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Ski Racing on TV - A History

More skiing is on TV than ever before, so why do most people think there’s less? Look to history for the answer.

By John Fry (September 2008 issue of Skiing Heritage)

While television viewing and the sport of skiing have each grown immensely over the last 50 years, one thing has not: the viewing of ski racing   on television.

Competitive skiing once appeared regularly during the winter months on home TV screens -- free to viewers, thanks to the big networks. Today, apart from the Winter Olympics, you have to be a cable subscriber to watch taped or delayed-transmission alpine races, such as the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships held in odd-numbered years, and the annual Hahnenkamm downhill, which has a world-wide audience of five hundred million. 

But even cable coverage has waned. If you want to watch World Cup races live, last year you had to pay to view them on your computer monitor.

So, within half a lifetime of most of the folks reading this article, ski racing on television has evolved from being free on broadcast network stations, to part of a paid cable package, to an on-line subscription service.

To be fair, that’s only part of the story. There are probably as many hours of skiing and snowboarding and extreme skiing as there’ve ever been on television. But, spread over more and more channels, each viewed by ever smaller numbers, skiing on television gives the appearance of having shrunk dramatically.

Moreover, the sport’s low ratings – the number of people watching it -- have left it with fewer of the advertisers whose money is needed to pay for the programming. The U.S. Ski Team has to buy television time to ensure that the World Championships can be viewed in the U.S. The cost is not small. Compared to other sports – for example, a tennis tournament -- ski competitions, conducted in the freezing outdoors in remote locations on steep mountainsides, are logistically difficult and expensive to produce.

Why has skiing on television not fared as well as golf and tennis tournaments? After all, an estimated ten million Americans ski and snowboard in a given winter, and millions more may be retired or temporarily inactive skiers who still love the sport. Surely, they comprise a viable potential audience. Yet during half-a-century of explosive growth in mass viewing of football, baseball and basketball, ski racing has been drawn down into narrower holes bored by changes in video technology.  How did it happen?

AT THE BEGINNING

The earliest television coverage of competitive skiing – flickering images on a screen – was at the 1936 Olympic Winter Games held at Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany.  Twenty years and one world war later, in 1956, Italian television carried some live coverage of the Olympics at Cortina d’Ampezzo.    

The first Winter Olympics seen live on American television were the 1960 Squaw Valley Games. Not that the television networks were vying for the privilege of covering Squaw Valley. ABC Television actually withdrew its bid of $50,000. Walt Disney, who was orchestrating the Games, worried anxiously that Squaw Valley might not attract any live TV coverage. CBS finally took it on. The network’s owner Bill Paley did it, according to the late Roone Arledge, “not out of any love for the Olympics, but as a favor to Disney.”

Arledge, for his part, liked what he saw of the 1960 Games and so, after joining ABC, he convinced the network to pursue the right to televise the next Winter Olympics at Innsbruck. ABC won, paying $500,000, or ten times as much as the rights for Squaw Valley. 

Arledge wrote a special article for SKI Magazine readers about the complex preparations for televising the ’64 Games, with competition sites scattered around the city of Innsbruck at Igls, Lizum, Seefeld.

“Compared to Innsbruck, Squaw Valley was child’s play,” wrote Arledge, who is generally acknowledged today as the pioneering genius of early sports television. It is significant that he regarded heavily involved skiers, readers of a ski magazine, as an important, influential core of viewers. In later years, television executives came to regard skiers as less important to success than making ski races appealing to millions more of non-skiers --  a mission in which they arguably failed.

The cost of televising Olympic skiing escalated rapidly. For the 1964 Games, the videotape of the competitions had to be trucked to Munich and flown to London, whence it was satellite-fed (a first) to New York. Innsbruck was a ratings winner, and the IOC was able to sell TV rights to the Grenoble 1968 Winter Games world-wide for five times more than it got for Innsbruck four years earlier.

The Winter Olympics weren’t the sole source of growth for televised ski racing in the 1960s. ABC introduced its Wide World of Sports program in April, 1961, and the following winter Wide World taped and showed the first televised pro ski race, with cash prizes, run by Friedl Pfeifer’s International Professional Ski Racing Association (IPSRA). Wide World of Sports also televised Dick Barrymore’s filming of the 1966 World Alpine Ski Championships at Portillo, Chile -- used by ABC to win itself an Emmy Award.

Later, ABC came to introduce the Saturday-afternoon Wide World of Sports program with a shot of Yugoslav jumper Vinko Bogataj careening sideways off the in-run trestle into a series of horrifying, ground-slamming, bone-crunching cartwheels. At first, when Bogataj soared into the air, the announcer cried, “The thrill of victory,” then as the unfortunate fellow crumpled into a fence, unconscious, the voice intoned, “the agony of defeat.”

THE 1970s: A GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISED SKIING?

The 1968 Winter Olympics, and the rocketing fame of Jean-Claude Killy,  propelled broadcasters into televising World Cup classics, like the Hahnenkamm and the Lauberhorn, as well as international races in the U.S. The 1970s became the golden age of skiing on television. To the increasing  hours of Olympics and World Alpine Ski Championship coverage increase was added the new sport of freestyle, with bump skiing, aerials and ballet. TV executives also discovered the popularity of ski jumping among viewers who otherwise had little interest in skiing. (Internationally, ski jumping attracts as many, or more, viewers than World Cup racing -- albeit older viewers.)

Because of his excellent connections in the television industry, Bob Beattie in the 1970s was able to obtain broadcaster coverage of his professional, head-to-head, cash-prize races, involving famous ex-Olympians like Jean-Claude Killy, Billy Kidd, Spider Sabich and Hank Kashiwa. In parallel-course pro racing, the TV viewer could see who was moving faster, an experience not possible with one-racer-at-a-time FIS slaloms and giant slaloms. At the event itself, the air crackled with the voice of commentator Greg Lewis, in contrast to the dull, staid FIS races.

“Beattie was on the leading edge of change that took sports from being sports to being entertainment,” says Lewis.

Prime-time coverage in the U.S.  of ski racing at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games ski races was helped by the time difference with Japan, which made it possible to show live action. Many, however, regarded ABC’s coverage, hosted by baseball and fishing show announcer Curt Gowdy, as lackluster. Sapporo would not be the last occasion on which TV executives fumbled the choice of a host announcer for the Winter Games, given their blind belief in the idea that the intrinsic athleticism and skills of the competitions are of so little interest to viewers that the anchorman need have no prior knowledge of winter sports.

In the 1970s, too, ABC introduced its famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view—mini-profiles with athletes, Up Close And Personal. As often as not, Up Close and Personal consisted of a cloying interview with ski star Franz or Rosi seated in their gasthof struggling to find the English words to answer questions posed by an interviewer whose knowledge of German perhaps extended to the meaning of the word schuss.

The 1976 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck shone, highlighted by Franz Klammer’s gold-medal-winning downhill run. In the words of veteran TV ski commentator Greg Lewis, Klammer’s run was “a frantic, on-and-over-the-edge, airborne, slashing, no-tomorrow plunge down a terrifying chute of ice, risking everything to win, yet still trailing Switzerland’s Bernhard Russi by a fifth of a second with only 1,000 meters to go.” Football Hall of Famer and ski enthusiast Frank Gifford called it, “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” and the taped voice-over of Gifford and Bob Beattie calling the race was the best the duo ever made.

After witnessing Klammer’s spectacular run, ABC Sports President Roone Arledge ordered his people to “buy every downhill we can get our hands on.” His judgment wasn’t far wrong. Ski racing generated decent viewer ratings, partly because it didn’t have to compete yet against the football and college basketball games that later came to invade television’s January schedules. 

CABLE TV: BOTH MORE AND LESS OF SKIING

A momentous change occurred in 1979 with the advent of cable television and the fledgling sports channel, ESPN.  For a while, more skiing appeared on television than ever before – alpine racing, freestyle events, celebrity races, Warren Miller movies, and more. Cable had a voracious need for programming. On-air work was plentiful for the likes of Bob Beattie and Greg Lewis, and for ex-racers like Billy Kidd and Hank Kashiwa, who would later be joined by articulate, photogenic retired competitors such as Christin Cooper, Andy Mill, Lisa Densmore, and Pam Fletcher.

While the amount of skiing on television increased with cable, paradoxically it served to make the sport less successful commercially. The number of people watching each show grew smaller as the number of cable channels multiplied. The audience ratings for alpine ski races were now perceived as comparatively weak.

The exception, of course, was the Olympics. When Antonio Samaranch became President of the IOC in 1980, he and vice-president Dick Pound increasingly exploited the competition among U.S. networks to televise the Olympics.  The TV bidding frenzy was not only propelled by ice skating and hockey, but also, ironically, by the alpine ski racing once so despised by the IOC’s former president, Avery Brundage. The IOC’s revenues mushroomed, along with the commercial advertising time needed to pay for it.

Television coverage in the 1980s reflected the growing diversity of what was happening on snow. Freestyle aerials and mogul skiing competitions were on their way to becoming Olympic sports. ABC broadcast a television show of the world snowboarding championships at Breckenridge in 1987. Women’s professional ski racing blossomed briefly. Famous ex-racers competed on teams with celebrities.

To reach vacationing viewers, Rory Strunk in 1985 began producing a show beamed into tens of thousands of television sets in resort condos and hotel rooms. Today, more than 20 years later, Resort Sports Network (RSN) annually creates seven shows, one for each day of the week, repeated throughout the winter. The resort channel adds local weather weather and snow conditions and, of course, there are time slots for commercials.

Entering the 1990s, Beattie, the mainstay of televised skiing, came to be joined by ex-downhiller Todd Brooker, who turned to television after suffering an horrendous, career-ending crash in the 1987 Hahnenkamm downhill.

More and more of the ski racing at the Olympics (Sarajevo and Calgary) was presented as delayed-action coverage – edited to focus on the winners and the most exciting spills. Increasingly, shows were packaged, or syndicated, allowing time slots for commercials. The master of the business became ex-racer Joe Jay Jalbert. Under an agreement with the U.S. Ski Team, Jalbert Productions filmed races during the winter, and edited the raw material into a show of highlights. The show was given to TV stations in return for half of the commercial time, in this way generating a profit for  Jalbert.

As the pro racing circuit collapsed in the late 1990s, it was supplanted by Jeep King of the Mountain races. Little known ex-World Cup racers winning a lot of money were replaced by well-known ex-World Cup racers winning less money.

SKIING’S LIMITATIONS AS A TV SPORT

After promising beginnings in the 1960s, televised skiing steadily lost ground to other sports. As the years passed, it turned out that the reasons for the sport’s limitations on TV in America were not a whole lot different from the reasons that ski racing has seldom attracted large throngs of spectators on the hill. Long-time announcer Greg Lewis pinpoints them. 

“It’s difficult to see where one racer may have lost a tenth of a second to another racer,” says Lewis, rarely making it possible for the spectator to know where and when the winner won.

“It’s a lot less attractive to viewers than is figure skating, which is sexy, graceful, poetic. You can see the skater’s face, whereas a ski racer’s face and the emotions it expresses are hidden by a helmet and giant goggles. The racer looks like an object. It doesn’t help that the camera, which is usually directed up and down the hill, flattens the terrain, making it looking less threatening or steep,

“Live coverage of ski racing,” continues Lewis, “presents all kinds of difficulties. The action goes too fast, and the announcer is always behind. The intervals between starts are abbreviated.

“Football is the perfect TV sport: 10 seconds of action, and 30 seconds to comment on it and show slo-mo replay. A basketball, football or baseball games typically lasts three hours. The elite downhill racers essentially are finished competing after only a half-hour. The only interest in two-run slalom and giant slalom is the second run.”

In America, ski racing is a second or third-tier sport, not a national sport as it is in central European countries like Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia. For American TV watchers, says Lewis, the preponderance of European competitors and competitions is a turnoff. . .”a bunch of people I’ve never heard of doing something I don’t understand in a place I’ll never go to.”

Ski racing was unlikely ever to attract viewers in the southern, football-loving, non-snow U.S. states, according to Jim Bukata of Mark McCormack’s Trans World International, which produces and markets TV shows.

“It didn’t help either that the sport’s season was short,” says Bukata, “and that the competitions never appeared on the regular, familiar schedule that builds audience numbers.” Skiers, who might have comprised the largest audience, were typically on the slopes when weekend shows aired.

U.S. television, instead of drawing on TV’s unique strength as a live medium, came to treat skiing in the manner of an evening newspaper -- full of background features and taped, edited coverage carried a day or more after the event. In the 1950s, for the first time, people were excited by seeing events live, as they happened. . .football,  baseball, tennis and golf. With skiing, television went backwards, from live to seeing it after the results have appeared in the newspapers.

A popular explanation for skiing’s weakness on television is that it is a minor sport. But wrestling, too, is a minor sport. What caused wrestling to become an almost daily occurrence on TV is that the athletes became actors in a play. It is a show. Organized skiing, especially the FIS, which is governed by officials having little or no media experience, has opposed showmanship in racing.

“Lang and FIS officials were shocked,” recalls Lewis, “when they saw their first major moguls competition at Tignes in 1982. . .rock music blaring, thousands of spectators, competitors hitting bumps, people yelling and screaming.” The FIS already viewed head-to-head pro racing as a sellout, a carnival.

Olympic 1984 silver medalist Christin Cooper who, after retiring from racing, successfully turned to serving as a ski expert analyst for CBS and NBC over a span of 18 years, is baffled by the FIS’s persistent lack of initiative in combating ski racing’s television decline.

“You’d think they would act after seeing the rise of the Winter X-Games on American television at the expense of alpine racing,” says Cooper. “The X Games swooped in and ran with an opportunity that the FIS had, and still has if it wants any chance to remain relevant and attract sponsors and viewers. Stage concerts. Do more events at night. Have competitors interact with spectators. Have a Dancing with the Skiers competition.

“ESPN saw what kids and lazy viewers want,” argues Cooper, “to be entertained in a 21st century way. The X Games took a bunch of pretty obscure and random snow sliding events, packaged them for full entertainment value, and drew sponsors and enthusiastic viewers. But the FIS seems unwilling even to try.”

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

In the Winter X Games, snowboarders perform tricks in halfpipes. aerialists flip, skiers compete in simultaneous-start races, fighting for position down the course. Forbes Magazine noted the cost efficiency of the X Games. ESPN, which owns them, gave out a mere $576,000 in prizes to 250 athletes in 2004, the cost of one backup NFL quarterback.

ESPN, which had featured commentary by Bob Beattie and Todd Brooker, backed up by Steve Porino, began to phase out its coverage of alpine racing in 2003, turning it over to the Outdoor Life Network (now re-named Versus) cable channel. New owner Comcast virtually saw little value in covering skiing.

Historically, ski racing has largely gone from a sport that the television industry wanted to show to viewers, to one that has to pay television to get on the air or on cable. The U.S. Ski Team, for example, budgets as much as $4 million annually to buy television time. The Team recoups the money by finding sponsors to buy commercial time. In this way, Americans have been able to see the World Ski Championships every three out of four years. But the air time keeps spiraling in cost, with sponsors harder to find.

Perhaps the future will be less bleak. In the winter of 2007, by going on line to www.wcsn.com and paying a fee of $4.95 a month, you could watch World Cup races live on your computer monitor, with ex-racer and journalist Steve Porino calling the action. This the summer of 2008, WCSN, which stands for World Championships Sports Network, entered into a partnership with NBC Sports. The new enterprise will continue to offer subscribers live World Cup races via the Internet. To subscribe, go to www.universalsports.com.

For racing enthusiasts, WCSN’s partnership with NBC is a ray of hope. With NBC’s strengths, the enterprise is moving swiftly to multi-cast ski competition on channels in the largest metropolitan markets, like New York and Los Angeles. Consequently, as more channels open up, more and more skiers will be able to watch World Cup races – maybe even the 2009 World Alpine Ski Championships at Val d’Isere – live on home television at no extra cost. The shows would be sponsored.

*            *              *

In Aspen, the 2005 Winter X Games attracted 68,000 spectators. Four months earlier, about 3,500 people had shown up over three days to watch World Cup alpine races. The contrast was astonishing and, for some, saddening. Fifty-five years after Aspen hosted the first World Alpine Ski Championships ever held in the Western hemisphere, traditional alpine racing was unable to attract a large crowd of spectators, or viewers in sufficient numbers to make it profitable to show on television.

The author is grateful to Lisa Feinberg Densmore, Steve Porino, Christin Cooper, Greg Lewis, Joe Jay Jalbert, Tom Kelly and others for their help in researching this article. A history of ski film-making and television is in John Fry’s The Story of Modern Skiing. Signed copies of the book are available by calling 914.232.5516.