Legends Behind the Lens: Michael Weisman
One of the industry's greatest producers had an unrivaled knack for storytelling
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 Ken Kerschbaumer
For most youngsters, the glamour of TV is theoretical. But, for Michael Weisman, whose father, Edward, was a publicist at ABC and then at NBC Sports, it was reality. He wasn’t growing up on TV sets, but he did have the chance to be part of publicity shots for TV stars and even a publicity stunt at Madison Square Garden for Batman (along with his little brother, who played Robin).
“I knew from my early ages that being in television was glamorous and exciting,” he recalls. “That was something that appealed to me.”
It may have appealed to him, but it didn’t stop him from leaving a home within shouting distance of that glamour to head to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and find out what he wanted to do with his life. During his sophomore year, though, his life course changed abruptly: his father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 44, and Weisman returned home immediately and stayed there to be with his mother.
“I told her I decided that I’m not going back to college,” he recalls. “‘I’ll transfer to Queens College so I can be here with you and help you.’ My mother started crying. I said, ‘What are you upset for, Mom?’ And she said, ‘Because your brother came to me yesterday and he said the same thing.’ And then we decided, between the three of us, that my brother should have the experience of going away; since I’d been a way a couple years, I’d come home.”
Back home, Weisman had a couple of part-time jobs and finished his education at Queens College. Wondering what to do next he called up some of the people at NBC who knew his father. Their advice? Try the guest-relations program.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but somebody said guest relations at NBC is harder to get into than Harvard,” he says. “So, instead of being in Carolina, I was in New York and able to get the job at 30 Rock.”
It was there that his education in TV began: if he wasn’t assigned to do anything as a page, he could sit in the audience at the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, watch the musical acts rehearse, and more.
“As a page, you wore a uniform, and you were invisible to most of the executives at NBC,” he recalls. “But the producer, Fred de Cordova, would see you, look at your name tag, and say, ‘Hello, Mr. Weisman, and how are you today?’ He treated us with respect and dignity, and, of course, I felt, like many others at the time, if I ever get into a position of import, I’m gonna be like this guy.”
With his 13 months as a page ending, he planned to attend St. John’s University and take courses to become a teacher. TV was simply not in the plan.
But, before leaving NBC, he stopped by to see Chet Simmons, who had hired his father to be publicist. His mother had told him that stopping by to say hello was the right thing to do.
“I said he doesn’t know me from Adam,” Weisman recalls. “I’ll go up to his office and just say, Hey, I’ve been a page here, I just want to say goodbye, you knew my dad, whatever. I go up to the fifth floor, and Chet Simmons, who I recognized from pictures, is standing by the elevator on a Friday at 5:00 with his luggage. And I said, ‘Mr. Simmons, I’m Mike Weisman, Eddie Weisman’s son.’ He said, ‘I heard you were working here. How’s it going?’ I said, ‘Well, frankly, I’ve been here 13 months; there’s nothing going on. I’m gonna start on Monday at St. John’s to get a teaching license, take a few credits.”
The elevator came, but Simmons didn’t get on. He asked Weisman what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘Sports has always appealed to me,’ and he said, ‘Would you be interested in working in sports? We’re getting ready to expand. Call [Executive Producer] Scotty [Connal] on Monday and tell him I told you to call.’ Fast forward, I got the job and became the first assistant producer at NBC Sports.”
In at the Beginning
Now, Weisman might have been drawn to the glamour of TV, but he is also the first to admit that he was not a sophisticated kid and was intimidated by his new role. He had flown on a plane only twice: going to North Carolina as a freshman and then flying home in 1969.
“And now, as the first assistant to the producer, I am assigned to every telecast on every game: Saturday baseball, Sunday football, and Monday Night Baseball,” he says. “I’m working with all these producers…and I watched, I learned. That was the start.”
It’s important to note that he was not the assistant to the producer. He was assistant to the producers — plural, three of them.
“I learned different things from different people,” he notes of that time. “Roy Hammerman had such an engaging personality, and he was so warm, he made his meetings fun. Don Ellis was extremely creative and wanted to try things. They didn’t all work, but Don said, Let’s do it this way. I liked that about him. And Dick Auerbach was buttoned up. He knew all the equipment, he knew all the technology. And I worked with the different regional producers and the freelance producers. You learn from all of them.”
As an assistant to the producer in 1975, Weisman had a front-row seat for arguably one of the most important moments in televised sports: Game 6 of the World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox. It was one of the first night games ever in a World Series, and baseball had been struggling to the point where it was no longer a primetime event.
It was a do-or-die game for the Red Sox, and it featured plenty of drama within its official nine innings of play. But it was in the 12th inning, with the game tied at 6 when a singular moment changed sports production. Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hit a game-winning home run over the Green Monster, and, in the four minutes of coverage following the hit, an isolated camera shot showing Fisk waving his arms to seemingly will the ball to stay fair demonstrated the power of reaction shots.
“That game changed baseball, and it changed Madison Avenue,” Weisman explains. “It’s just such pure joy.”
A couple of years later, Weisman was promoted to associate producer and then, at age 27, was named producer. That move was the result of Ted Nathanson’s wanting to be producer and director rather than just director.
“Once Teddy was onsite, he couldn’t sit in both the producer chair and the director chair, so they said to Teddy, ‘If you want to be the boss, you need somebody to sit next to you to act as the producer and do replays, talk to talent, coordinate.’ And he said, ‘I’ll take that kid Weisman.’ So, suddenly, I’m doing Super Bowls and national telecasts. It was tremendous.”
And then there was his time working with the legendary Don Ohlmeyer, who had joined NBC Sports as executive producer to do the Olympics. Weisman’s first chance to work with him closely was for the Junior Olympics in Lincoln, NE, in 1978. Ohlmeyer helped him take storytelling to a new level and, at the Olympics, told him to focus on one young gymnast and follow her story, even though she was not a favorite.
“When I called my new wife and asked what did she think, she said, ‘It was so great, Mike. I love that little Pammy Lee; I felt so bad for her.’ And I said, ‘Son of a gun, Don made it a memorable event.’”
The Youngest EP
When the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Ohlmeyer, devastated, left NBC Sports. Weisman, then 32, was named executive producer. He was only the third ever to hold that post at NBC Sports and was also the youngest.
“It was a bit of a surprise because, after Don left ,we just had coordinating producers for a while,” he recalls. “That was 1982, and I held that position until 1989. Those were some exciting years.”
“Mike Weisman was as the best line producer you could ever work with. He knew how to tell a story and saw stories where no one else did. He made every show a fun watch.” – former CBS Sports executive Ken Aagaard
They were also challenging. Weisman found himself in charge of the legends who had taught him everything.
“Teddy, for example, was my mentor, because I got to do all the big games and sit with him and he gave me more and more responsibility,” he says. “He is probably the most important figure in my life in the business for one reason: he indirectly introduced me to my wife. And now I was his boss. I went from being the assistant to the producer, the kid, to now the boss.”
Weisman wanted to recapture a bit of the spirit that had existed in the 1970s, when experimentation and trying things out was not only accepted but expected.
“We did the first SkyCam, and we were doing things all the time as we didn’t want rules when we were doing the game,” he recalls. “We started doing things like a 10-minute ticker on football games because the scores used to be given inconsistently. That was the precursor to continuously running scores.”
Ken Aagaard, current CBS Sports, EVP of innovation, research and development, worked closely with Weisman at NBC and says that whenever he would come up with a technical innovation like the first high frame camera that was used at low home for MLB coverage Weisman would use it to the fullest.
“He was always interested in applying new technologies into his shows,” says Aagaard. “And more importantly he used these technologies at the right time for the right reasons. I was lucky to have worked with Mike.”
Trying this out also lead him to hire Bob Costas. to host NBC’s Sunday NFL pre-game show. Bryant Gumbel had just left to do the Today show, and Weisman tapped Costas who was known for being a solid regional play-by-play announcer. But Weisman saw something in him and, despite Costas’s saying he wanted to do only play-by-play, persuaded him to take the assignment.
“We had a few weeks of rehearsal, and, before the first show, Costas seemed nervous. I had never seen him nervous,” says Weisman. “I told him to relax and approach it just like he was doing a studio show in St. Louis or Syracuse. But Bob said, ‘Mike, perhaps you never gave this serious consideration, but I’ve never done a studio show before. And I said, ‘Well, Bob, now I’m nervous.’ But the rest, as I am fond of saying, is history. He was a natural.”
Costas says that, from the beginning of his working at NBC, Weisman was among those who believed in him. “He gave me a chance to prove myself on big assignments. I hope I made him proud, because I am proud to have worked with him and to have been his friend.”
He adds that Weisman was one of the most creative people he ever worked with. “He loved trying new things and, more often than not, hit the bull’s-eye with them. Mike trusted the broadcasters he worked with. If he felt you had talent, he gave you the space and the independence to use it.”
Weisman also hired Marty Glickman — the famous radio broadcaster who covered the New York Knicks, New York Jets, and New York Giants — to serve as an announcer coach for ex-football players. Announcer Merlin Olson, a former NFL player, told Weisman that ex-players would welcome a coach because they were used to getting feedback on their performance.
Weisman recalls, “I said, ‘Marty, I want you to meet with these announcers on a regular basis and review their games, sit with them, call them, tell them what’s wrong. It was a tremendous boon to all announcers.”
A Move Into Entertainment
After the 1988 Olympics, Weisman went out west to try his hand at CBS Entertainment and tap into some of the things he learned as a page at NBC. His challenge? To somehow turn The Pat Sajak Show around.
“I go out to L.A. with my wife and our young kids, and Sajak was canceled after a few months. Then we did other shows with Joy Behar, Bill Maher, and all these great people,” he says. “Every two weeks, we would have a different host, and we had no routines, which was something I learned from Roone Arledge: if a segment was going well, blow off the next guest; if it stunk, end the segment and bring out the next guest.”
That led to the decision to have all the guests on the couch to begin the show, a template that shows like Politically Incorrect and The View turned into a real format.
Weisman spent a couple of years as president of NMT Productions in Beverly Hills. After it was sold, he got back to his true love, big-time sports production, with Fox Sports’ MLB coverage. He worked two memorable baseball broadcasts: the 1999 MLB All-Star Game at Fenway Park, highlighted by Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams’s throwing out the first pitch, and the World Series in New York City following the 9/11 attacks.
The MLB All-Star Game coverage managed to take home an Emmy for Best Live Sports Event, no small feat for a game that is nothing more than an exhibition contest. But the 1999 version was special, assembling 50 living legends for the pregame festivities. The original plan called for the players to remain along the foul lines while Williams threw out the first pitch.
“I wanted to see what would happen if the players broke from the foul lines and instead came to the middle of the field and huddled around Ted,” recalls Weisman. “The current heroes acted like little boys, approaching Ted gingerly like an autograph seeker. And, for four or five minutes, we just eavesdropped on their conversation. It was a lovely, great moment.”
Twelve years later, the game of baseball would offer another great moment that was a touching tribute to the resolve of a nation and a city that had suffered a major terrorist attack. It again involved a first pitch, by President George W. Bush, but also a seventh-inning stretch highlighted by 50,000 fans’ joining together to sing “God Bless America.”
“That World Series was emotional times, and we had the fans, the survivors, the color guard,” he recalls. “The story of that Series was that New Yorkers never give up.”
Weisman’s role at Fox was not full-time, giving him the opportunity to tackle other challenges as well. In 2001, he reached out to NBC Olympics icon Dick Ebersol and worked on three Olympic Games: Salt Lake City, Torino, and Beijing. In 2004, he helped Jane Pauley launch her daily talk show and Jim Bell transition into the role of producer of the Today show. He was also involved in getting NBC Sunday Night Football off the ground and, more recently, spent a year as executive producer for Morning Joe on MSNBC.
That career arch encapsulates a bit of everything: major sports events, network late-night entertainment, network daytime TV, and even morning and cable news. Suffice it to say, Weisman may stand alone as having executive-producer experience in all those areas.
“I always thought I have an ability to work well with others and adapt to the skill set of the people I am working with,” he says. “I also recognize and accept what I don’t know and collaborate with others.”
Costas says that Weisman has a great sense of humor and communicated that a broadcast should be fun as well as dramatic and journalistically sound.
“Mike has that great combination of belief in his own abilities but deep respect for the abilities of others,” he says. “He revels in your success as well as his own.”
Adds Aagaard: “Mike Weisman was as the best line producer you could ever work with. He knew how to tell a story and saw stories where no one else did. He made every show a fun watch.”