Legends Behind the Lens: Bob Fishman
One of the industry's greatest directors has been shaping sports TV for nearly five decades
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 Jason Dachman
37 NCAA Final Fours. 27 US Open tennis championships. 20 Daytona 500s. Three Olympic Winter Games. Two World Series. Plus the NFL and NBA playoffs, college football, Triple Crown horse races, and so much more during 45 years at CBS Sports. Bob Fishman’s résumé speaks for itself.
However, what cements the longtime CBS Sports director as a true industry legend is not the raw numbers but the iconic moments he has etched into the memories of millions of sports fans: Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison duking it out on the track at Daytona, NC State coach Jim Valvano sprinting across the court looking for someone to hug, a weeping Tanya Harding showing Olympic judges her broken skate lace mid-routine, and Joe Carter’s walk-off home run to win the World Series for Toronto.
“I have one goal as a director, and that’s to capture emotional moments,” says Fishman. “Directing for me — whether it’s film or sports or anything else — is about capturing those moments that have true emotion.”
In the words of CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus: “Bob has distinguished himself as one of the great directors in the history of sports television. His ability to tell the story and set the scene through the camera’s lens is simply remarkable. He is both innovative and creative but never loses sight of his main job, which is to cover the action on the field, in the arena, or on the track.”
Starting Out in Television: From a Moon Walk to The NFL Today
Born in New York City and reared in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Fishman grew up listening to Dodgers games on shortwave radio and dreaming of being a baseball announcer. He earned a degree in broadcasting at Boston University, where he fell in love with the art of directing and behind-the-scenes production.
After graduating, Fishman landed a job at CBS News in 1972 as a production assistant and associate director. His first shot at directing came when the lead director for CBS News’ coverage of the Apollo 17 launch fell ill, and Fishman — at the ripe age of 23 — found himself directing CBS Morning News segments hosted by the legendary Walter Cronkite.
In 1976, newly appointed CBS Sports President Robert Wussler tapped Fishman as director of CBS Sports’ new pregame show, The NFL Today, which blazed the trail for all NFL studio shows. He spent five years at the front bench for The NFL Today alongside Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Mike Pearl, who served as producer. Fishman also began hitting the road to direct auto racing, college football, and a variety of events for the CBS Sports Spectacular anthology series.
“When I first met and worked with Bob Fishman at CBS Sports in 1976, he was already widely regarded as the best young sports director in the industry,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson. “Almost a half century later, Bob’s innovative and imaginative work principally on NCAA basketball and the NFL has achieved Hall of Fame status, but he remains the same kind, humble, and gracious person we have always known and loved.”
The 1979 Daytona 500 and Redefining Auto-Racing Coverage
Fishman got his first big break in 1979 when he was assigned to direct the Daytona 500 for CBS, marking the first time the entire race had been broadcast live from flag to flag. A major snowstorm across the U.S. that weekend brought millions more eyeballs to arguably the most dramatic finish in NASCAR history. Fishman captured the epic last-lap crash between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison that allowed Richard Petty to sneak through for the win, as well as Yarborough and Allison’s famously coming to blows on the track after the race.
“It was a momentous finish that captured the imagination of NASCAR fans and non-racing fans alike across the country,” says Fishman. “Until that point, NASCAR was just a regional sport, but the sensational ending vaulted that race to the front page of the New York Times. In my mind, that’s the moment that took the sport to the next step. And the fact that people were seeing it live for the first time contributed to the success of NASCAR going forward. And, personally, it set my career in motion.”
Fishman would direct every Daytona 500 for the next two decades and served as CBS Sports’ lead auto-racing director. He also became the first U.S. director to use Race Cam on-board cameras, when CBS Sports debuted them in 1983. He would go on to help craft the way these cameras are deployed in auto racing and drastically alter the way live races were presented to viewers.
“I think we set a new standard for how to cover auto racing during those years,” says Fishman. “We tried to do a couple things that I found were lacking in racing [coverage]. First, we put out more low cameras to create that sense of speed and show the essence of how dangerous racing can be. Second, my goal was to get further back into the pack. [CBS Sports announcer] Ken Squier always preached, ‘It’s not just about the lead two or three cars. It’s important to get back in the pack because that’s where some of the best battles take place.”
A Lifetime of ‘Shining Moments’ at the NCAA Final Four
In 1981, CBS Sports won the broadcast-TV rights to the NCAA Final Four, launching one of the longest partnerships between a network and a sports property. Fishman was selected to direct the 1982 Championship Game and was once again gifted one of the most memorable finishes in sports history, when freshman North Carolina guard Michael Jordan sank a jumper in the closing seconds to beat Georgetown.
“The excitement of doing college basketball — with the kids on the court and in the stands that is so unlike professional sports — was very appealing to me,” says Fishman. “Of course, it was an iconic game, and we did it well, and I haven’t stopped doing it since.”
“All of those highlights, all of those, pardon me, ‘shining moments’ have come through his cameras. He’s just the Coach K, if you will, of directors.” – Jim Nantz
Aside from Valvano’s unforgettable postgame sprint across the court and Jordan’s star-making shot, Fishman has captured a treasure trove of unforgettable moments during 37 years directing Final Four coverage (a record not likely to be broken), including Butler forward Gordon Hayward’s last-second half-court shot just rimming out against heavily favored Duke in 2010 and Villanova star Kris Jenkins’s draining a shot as time expired to beat UNC in 2016, the only NCAA Men’s Championship game to be won on a buzzer beater,
“All of those highlights, all of those, pardon me, ‘shining moments’ have come through his cameras,” Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and CBS Sports lead announcer Jim Nantz, said at the 2019 Final Four. “He’s just the Coach K, if you will, of directors.”
CBS Sports Lead Reporter Tracy Wolfson, who has worked with Fishman for 15 years at the NCAA Tournament, adds, “I see firsthand the talent he is, the incredible attention to detail, the love he has for sports, the feel he has for the game, and what a tremendous teammate and friend he is. And, because of all those things, he has set a standard not only at CBS but for so many in this industry.”
A Picture of Versatility: From Football to Figure Skating and Beyond
In addition to redefining the way auto racing and college hoops are covered, Fishman has proved to be one of the most versatile directors in the history of sports television, covering nearly every major sport during his 45 years at CBS.
His career directing action on the gridiron began in 1981 with college football before he transitioned to directing The NFL on CBS, which he continues to do each Sunday in the season.
“Bob has directed of some of the biggest events over the past 40 years,” says Mike Arnold, lead game director, The NFL on CBS. “He has been one of the standard-bearers of our industry for almost half a century.”
Fishman is also a veteran of three Olympics, having directed figure skating at the 1992 Albertville, 1994 Lillehammer, and 1998 Nagano Winter Games, as well as the Opening Ceremony in Nagano. In 1994, he helped capture the climax of the Nancy Kerrigan–Tanya Harding soap opera as it played out on the ice during the women’s short-program competition in Lillehammer, powering CBS to the fourth-largest primetime audience in the history of television.
The 16-time Emmy Award winner directed 27 US Open tennis tournaments (before CBS Sports lost the rights in 2014); dozens of NBA Playoff games throughout the 1980s; the 1992 and 1993 World Series (during CBS’s 1990-93 run carrying MLB); countless horse races, including several Belmont Stakes (for which he won two Eclipse Awards); and various events at three Pan American Games. He is also the recipient of three Directors Guild of America Awards.
“Bob is the man,” says Mark Wolff, Fishman’s longtime producer on college basketball and the NFL. “There is no better director in our industry. He possesses a keen eye and sharp editorial mind that he has brought to some of the world’s biggest sporting events. Bob’s biggest contribution to CBS might be his experience and knowledge. He is always open to share his experiences and work to solve problems that he has seen before. He is our ‘go-to guy’ and is always willing to help to make the show better.”
Fishman has also directed various CBS primetime skating specials, including the “Ice Wars” series Scott Hamilton, Back on the Ice, and, in 1996, was nominated in the DGA’s Music and Variety category for Sergei Grinkov, Celebration of a Life. He also co-produced and directed Dolphins, Whales and Us, a CBS entertainment documentary, which was awarded the international Cine Golden Eagle Award.
It’s not just Fishman’s wide-ranging record of live telecasts that cement his legacy at CBS Sports, however. He also has helped mentor dozens if not hundreds of successful directors, producers, and other industry stalwarts during his years in the production truck.
“Bob is not only a pioneer in the television-sports industry; he has been instrumental in almost every production person’s career at CBS Sports,” says Jim Rikhoff, lead game producer, The NFL on CBS. “He has been a giving mentor and leader at our sports division for as long as I can remember. A consummate professional, as impressive as Bob’s work résumé is, it’s his character and professionalism that truly make him a Hall of Famer in our industry.”
McManus seconds that sentiment: “In addition to his stellar work as a top director, Bob has been an amazing teammate to everyone at CBS Sports and a mentor to many of our aspiring directors who have followed in his footsteps.”
Life Outside the Truck: Family and Philanthropy
While the rigors of the 40-plus years on the road have not made it easy, Fishman has always made family a priority. He and his wife of 38 years, Margaret, have twin sons, Andy and Matt, who will be graduating from USC in May. “My family has been unbelievably supportive of me, and, for that, I could not be more grateful.”
Says McManus, “Above all else, Bob has his priorities in order as a man of integrity and class who understands that his most important role is as a devoted husband, father, and son.”
Nearly three decades ago, Fishman’s decorated career nearly came to an end far too early when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgins lymphoma, missing the Final Four in 1990. He underwent a bone-marrow transplant and made a complete recovery, but the memory of a young Puerto Rican girl dying alone in the clinic where he was treated — her family could not afford to make the trip —has never left him.
“That experience crushed me emotionally and impacted my outlook on pretty much everything,” says Fishman. “No one should have to go through that alone, and I made it one of my missions in life to try to help those that were in need.”
He helped found and is now president of the Bone Marrow and Cancer Foundation (BMCF), which aims to improve the quality of life for bone-marrow- and stem-cell–transplant patients and their families by helping with expenses. Since Chairman/CEO Christina Merrill and Fishman launched the organization in 1992, it has raised and distributed millions of dollars in patient aid, including $2 million in 2018 alone.
At 71, Fishman says retirement isn’t in the cards just yet, indicating that he’d like to get to 50 years at CBS Sports (he’s at 45) and 40 Final Fours (he’s at 37) before calling it a day.
“When I think about being at CBS all these years, it is truly insane, but I don’t feel like I’m done yet,” he says. “The business is changing, but I still love what I do. As difficult and complex as the job has become with the responsibilities we have in the truck, it’s still very enjoyable to me, and I’m still having fun.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2019. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.