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Michael Weisman, Sports Fan, Is the Creative Force at NBC

April 27, 1986|NORMAN CHAD | Washington Post

NEW YORK — Michael Weisman sees a different game than most of his network peers. If his ideas seem to be out in left field, it's only because he's sitting in the bleachers.

He's first a sports fan, and a little bit of a wide-eyed child, which helps explain why his imagination often runs off the TV screen.

He's the godfather of funk at NBC Sports, willing to gamble on unusual programming and unlikely production. He may be a man of sometimes brilliant, sometimes blurry vision, but he never lacks for innovative thought and creative abandon.

If we still have television in the year 2001--which is several lifetimes removed from now in network terms--Weisman just might produce a Super Bowl XXXV broadcast with George Jetson as analyst and MoonCam technology.

Michael Weisman, as executive producer of NBC Sports, just happens to be the most creative force today in network sports television.

For one thing, he has had no real counterpart at the other networks for years: CBS uses different executive producers for each sport, and ABC had no real equivalent to Weisman until naming Dennis Lewin as senior vice president for sports production earlier this year. But it's not just the power of his position that makes Weisman stand out, it's the power of his thoughts.

Weisman, 36, started at NBC in 1971 as a page. He moved to sports as a special assistant to the producer, then associate producer, producer, coordinating producer and finally executive producer in February 1983. In a dozen years, he went from a go-fer to a go-for-it hotshot making several hundred thousand dollars a year and several hundred decisions that affect a nation of sports viewers.

"It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Weisman said. "I was swept up in the growth of TV sports."

But during that growth, it was Weisman who carved out a creative corner in the business. In an industry notorious for reacting to the other guy's success, Weisman has shown consistent first-strike conceptual capabilities:

--He is reshaping the dying anthology-show genre, that curious network creation highlighting a mishmash of sports. Weisman is turning to single-topic specials: sports fantasies, pro wrestling, great communicators and yes, even sports music videos (twice, regrettably).

--He's used the Orange Bowl as an experimental laboratory of sorts. He has miked the coaches, miked the captains and miked the officials. He has used a goal-post camera and SkyCam. He has had analyst Bob Trumpy sit in the booth with assistant coaches.

--In boxing, he shows the time clock on the screen for the entirety of every round and he has pioneered "the corner story," enabling viewers to follow instructions to each fighter between rounds.

--In baseball, he was the first to have players introduce the teams' lineups before the game, seemingly a cliche nowadays but a move that helped personalize the game.

--He's trying to distance NBC's NFL pre-game show from CBS's "The NFL Today" by using theme shows and live studio audiences.

--He hired film maker Bob Giraldi to create striking thematic openings to the 1984 World Series and Super Bowl XX.

--He has given support to a split-screen solution for NBC's World Cup coverage this year in which, if advertisers are willing, three-quarters of the screen will show a commercial while one-quarter of the screen continues to show the soccer match.

--And he thought of The Blank Minute, proving that an overballyhooed state of nihility can cause a 60-second sensation unmatched in TV programming.

But for all his gimmicks and gambles, Weisman's most enduring signature is following the storyline. Weisman may not be the storyteller that, say, Olympic film-maker Bud Greenspan is, but he's added a leaner, more focused touch to game broadcasts.

Weisman's celebrated "less is more" effort over the past several years--in which he encourages his on-air talent to cut back on talk, especially during dramatic moments--has become commonplace throughout much of the industry.

Whether it's in a pre-telecast production meeting, when NBC's minds determine the directions they will take, or during a game when a certain story develops, Weisman is a master of following the main idea to its conclusion. In doing so, he brings more meaning to the viewer.

Ted Nathanson, an NBC Sports director who insisted Weisman be by his side in the early stages of Weisman's career, said, "He started off just watching the tape machines. If he saw something developing during a game, he'd tell me. That's how he developed a good eye for storyline."

"He's especially good at thinking of things to enliven otherwise mundane broadcasts," said NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "His willingness to take chances is his most enduring characteristic. He seeks out the drama . . . . (He has) a mercurial creative genius, sure, but also an eye for detail."

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