses the wrong angle. There's a potential for great danger in the wrong director's hands."
Before adopting his block-out system in 1983, Wilson, forced to wing it, sometimes would cut late and wind up with a shot of a skater's backside instead of the intended view of her smiling face. "It's a sensual sport, but as soon as people at home become aware of the TV coverage and attention is taken away from what the skater is trying to do, then I've failed," says Wilson.
Compared to ABC, other networks rate 4.5s in figure skating. CBS and NBC are still learning and sometimes miss the proper angle or chop off the skaters at the knees. They do skate with their whole bodies, guys.
Most TV directors merely document skating. Wilson enhances it, which is harder than it seems. Next month, there's Calgary—and maybe another 6.0 for Wilson.