Episode #58: Kelli Lawrence

by allison on September 6, 2012

Kelli Lawrence is a writer and producer who has written for both PSA (Professional Skaters Association) Magazine and SKATING Magazine. She is also the author of  the book “Skating On Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport” (read my review here), and she also writes a blog called State of the Skate. We talk about how how figure skating and television have evolved together over the years, how she collected the interviews, how Neilsen ratings work, and how figure skating is presented today. 1 hour

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Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment: Oh gosh, there’s so many. I was down in Springfield, Illinois, practicing for a competition, and I was running through my routine and hit the ice chin-first. And I got up, and everyone was like, Kelli, Kelli, look, you’re bleeding! And I didn’t even know. I had completely ripped it, and they had to butterfly it up, and that was before the competition. And I was like, I have to compete like this? Oh no!

And there was a power stroking class, and I kept falling, and the embarrassing thing was I banged my knee up so badly I had to take a week off the ice. This was before I was smart enough to have kneepads. But there were kids who were falling just once, and they were crying and their mothers were in a tizzy, and I thought they were being real dramatic and I didn’t want to be one of those girls. And so I was trying to be a brave soldier and do these relays they teach you to build up your power and your speed. But I was just falling more and more, and finally they had to scrape me up, although I was, I’m fine! I’m fine! But I wasn’t, I was just trying not to be one of those lame girls [laughs].

On writing her book: I had been trying to do more print writing. I went freelance when I had my first child, and was doing more broadcast-type writing, scripts and production, and trying to spread my wings a little bit doing some of that. And I had also gotten the idea of trying to do a book about Matt Savoie. I had worked with a publisher who was doing videos as well, and I saw they had done a book about Nancy Kerrigan. And when he qualified for the Olympics I happened to be working with them at the time and tried to make a pitch for something they could do. That never happened for a number of different reasons, but out of that came some magazine articles that I wrote with him, with his mom and his coach Linda. And while the one book idea had faded, the one that came up was that Linda and his mom were trying to get a book about him, more specifically about his journey to the Olympics. And I was signed on to do a proposal with them, and while I was researching the proposal I noticed that there weren’t a lot of books out there, and nothing about TV and skating. And this was in the spring of 2008, right about the time that the ABC contract was expiring. So I had that in the back of my head as an idea. And the other book never materialized, either. I had about 85% of the proposal done and they finally just could not — Matt really did not want to do it, was the bottom line, so it ended up not happening.

So I’m sitting there with all this stuff, and I’m thinking, I can’t let this go. And the night I knew the book was over, I literally, bam, went right into researching for the other one. And I went from there. And I was lucky enough in the first few months in working on that proposal to get the contact information for Doug Wilson, and David Michaels, who was with CBS for a long time and he’s with NBC now, and a guy named Rick Gentile who was the executive producer for CBS Sports during the era when they had the Olympics in the 1990s. I wanted to get a representative for each of the major networks so I could write a sample chapter for the proposal. And they all liked my idea and were very agreeable to talking, so I interviewed them and put my first chapter together, I think it was about the 1980s because they all had that in common and could talk about Scott Hamilton, Torvill and Dean, the class of 1984 as they called it, Gordeeva and Grinkov, and all that stuff. And I had the proposal finished by the end of the summer and started shopping it around. And somewhere in there I talked to someone at this writer’s conference about a fiction work of mine — they give you these pitch sessions which are like these 10-minute things, and I had some more time in my pitch session, so I told her my idea, and she happened to follow skating. And she thought it was an interesting idea, and said, what I would do is I would not pitch it to a major publisher because it’s not going to grab them, I would go for a middle-level press or a college press. And I asked if I needed an agent, and she said, you might, but you might be able to do it on your own — which I did. I did try to send this to an agent but I tried a few and it wasn’t for them. But I had the interest of McFarlane the day after I sent it, which was like, woah. It took a while to work everything out throughout the correspondence and such, but it was February 2009 when I finally had a contract. It took a few years since then [laughs] but it’s the book you have now.

On what she discovered in looking at old skating footage: It was so much fun, and thank God for YouTube. I couldn’t have done this without it. Some of the clips are from stuff like Magic Memories on Ice, and some of them are like little newsreel clips of Sonja Henie, or newsreel clips from Germany. There’s a few really short clips dating back to 1916, 1908, somebody doing a figure or half of a spin. But it was a riot. The most fun part of it was having a reason to look at this stuff, and I probably didn’t come across half of what’s there. It’s increasing exponentially day. I saw carnival stuff, I saw bears on ice, and I think it was real bears, I saw production numbers that defied logic. A lot of Sonja Henie, and I hadn’t seen a Sonja Henie film from start to finish, so I got a friend of mine to send me Sun Valley Serenade, and I watched that, and I watched Snow White and The Three Stooges. And I was surprised at how little actual skating was in these movies. And as much of a perfectionist as she was supposed to have been, it must have been enormously difficult to shoot a seven-minute number. It must have taken three weeks. Amazing stuff, I could never tire of looking at that.

On how Olympic TV coverage contracts have been awarded: It’s been a big issue every four years now since NBC grabbed it for a dozen years at a time. It started with CBS in 1960, and then it bounced to ABC in 1968, then NBC had it for one time — I think it was something they hadn’t done yet, and they weren’t all that interested in sports like they are now, ABC was more on it back then because they had Wide World of Sports. ABC kind of gave it all for those rights, except for 1972 and the Sapporo games. They were just kind of the Olympic network. And then CBS started getting in the game a whole lot more, starting in the 1980s. It started kind of when they won the rights to Worlds starting in 1983. And they had people coming over there from Wide World of Sports. One of the guys who I interviewed for the book told me that he told them, if I come over here, I have to direct figure skating. That’s how these guys feel about it. They are very passionate about this sport. The networks got crazy about it once they learned how profitable it was, and the directors and the producers, once they’re into it they really like it, a lot of times better than the other sports. Even if it wasn’t something they didn’t watch as a kid, and a lot of these guys did not watch it as a kid [laughs], they thought it was pretty ballerinas skating, and they thought the coverage matched that. Sometimes when they would talk about the coverage and how they tried to change it in the 1980s, they wanted to get it more down to earth, they wanted to hear more skate noise, they wanted to see cameras closer to the ice, they wanted to see behind the scenes which hadn’t been done before. I got this image from before as more of a pretty thing, oh, isn’t that nice, Dorothy Hamill’s on the ice, oh, Peggy Fleming, isn’t she pretty. Not, oh, did you see the strength it took to go into that double axel, oh, look, she just did another flying spin. But when CBS started getting into it, they really dug in and did that.

But it started to change in the 1990s when Sean McManus, he’s the head of CBS Sports now, Jim McKay’s son — I was told that he’s not a figure skating fan at all. So when everything was getting so crazy in the late 1990s and there was so much pro skating going on and Michelle Kwan was hitting her peak, and everything that had come up in the 1990s was kind of hitting a crescendo of popularity, CBS was like, oh, we’re getting football back? Okay, fine! Bye! [laughs] And they kind of shut the door a little bit on skating and said, that was nice to have while we didn’t have the NFL, but that era’s over now, bye. And then NBC got it, and NBC — I don’t know how much skating has played into the desire of NBC to dominate the Olympics, but my gosh, they really have for the last decade. When I was finishing up the book, the rights had not been decided for Sochi [2014 Olympics], and there was some talk that ESPN, which is now essentially ABC Sports, was supposedly making a real run for it, but NBC got it.  I think there are some mixed opinions of skating fans whether that’s a good thing or not. We’ll see what happens.

On Dick Button getting involved in negotiating TV contracts: I was trying to reach him for the book, and he gave me a couple of nice notes, but he was not persuadable. Part of it, from what I have heard, is that he wants to write his own book. And I was hearing more of these stories and wondering if that’s why he doesn’t want to talk [laughs].  But yes, Doug Wilson told me about [Button] buying the rights to worlds in 1960, he was over in Europe and he got them for a song, and he didn’t know what to do with them. And eventually I think he made the case to Wide World of Sports, which was just coming to be, that skating was something that would fit right into what it was about. And so they had the broadcast from 1962 over in Prague with the Iron Wall and all that stuff. And they didn’t do Wide World of Sports nationally until 1964, but they had [skating]. I think there was a time there in between 1962 and 1964 where, I was told, they were negotiating over in Europe, and two guys from ABC were negotiating with two guys from the ISU, and Mr. Button had apparently contacted the ISU before the guys from ABC got there and had negotiated the whole thing with them. He just kind of had the upper hand as long as he could with those rights. He was very shrewd, and I imagine, very interesting to work with on that side of things. He was very determined to make it profitable and to keep it going. He also got the World Professional championships for the first time in 1973, when Janet Lynn has just retired, and that didn’t come back until the 1980s, but he had that and then he had several other shows. But he seemed to do enough just to keep ABC on his good side. I heard these things and I think, why would ABC still want to work with him, they would have been mad at him, but they worked together somehow. I don’t think I fully understood how, but they finessed it. I guess they probably knew that he was worth whatever hoops they had to go through periodically for these rights, and he was so smart they wanted to keep him on their good side.

The issue of the rights didn’t come up again until 1980 when CBS ended up getting the world rights. I know that Dick was going to take them to court. There was a lawsuit pending about, I think, the ISU. They had wrapped speed skating into the package, and they offered that, and they thought they could sell the rights to speed skating if they wrapped figure skating along with it. And CBS jumped on that, because I don’t think ABC was covering speed skating at that time. And that was like a loophole that Mr. Button was furious with. And he was going to take them to court, and I think ABC talked him out of it, but sometime during that process the ISU president died of a heart attack. And one of the guys from ABC told me that the ISU blamed Dick Button and ABC for giving him a heart attack because of the stress of this lawsuit [laughs]. And that was allegedly why for a long time there were no real negotiations to get it back. It was a four-year deal, but I don’t think they talked during that time, and when it was over CBS got it back. And then NBC had the rights from 1991 to 1995, but then it came down to something when there was some ISU event, there were executives from ABC there, there were executives from the ISU, they were in the same hotel, and a fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. And they found themselves in a parking lot, because people had to clear out, and supposedly that’s when they broke the ice, called a truce or something like that, and started the whole process of rebuilding that relationship. And that led to ABC having a whole lot of stuff after 1996.

On the spontaneity of covering live events: If they’re doing their jobs well, you shouldn’t be able to tell that scrambling is going on. But so much of it is dumb luck. [At the 1994 Olympics when Tonya Harding broke her skate lace] there was this little camera [backstage] and I don’t think they wanted to have it at all. I think someone told them, if we put it up here we’re not going to be intruding, it’s the corridor, and I think it was pointed down because somebody bumped it and it went to that angle, and they ended up getting it the way they got it. The whole production of that night — I had to give that Nancy and Tonya thing a chapter in itself, because it was so amazing to hear Scott [Hamilton] and Verne [Lundquist] recalling that night. But the Tai [Babilonia] and Randy [Gardner] thing [when the warm-ups for the pair event were filmed for the first time ever at the 1980 Olympics] was one of the first instances of that, and the idea that they almost missed it because Roone Arledge was directing and was going to go to a commercial. And I guess he had heard about it but wasn’t aware of it at the time, and Jim Spence, one of the guys I talked to, he was producing the skating part, and he was, no! No! We can’t go to a commercial now! And it wasn’t like now where you watch the warm-ups, or backstage. When you go back to 1961, or even the 1970s, they didn’t want to interrupt the skaters. Even in the 1980s they were concerned about tripping the skaters. And I can understand that because I’ve worked as a grip on some of those cameras, and it was all cables then, and you had to know which way to pull them, and not to trip the skaters so they wouldn’t break their face [laughs] and not be able to skate. They were legitimate concerns, and CBS was pretty concerned. Doug Wilson, though, he had a different take on it all. He wasn’t as interested in trying to do that part of it, because he felt that was making it more of ABC if they did that. He wanted to respect the sport, and I think in that he wanted to respect the ISU more. Other guys were like, more, let’s see what we can get away with. Like, Scott [Hamilton] would bring the camera backstage and tell them it’s broken, so they could get some shots. And Scott was trusted because he was a media guy but he was also one of the skaters. And there were just so many boundaries that were getting crossed or broken a little bit from the time of Tai and Randy’s warm-ups to that time in 1994. And with Tonya, the people in the truck didn’t know what was going on, but the producers said, OK, Scott, Verne, look at this monitor over here and talk about what you see. And they did. And that became one of the most dramatic moments of that Olympics games, was watching a security camera and hear people talk about the time on the clock and finding out what happens if she doesn’t make the ice in the two minutes . . . it was incredible. And Nancy had nothing to do with that part, it was all Tonya.

On the size of a TV crew covering a skating event: I think someone told me it was something like 12 cameras on average now. For an Olympics thing, it’s probably like — on a single shoot, possibly 40 [people on the crew]. It’s probably scaled back somewhat from the glory days in the 90s, but at least 25, and that’s including people who don’t have prominent jobs, like runners. The worlds on the other hand is probably a little different because they used to go everywhere, but now of course they don’t even go any more. They have to use the Worlds feed that’s provided by the rink. For those, I’d say [a crew of] eight to 10, but the people from Universal Sports or Ice Network are not the ones shooting it, they’re just getting the feed and then Peter Carruthers and the commentator du jour are sitting in the booth and watching the feed and reacting to it. It doesn’t really take away from anything, they’ve been doing it that way for a while now, but we can all feel kind of nostalgic for the days when everybody dressed up pretty and sat by the rink and it was more fun. But times have changed and the money is not there like it used to be and the time devoted to it is not as much. But it still gets done. I get asked on my blog about different coverage from country to country, and I hate it when a skater hits their final pose and then they cut away so you can’t watch the reaction. I hate that, but that’s what some countries like to do. They want to get shots of the crowd cheering and throwing little monkeys onto the ice, or the sweepers, or close-ups of the dolls. And a lot of people complain about the straight overhead shots that make some of us kind of nauseous when we see someone spinning [laughs]. The first couple of times I saw it, I thought, oh, that’s kind of cool, but after that, I was like, oh, that again.

On ratings for TV broadcasts of skating: There is a rating and then there is a share. The rating is the percentage of households with televisions that are turned onto that program. The share is the percentage of households with the TV already on that are tuned into that show. And I think that’s why the share is usually bigger. They sample supposedly 100,000 to get this number. And then they break them down into demographics, and they like youth demographics more because they can sell them pretty things during the commercials. And that’s kind of the thing that skating can’t really pull in big time now, because for a lot of different reasons the ratings have declined over time, and the audience is skewing older. Except for Olympic years, of course, but I don’t think the young people watch as much any more. My theory is that they don’t have as much of a chance to watch it, and if they don’t know when it is, then they don’t try to see it. And that was one of the reasons that I wanted to write the book in the first place, the idea that if it was going off ABC and maybe not showing up as much as it used to, then some people who could become skaters from watching it on TV might not get bit by that bug, and that made me sad. That’s how I got interested in skating, and you hear stories of a lot of skaters who got interested in skating, from seeing it on TV.

On why there isn’t a skating-only cable channel: I’m sure it has something to do with investors, or with research that didn’t go the way they wanted it to. But it is rather depressing. And the fact that Ice Network is working — it’s kind of a double-edged sword, but because it’s working they’re able to charge people money for it, and that tells people we don’t have to have a dedicated cable TV channel. I don’t know if [Ice Network] makes money — I tried to ask, and I got a very flat, “that information is proprietary.” I know there’s been complaints when they’ve added things to their package later in the year, and there are people put off by that. I go ahead and buy it because I’m a sucker for that, but now Universal also has something online where you can subscribe. I don’t know if it’s working but I’m so out of the loop with Universal. That’s one of the big changes that happened after the book came out, how it’s now not as accessible.

On ESPN picking up the Worlds broadcast rights for $5 million, after the last ABC deal was for $22 million:  I had a couple of people being very blunt about [ESPN’s viewing demographic]: they’re not watching skating, they’re betting on it. Maybe [laughs]. And that was a really sad commentary on the sport from 1998 to about 2004, how fast it plummeted. Once ESPN had it, on the one hand, that’s when you were able to see almost ship to stern coverage of Grand Prix stuff. But the hours were weird because they put [the short programs] on against Monday night football, but then you’d have to wait until Friday [for the rest of the event] so they could show basketball or cheerleading or something, and you’d be, like, how much do they care about this anyway? They didn’t know what to do with it. They’d have stuff running late into the night, some of those events would finish at 1, 1:30 am. If you were a hardcore fan you’d find it, but it was hard to find. It was nice to have it while it lasted, but it was doomed.

On Meg Streeter’s disgusting story: She’s a really nice lady who eventually was director and producer for a lot of networks. In the late 1970s she was just getting out of school, and like a lot of us starting out in TV that meant doing grunge work, and that meant doing a lot of different things in different arenas. And in this case, she was a production assistant for Nationals, and she was standing nearby when Scott Hamilton was going to give one of his first post-competition interviews, I think for his first national title. And he took out his [dental] retainer and said, here, can you hold my retainer while I do this. And she had to stand there and hold it while he did his interview [laughs] and then he took it back and said, thanks very much. And I was, like, no, I don’t think I ever had to hold anybody’s retainer. At least it was his, I guess there’s that [laughs].  It’s not all bright lights and glitter, people, that’s for sure.

On doing interviews for the book: I can’t even tell you how much fun it was to get to talk to some of these people, to know that they’re giving you some time. And feeling the story to the point where you get the sense there’s a family there. You’d mention someone and they’d be like, oh, I haven’t talked to so and so in so long, how are they doing? And I felt like I was the personal network or hub for this sort of information. Do you know so and so’s email now, do you know their phone number, I was like a little messenger person. It was quite fun to be in that position. But the passion they all have is universal, whether it was directing, running camera, broadcasting in front, whether they had skated or not. Verne Lundquist was definitely a convert, Jim McKay not so much [laughs], but there is a real respect and love for the sport that I don’t always know if people get when they see it. Because there is a lot of kvetching. I do read some of the message boards and mailing lists, a lot of kvetching about Scott Hamilton’s way of broadcasting, a lot of kvetching about Tom Hammond not really knowing the sport, some people don’t like the way Sandra Bezic does it, or that she’s biased. Or they talk too much, they don’t talk enough, I don’t like Ice Network because there’s no commentating, I love Ice Network because there’s no commentating. I don’t know if there’s any medium that everyone’s in agreement on.

But I know there’s a lot of worry sometimes that [TV] people don’t love it as much as the fans do, and I’m not sure that’s the case. Being in TV and knowing when I really like what I’m doing and when I don’t like it so much, I would be totally invested in it like they were. The important thing is that the people who are in it now grew up and worked with the Doug Wilsons of the past 20 years, or worked with people who worked with them. And I do believe it’s a generational thing, and that a lot of the goodness is passing down. And even if it’s not in the form that we grew up with, or is morphing into different things on the Internet, or is able to communicate itself now through YouTube — it’s different, but I’m not pessimistic about the way it’s going. I think it’s finding its way. I think it took longer than a lot of us would have liked, but it’s getting there. There may never be another Michelle Kwan, but there’s a lot of other reasons to appreciate skating now and in the future. And I hope the book gives a reason for some optimism. There’s a reason I opened and closed the book with quotes from Janet Lynn. She is so joyful. She’s concerned about the sport, but she has a real sense from the time she skated to talking about it now, she has a sense of what brings people to watch it and what will keep people watching it. And I wanted to make sure that was honored.

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