Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame: Mickey Wittman, the Man Who Made Blimps a Mainstay
Mickey Wittman may not have been the first person to put a camera in a blimp (that was fellow Hall of Famer Frank Chirkinian), but he is the man most responsible for transforming it from a gimmick to a mainstay, both as a production element and as a commercial element. And like many Hall of Fame careers, it began with a bit of serendipity.
“While going to graduate school at Akron University, I was a freelance writer, and I ran into someone whose father flew a blimp for Howard Hughes,” he recalls. “I wrote a story on it that got me interested in blimps, and I read every book there was. And Goodyear, based in Akron, had a blimp program and, quite coincidentally, was building a new blimp. I wanted to work with it in any capacity, and, during the interview, they were amazed at how much I knew about blimps.”
While working for Goodyear, Wittman was transferred to New York in 1968, beginning the most crucial learning phase of his career: working in Rockefeller Plaza and getting a degree in TV broadcasting from the New School.
“At the same time, there was also a series of changes that could help us get pictures from the blimps,” he says. “Before that, microwave transmission was not very efficient, and there was no frame sync, so every picture would roll. But that’s how bad they wanted to use it.”
The trick to maturing the blimp market, says Wittman, was having three blimps and three crews, each comprising a camera operator, a video technician, and a microwave operator.
“Without three blimps, we were limited,” he says, noting, “The whole growth parallels the rise of ABC Sports. A typical week would have me go to a college town on Friday to rehearse for ABC’s college game on Saturday, then get on a plane for another blimp on Sunday, and then go to another blimp on Monday for Monday Night Football.”
MNF changed everything, Wittman explains, but not for the reason one would suspect: “The mayors of each city would call Goodyear and request that the blimp be there because the aerial shots generated so much publicity for the cities.”
Wittman shares his success with many of the people who, over the years, have made a difference in the aerial business.
“Bob Mikkelson is a great cameraman; following a golf ball or a home run is not an easy thing to do. I also give Craig Janoff credit,” he adds. “Craig was fascinated by the angles and things we could do, and, at MNF, he put an emphasis on the blimp.”
Janoff also, alongside producer Curt Gowdy Jr., transformed horseracing coverage with the blimp.
“Once we got the gyrocam, we did the Triple Crown, and, with the blimp, we could follow the whole field,” he says. “And now the first replay after the race is always the shot from the blimp.”
Janoff and Wittman were also present for an earthshaking event: the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, which put producer Gowdy, director Janoff, and broadcaster Al Michaels at the center of the nation’s understanding of the earthquake.
“We were the only people flying and saved a number of lives and identified bridges that were damaged,” says Wittman, who was in the production truck with Michaels. “Al knew the San Francisco area after working for the Giants. What we did was a great service. as those were the days before news helicopters.”
Wittman eventually left Goodyear to work for other companies, among them Richard Branson’s Lightship Group, which had 19 blimps. He also spent two years in Australia, helping blimp business launch there, and just finished up his official career last January.
“One of the things I am most proud of is product placement. All of the placement nonsense was started with Goodyear,” he says, adding, “We did it for the good of the company and were never reimbursed financially by the networks. At the beginning, there were so many failures, but, despite the overwhelming technical problems, we had to keep telling Goodyear to believe in this.”