Legends Behind the Lens: Joe Schiavo
One of the industry's greatest TDs was also one of its most-beloved personalities
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Karen Hogan Ketchum
Friends of Joe Schiavo — or Joey, as everyone seems to call him — like to tell the same story about the journeyman technical director.
He was working at YES Network a few years ago, producing Mike Francesa’s radio show on location at a golf tournament in Westchester, NY. One of the guests slated for that day’s show was Frank Gifford, the former voice of Monday Night Football on ABC.
Upon seeing Schiavo, Gifford reportedly leaned over to Francesa. “Do you know who that is?” he exclaimed. “That’s Joey Schiavo! He’s a legend at ABC Sports. A legend!”
Of course, those who know Schiavo best know that he would never tell such a story about himself or tout his own “legend.” For all his accomplishments as technical director at ABC Sports and continued successes as senior technical manager at YES Network, Schiavo always remained the kid from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn until his death in 2017; the youngest of four brothers and the class clown, who grew up playing CYO baseball and dreamed of one day working in television.
Getting His Start
After three years of night classes at the RCA Institute in New York, Schiavo was hired by ABC in 1968. Despite his lifelong love for the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Mets, he didn’t actively pursue a career in sports. The kid who used to play with 8mm cameras would be a camera operator for Eyewitness News and find his way into sports later.
“When I went to work in television, I wasn’t thinking about sports. I was just thinking about getting into TV,” says Schiavo. “The first thing I did was Eyewitness News, which everyone did. … [ABC] sized you up, and, if you’re a city kid, they sent you out into the field because they figured you could work in rain or snow and it wouldn’t bother you. I think that was their logic in the beginning, so when they found out about me, they sent me out into the field, and that’s how I got into sports.”
Schiavo, like all new ABC hires at the time, joined the company as a vacation-relief employee and did not expect to become a permanent employee right away. However, he had a leg up on the competition: a commercial driver license.
“I drove a school bus when I was a kid, and they knew that, [so] they sent me out to drive one of the TV mobile units,” he explains. “The money was good with the overtime, and [the bosses] said, well, if you’re willing to drive, you have a job here. I said I’ll do whatever you want. And that’s how I got the job.”
Schiavo would stay with ABC for 34 years.
A Monday Night Football Stalwart
In 1979, following a successful stint as camera operator, Schiavo was asked to be a technical director. “Actually, they didn’t ask me,” he laughs. “They told me.”
Once again, he began his tenure as a vacation-relief employee, returning to Eyewitness News before traveling for several sports productions, including a boxing match and college football game. Then he was called up to the big leagues.
“[ABC Sports director] Chet Forte put me on Monday Night Football,” says Schiavo. “I was one of Chet’s camera people on Monday Night Football. … They told me I was only going to do four or five games because the TD that was doing Monday Night Football was also doing baseball and it was a World Series year, so they needed someone to cover him. … After the fifth game, Chet walks in the truck and goes, ‘Oh, by the way, the other guy is never coming back.’ I was in a state of shock.”
For 22 years, Schiavo served as technical director of Monday Night Football. He also covered Triple Crown horseracing, countless Wide World of Sports telecasts, and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, among other events.
“Joey had the hand-eye coordination, the dexterity, and the ability to listen and translate that was absolutely flawless. He was the best. He never made a mistake. As a technical director, he never made a mistake.” – Jack Kestenbaum, former YES Network executive
“Joey had the hand-eye coordination, the dexterity, and the ability to listen and translate that was absolutely flawless,” says Jack Kestenbaum, a close friend who mixed audio alongside Schiavo at ABC and is now director, technical operations, for YES Network. “He was the best. He never made a mistake. As a technical director, he never made a mistake.”
On Jan. 20, 1985, ABC broadcast its first Super Bowl — Miami Dolphins vs. San Francisco 49ers — with Gifford, Don Meredith, and Joe Theismann on the call and Schiavo on the switcher. He would do four more Super Bowls for the network.
“Joey is a legend at ABC Sports,” says Ed Delaney, who worked with him at ABC Sports and YES Network before joining Fox Sports as EVP, operations, this year. “Just a delightful guy to be around, brilliant at what he does, and a true leader. Back then in the network days, the technical directors really were the crew leaders, and Joey was such an exceptional leader. … Joey got everything done and was beloved by everybody.”
After Forte left ABC, Schiavo remained as technical director on Monday Night Football for director Craig Janoff and producer Ken Wolfe. In 2002, however, Schiavo felt it was time to move on.
“It was time to go, and you know what? I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “It was a wonderful, wonderful era to work at ABC; it was a wonderful time that will never come around again, and we were a part of it.”
Continuing a Hall of Fame Career
Schiavo’s time in sports television was hardly finished. In 2002, he joined the YES Network and several former ABC colleagues, including Kestenbaum and Delaney.
“I was fortunate enough, when I took the position at YES Network, to bring Joey over in a management position,” Delaney explains. “It worked out so well because I had a bunch of young junior professionals who were fresh out of school and Joey did such a great job of mentoring these folks, just like he mentored me years ago.”
As technical manager of YES Network, Schiavo finally had the opportunity to cover his favorite sport. He traveled for all New York Yankees road telecasts, including spring training in Florida, and rooted for the team… except when they play the Mets. “To be involved with the Yankees and to go to all the cities now and all the ballparks in the country and see the teams — I’m enjoying that,” he said. “I’m having a great time.”
“Joey’s résumé is weighted by pure excellence,” says John J. Filippelli, president of production and programming at the YES Network. “He has graced the biggest and most prestigious events in our industry with his unparalleled talent, experience, and enthusiasm. No one is more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Joey Schiavo. He has been an invaluable member of the YES team since before our March 2002 launch.”
In the Yankees’ offseason, Schiavo covered Mike Francesa’s remote radio shows, which were simulcast on YES Network, as well as Brooklyn Nets basketball, college football, and baseball’s winter meetings. Any free time he spent relaxing with his family in Staten Island, NY, including his wife, Kelly, five children, and his grandchildren.
Looking back on his Hall of Fame career, Schiavo was always quick to pay tribute to the guys who worked alongside him. When you were on the air, he says, you gave 100% of yourself at all times and expected those around you to do the same.
“You didn’t worry about who was watching you or who was watching at home,” he continues. “You worried about the people you were around who were watching you because you had to be on all the time. And if you didn’t perform, they were very nice, but you were gone. They needed you to perform.”
Of course, after four-plus decades in the business, Schiavo not only proved time and again that he could perform but he emerged as one of the most down-to-earth, likeable guys in the industry.
“He can walk in virtually any mobile unit in the country, and the EIC yells, ‘Joey, where have you been! I haven’t seen you in so long! What do you need, pal?’ And [Schiavo] walks away with anything he wants,” says Kestenbaum. “Everybody loves him. Everybody in this industry who has ever known him loves Joey Schiavo.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2013. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.