Figure Skating on Television

While telecasts of hockey, baseball and football games quickly began to occupy television screens, figure skating, even in the late 50’s, had yet to be exploited by the fledgling industry. True, figure skating news and competition results were included in radio and TV sportscasts and on the pages of newspapers, only those who attended could witness the developing spectacles of choreography on ice.

Yet, the sport was gaining public recognition in Canada – especially as world and Olympic gold medals were being won by Barbara Ann Scott and pairs skaters Bowden and Dafoe.

In the 60’s, television would bring about a change that would make skating a spectator sport. It was soon apparent that skating was made for television and television was made for skating.

The World Championships were to take place in Vancouver. CBC was invited by the Canadian Figure Skating Association (CFSA) to put in a bid on the television rights. Because of the huge costs of covering the event and unable to clear time for Saturday and Sunday night telecasts, the CBC’s low tender proved unacceptable.

But at ABC headquarters in the United States Roone Arledge had an idea. He got in touch with CTV”s sports director Johnny Esaw and asked him to negotiate on ABC’s behalf the purchase of North American rights for ABC-TV. In return, ABC gave CTV the Canadian rights. CTV was just getting into operation and it fitted in neatly into its programming plans. This was the beginning of a long CTV relationship with ABC Sports and the CFSA.

The American network set the pattern for taping and editing of the events, with mostly only American skaters being shown on programs on week-ends – a trend which continued into the new millennium. For its part, CTV aired each event in total and live – with tape delays only being used when time zone differences proved awkward for viewers.

In 1962, the Worlds Championships took place in Prague. CTV used the ABC production, with Canadian commentators doing voice-overs for Canadian viewers. That year, brother-and-sister team Otto and Marie Jelinik won the pairs gold and Donald Jackson the men’s gold. The Canadian public was coming increasingly interested in figure skating.

In 1973, the World Championships were held in Bratislava. CTV now had its own time on the satellite – but there was only one link available with North America. CTV was up first, followed by ABC. In the final competition, it looked like Canada’s Karen Magnussen was the leader and could only be beaten by Janet Lynn of the USA. Karen had skated first and Janet was to skate last. CTV had anticipated that the competition would be over by 11:00 pm and the winner could be announced before giving up the satellite link to ABC.

But a break in the performance was announced so that the ice surface could be flooded. Sensing that their plans would be defeated, Otto Jelinik, who was commenting at the mike for CTV, jumped over the boards and pleaded with the ice-makers to hurry and get the job finished quickly. They co-operated. Janet didn’t skate as well as she had done previously, and with just seconds left on CTV’s satellite time, Canadians heard that Karen Magnussen was the new World Champion.

The CFSA was beginning to realize that the value of TV exposure to the public was more important than the money they received from the television networks. Television had brought figure skating to the fore as no other medium did or could.

Showmanship entered the picture, with glamorous costumes, artistic choreography, exciting jumps and spins. More and more skaters jumped higher, spun faster and skated more challenging programs. Technology improved the quality of the telecasts. There were more cameras employed – from three to four to five- then at ice level – then hand-held cameras. There was a camera on the “kiss and cry” area where skaters and their coaches waited anxiously for the judges marks. TV was showing it all – there wasn’t any part that was missed.

For the assistance of TV producers, the step-by-step performance of each skater was provided to them in advance. The copyright problem of clearing pre-recorded music that the skaters used – often as many as two or three different musical works edited and compiled into a 4-minute skating program was negotiated and solved and network music performance rates were determined.

New television sponsors came on board, and the higher cost of broadcast rights paid to CFSA enabled the skaters to obtain more coaching and the CFSA to sponsor more competitions. The skaters, too, benefited from their stardom – many joining traveling exhibitions such as “Parade of Champions” and “Stars on Ice’. And they began appearing in smaller centers where fans had not been able to see them perform in person.

As some skaters wound down their careers, they were hired by television producers as professional analysts. Among those so engaged – Debbl Wilkes, Otto Jelinik, Brian Pokar, Barbara Underhill Paul Martini, Tracy Wilson and Sandra Bezic. Some Canadians were recruited by the US networks as NBC and CBS entered the bidding war.

The CFSA, now known as “Skate Canada”, entered the 21st century with a membership of over 1400 registered clubs and around 200,000 skaters – a far cry from pre-television days.

Johnny Esaw – August, 2002