This post has been swirling around in my head since I returned from Skate America a month ago. One of the highlights of the trip to Detroit was the opportunity to attend the official release party for legendary Director/Producer extraordinaire, Doug Wilson’s new book, “The World Was Our Stage.”
As a skating fan growing up, ABC’s Wide World of Sports was just a part of the weekend drill during the winter months. Dick Button, Peggy Flemming, Terry Gannon and figure skating from all corners of the world.
Wilson is responsible for many of those memories, as he directed and produced his way to seventeen Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports from the Directors Guild of America, and induction into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame. From the Worlds and the Olympics to ABC television specials, Wilson was there, quite literally, calling the shots.
Just a few days prior to leaving for Detroit, I had the opportunity to speak with Doug directly. As we quickly realized, his stories about the sports world and the broadcasting industry combined with my fascination with both fields lent itself to quite an extended “chat!” To be honest, I could have listened to his stories for hours.
Likewise, I couldn’t put his book down.
“It was an adventure – a work of love – for my family, colleagues …” he said. “It isn’t a memoir. It is an anecdote about people and happenings that I got to look in on.”
After 50 years with ABC, Wilson has plenty such stories to tell. The book isn’t just about figure skating — there are remarkable stories about Evel Knievel, Chou Chia-sheng – a Chinese pianist who accompanied American gymnast Nancy Thies’s floor routine live, and the adventures of “The Cresta” in Switzerland.
Of course, the skating stories fill in much of Wilson’s career. From the details of Katerina Witt’s life hidden behind the Iron Curtain, to Elaine Zayak’s long-hidden foot injury that forced her to lace up in corners at competitions (but didn’t keep her from jumping her way into history), Doug’s passion for the icy theater is evident.
Wilson and his co-writer, Jody Cohan, recount in remarkable detail the days spent creating “made for TV” specials with Dorthy Hamill and Brian Boitano (remember that sensational piece with Boitano skating on a glacier? Wilson’s genius.)
There’s also the element of broadcasting in an ever-changing landscape of technology and expectations. What Wide World of Sports did was bring the audience into the event — be it by methodically produced opening montages to set the scene, or by crafting new ways to weave the cameras into the competition. This was never more obvious than by Wilson’s skating coverage. Determination to show the drama both on the ice and behind the scenes, he changed not only camera positions and angles, but also the system for preparing for an event.
“It’s very easy to cover figure skating in a mediocre way,” Wilson told me. “It’s very difficult to be part of the choreography.”
As both a skating fan and a broadcaster, what he told me next was as astounding as it was fascinating.
The process by which Wilson’s crew prepared for a broadcast was inspired by Peggy Flemming. Wilson saw her drawing out her Olympic performance on a piece of paper. That inspired him to do the same with each skater in every event, so as to know every move before he had to show it on TV. The method Wilson’s crews used to – literally – map out each performance changed over the years from having the skaters draw out their programs themselves, to sitting and watching each practice and mentally “directing” while an assistant wrote down as he spoke, “Start on camera 2, go to camera 3 with head to to, on camera 4 ….” along with the timing of every move.
It was tedious, but effective — knowing what was coming allowed Wilson to never miss a moment like the emotion on Michelle Kwan’s face during her trademark spiral, or the set up into the infamous “lutz corner.”
As you can imagine, there are more memories than one book can hold after a career covering the best stories of half a century. But, it’s more than just a collection of tales. Doug wants more for the book. And, after reading it cover to cover in a matter of days, so do I.
“I want it to serve as a history book for TV students,” Wilson said. But, he has an even higher goal. “There’s an underlying theme I deeply believe in: Good will overcome evil.”
“We’ve watched humans go at each other with ferocity, intensity, violence to beat each other. What happens at the end 90% of the time? They embrace. Through sport — the “Fun and Games Department” — we can see that good will overcome evil.”
As a kid, I remember writing “I enjoyed this book because ______________.” at the end of a book report. This isn’t a book report, but I did enjoy this book. I know you will, too. It is a treasure … as is its author.
Learn more, get your own copy, or send Santa over (you’ve been good this year, right??) to www.DougWilsonABCSports.com.