Legends Behind the Lens: Bill Fitts
The sports television production pioneer shaped the industry for more than half a century
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
When your broadcasting career includes producing the first Super Bowl, launching The NFL Today for CBS, and then jumping aboard ESPN in its formative years, it’s easy to think that ego could take over. But that didn’t happen to Bill Fitts, a long-time production professional who credits those around him and takes more pride in their success than his own.
“I was very fortunate to have unbelievable acolytes,” he says of those he worked with, especially those at ESPN. “Their talent is obvious today. We had all-star people coming in to ESPN although we didn’t know it at the time. We all had an opportunity to do something that hadn’t really been done and to do sports that a lot of networks didn’t cover.”
Graduating from Swarthmore College in 1953, Fitts began his career at WHUM-TV Reading, PA. He soon went to WCAU-TV Philadelphia (at the time, a CBS station), where he had a chance to wear multiple hats while creating children’s programming. Moving to New York City in 1962, he played a key role in national sports programming and was able to draw on his athletic and children’s-programming experience.
“My background helped a lot,” he notes. “I lettered in five sports in high school and college, so I could grasp what the core of the sport was. Children’s programming is a lot like sports: there is something different every 10 seconds, and reacting to what is happening on the field is what sports TV is all about.”
During his career at CBS, Fitts was executive producer on five Super Bowls, including Super Bowl I from the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was there that some of the genius of then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was on display. The field wasn’t centered in the stadium, which thus looked half empty from certain camera positions. Rozelle moved fans around to make sure the camera shots had better backdrops full of fans.
“Even after the Jets won Super Bowl III, the AFL was still doing very poorly on NBC, and NBC was thinking of dropping football,” Fitts recalls of the NFL’s early days. “Rozelle, in his normal bright thinking, came up with the idea of a doubleheader, where NBC would get a game unopposed. CBS had to agree to that, and it saved NBC, and, gradually, the AFL became a competitor.”
Fitts was involved with another important first in sports-TV history: the use of videotape at the 1963 Army-Navy game. Navy quarterback Roger Staubach was a mobile quarterback and would run all over the field, and the production team didn’t want to miss any of the action.
Says Fitts, “We had a huge tape truck because the machines were enormous.”
He was also involved with Countdown to Kickoff, a production with NFL Films that took isolated coverage to a new level by focusing on linebackers and tight ends.
“It was another show that was considered impossible when it was first suggested,” says Fitts. “But it really helped us in terms of how to approach using isolated cameras and also helped our relationship with NFL Films.”
And then there was NFL Today, a franchise that Fitts created in 1973. While there, he hired a young Brent Musburger to host and also brought in Phyllis George to give the show a unique dynamic. The show also led to Fitts’s being noticed by Chet Simmons, then head of NBC Sports. Simmons hired Fitts to help studio operations.
When ESPN became a reality, Simmons joined as president and soon called Fitts.
“By the time ESPN started,” says Fitts, “there wasn’t much in sports that I hadn’t done. I was even thinking about moving into news. ESPN was a huge opportunity for me because I knew I would be able to teach as well as do it.”
Those early days gave him a chance to both impart wisdom and influence a generation of talent at ESPN (and beyond) and also to enjoy the process of figuring out how to televise sports that might never have been on TV before. It was a network created by risktakers for risktakers.
“There were so many creative people at ESPN,” Fitts says, adding, “The main reason many people don’t move forward is fear and not liking to fail. And the same goes for management: they don’t want to try new things until they know it will work.”
At ESPN, he served as production architect for many of its signature programs, including the NFL Draft, flag-to-flag NASCAR races, Top Rank Boxing, and “whip-around” coverage of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. He also found John Colby to compose its music themes, including the popular SportsCenter “Da-da-da” song, and to build a music library.
“It is not an understatement to say that Fitts is among the truly influential figures in modern sports TV,” says Colby. “In addition to his CBS and NBC achievements, he built the production department at ESPN, a team that shaped sports TV for years to come. His protégés are to be found everywhere in the highest levels of sports TV. You could fill a truck with the production awards. That is a true legacy.”
“Regardless of the event, he demanded the highest quality and performance. His drive and energy, even in the later years of his career, was hard to match. He led with a passion, and you were expected to keep up. While he helped shape the sports-media landscape, I credit him more with shaping a collection of future leaders. Bill’s legacy continues in all of us.” – Tina Thornton, SVP, production and office of the president, ESPN
Among the people whom Fitts has influenced are Sandy Grossman, Fred Gaudelli, Drew Esocoff, Bryant Gumbel, Chris Berman, Gayle Sierens (the first woman to do play-by-play on an NFL game in 1987), and Gayle Gardner, who joined SportsCenter in 1983.
“At the very beginning of my career, I had the tremendous fortune of working for Bill Fitts,” says Gaudelli, who worked with him at ESPN from 1983 to 2001. “He pioneered how to cover the entirety of sports, not just what was happening with the ball. He made you discard your notes after the fact to force you to think anew the next time; he was really teaching us how to keep advancing the production. And,” he adds, “he was deploying women into major production roles far sooner and more sincerely than the rest of corporate America.”
Tina Thornton, ESPN SVP, production and office of the president, calls Fitts a force, noting that she had the chance to work with him on the launch of ESPN2, the X Games Adventure Race, and other shows.
“Regardless of the event,” she says, “he demanded the highest quality and performance. His drive and energy, even in the later years of his career, was hard to match. He led with a passion, and you were expected to keep up. While he helped shape the sports-media landscape, I credit him more with shaping a collection of future leaders. Bill’s legacy continues in all of us.”
Fitts says that the new blood that flowed through ESPN was marked by good instincts and a fearless mentality. “They would go into a remote truck that they were not familiar with and get through it. They also were a group that really clicked both individually and together.”
Former ESPN Director of Production Ellen Beckwith — who worked for Fitts at CBS, NBC, and ESPN — says he entrusted her with stage managing on NFL remotes or working in graphics even though she did not have experience in those roles.
“He put me in production positions when very few females were given such opportunities,” she points out. “He trusted me, along with him, to make hiring decisions in our early days at ESPN, successful decisions that led to my being named director of production.”
Fitts gives a lot of the credit to some of the bosses he had a chance to work for, including Jack Dolph, who was director of CBS Sports when Fitts joined (Dolph would later serve as ABA Commissioner); Tex Schram, and Bill McPhail. He also cites Simmons, NFL Films’ Ed Sabol, Steve Bornstein, and Loren Matthews.
“Most people are really lucky to have one good boss,” he says. “I had six that were my mentors.”
Through it all, there has been his wife, Frances. She recalls when Fitts was sent off to basic training for the Korean War in 1954 and, 11 days later, she gave birth to the first of four children. Although the two-year hiatus interrupted not only family life and his career, Fitts was able to make up for lost time both professionally and personally.
“I did have a day off ,” he says, “and would coach six different softball teams on Wednesdays with 80 girls on the field.”
Bill’s management philosophy was to make sure that people were not assigned tasks they couldn’t accomplish. Instead, he looked to get them into winnable situations, where they would have challenges they could overcome by using their talents.
“The best way to build confidence is success,” he observes. “Something that is difficult can challenge them, but you need to be careful not to go too far.”
Former ESPN EVP Steve Anderson witnessed firsthand Fitts’s impact on the production department: “Any of us who were touched by Bill’s brilliance and leadership owe him a tremendous debt of thanks,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind, Bill Fitts deserves to be in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.”