Michael Weisman sees a different game than most of his network peers. If his ideas seem to be out in left field, it's only because he's sitting in the bleachers. He's first a sports fan, and a little bit of a wide-eyed child, which helps explain why his imagination often runs off the TV screen.
He's the godfather of funk at NBC Sports, willing to gamble on unusual programming and unlikely production. He may be a man of sometimes brilliant, sometimes blurry vision, but he never lacks for innovative thought and creative abandon. If we still have television in the year 2001 -- which is several lifetimes removed from now in network terms -- Weisman just might produce a Super Bowl XXXV broadcast with George Jetson as analyst and MoonCam technology.
Michael Weisman, as executive producer of NBC Sports, just happens to be the most creative force today in network sports television.
For one thing, he has had no real counterpart at the other networks for years: CBS uses different executive producers for each sport, and ABC had no real equivalent to Weisman until naming Dennis Lewin as senior vice president for sports production earlier this year. But it's not just the power of his position that makes Weisman stand out, it's the power of his thoughts.
Weisman, 36, started at NBC in 1971 as a page. He moved to sports as a special assistant to the producer, then associate producer, producer, coordinating producer and finally executive producer in February 1983. In a dozen years, he went from a go-fer to a go-for-it hotshot making several hundred thousand dollars a year and several hundred decisions that affect a nation of sports viewers.
"It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Weisman said. "I was swept up in the growth of TV sports."
But during that growth, it was Weisman who carved out a creative corner in the business. In an industry notorious for reacting to the other guy's success, Weisman has shown consistent first-strike conceptual capabilities: He is reshaping the dying anthology-show genre, that curious network creation highlighting a mishmash of sports. Weisman is turning to single-topic specials: sports fantasies, pro wrestling, great communicators and yes, even sports music videos (twice, regrettably). He's used the Orange Bowl as an experimental laboratory of sorts. He has miked the coaches, miked the captains and miked the officials. He has used a goal-post camera and SkyCam. He has had analyst Bob Trumpy sit in the booth with assistant coaches. In boxing, he shows the time clock on the screen for the entirety of every round and he has pioneered "the corner story," enabling viewers to follow instructions to each fighter between rounds. In baseball, he was the first to have players introduce the teams' lineups before the game, seemingly a cliche nowadays but a move that helped personalize the game. He's trying to distance NBC's NFL pregame show from CBS' "The NFL Today" by using theme shows and live studio audiences. He hired film maker Bob Giraldi to create striking thematic openings to the 1984 World Series and Super Bowl XX. He has given support to a split-screen solution for NBC's World Cup coverage this year in which, if advertisers are willing, three-quarters of the screen will show a commercial while one-quarter of the screen continues to show the soccer match. And he thought of The Blank Minute, proving that an overballyhooed state of nihility can cause a 60-second sensation unmatched in TV programming.
But for all his gimmicks and gambles, Weisman's most enduring signature is following the storyline. Weisman may not be the storyteller that, say, Olympic film maker Bud Greenspan is, but he's added a leaner, more focused touch to game broadcasts. Weisman's celebrated "less is more" effort over the past several years -- in which he encourages his on-air talent to cut back on talk, especially during dramatic moments -- has become commonplace throughout much of the industry.
Whether it's in a pre-telecast production meeting, when NBC's minds determine the directions they will take, or during a game when a certain story develops, Weisman is a master of following the main idea to its conclusion. In doing so, he brings more meaning to the viewer.
Ted Nathanson, an NBC Sports director who insisted Weisman be by his side in the early stages of Weisman's career, said, "He started off just watching the tape machines. If he saw something developing during a game, he'd tell me. That's how he developed a good eye for storyline."
"He's especially good at thinking of things to enliven otherwise mundane broadcasts," said NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "His willingness to take chances is his most enduring characteristic. He seeks out the drama . . . . He has a mercurial creative genius, sure, but also an eye for detail."
Weisman, like most network executives, is bullish in explaining why his people cover the games better. "It's the little things -- the storyline, the emotions, the things away from the ball that make the difference. Coverage is basically the same, but the difference is how we do the subtle things . . . . In football, I remind our announcers at least once a quarter to go back to their opening comments, to the keys of the game."
Weisman, too, is proud of his talent lineup. He said unabashedly, "We don't hire big voices and pretty faces. We hire intelligence." Indeed, his play-by-play performers -- headed by Marv Albert, Dick Enberg, Vin Scully and Costas -- are high quality. NBC's analysts don't rate quite as strongly, but many are boisterous, bizarre personalities -- Ferdie Pacheco (boxing), Lee Trevino (golf), Bud Collins (tennis), Al McGuire (basketball).
Again, it is Weisman's willingness to experiment that results in NBC's hip, flip on-air aura. Costas, for instance, was largely unknown nationally when Weisman made him the host of "NFL '84", and the show follows Costas' light lead. "Throwing me into 'NFL '84' with little experience was another riverboat-gambler move on his part," Costas said.
"I've made my reputation being innovative," Weisman said.
On moving the anthology shows toward single-topic specials, Weisman explained: "It was a change brought on by necessity. Rights fees kept going up. We found that when we did our own specials, we were getting more for our money and giving the viewer a more in-depth show.
"I want to do more of them."
On having baseball players read the lineups, he said: "It was a substitute for a talking head. We started it as entertainment and information. We wanted to use the flakes of baseball, guys like Al Hrabosky and Jay Johnstone, and it caught on."
These all reflect Weisman's underlying philosophy, borrowed from the entertainment world: start strong and leave 'em laughing.
"I'm a strong believer of what leaves the strongest impression is how you come on the air and how you leave the air," Weisman said.
In addition to being an innovator, Weisman is willing to borrow the best ideas from competitors. He'll use ABC's reverse-angle camera and CBS' chalkboard (after John Madden popularized it). But he will put his stamp on the concepts, like telling McGuire "to do some tic-tac-toe on the Telestrator" or having McGuire sign his name at the bottom of the screen after doing a diagram.
Weisman also is known as someone usually willing to admit when he's wrong. After NBC signed off from the 1984 Breeders' Cup before the parimutuel prices were determined for the final race, Weisman apologized and vowed it would not happen again. After NBC started its boxing clock, having the time count up toward the three-minute mark, Weisman switched to having the clock count down toward zero when enough people told him that was the better way.
There is one area in which Weisman's operation lags the most (although he disagrees): journalism. Essentially, Weisman is a fan who largely sees sports as entertainment, and although he says he would love to do a show similar to Howard Cosell's recently canceled ABC "SportsBeat" journal, it doesn't seem likely within the current climate of NBC Sports.
NBC occasionally will touch on the issues, such as "NFL '85" interviewing Commissioner Pete Rozelle or Costas discussing Proposition 48 at halftime of a college game. And the network has men of integrity calling the plays during games, but once beyond the field, NBC Sports simply does not immerse itself in hard-hitting journalism unless an issue becomes so compelling that it demands air time.
As only NBC Sports' third executive producer (after Scotty Connal and Don Ohlmeyer), Weisman reached the pinnacle at a remarkably young age and sometimes has felt restless within his field.
"I was very lucky to be given the opportunity," said Weisman. "I don't worry about burnout, but I sometimes worry about overreacting to the competitiveness in this business. In our business, the risks and rewards are huge, and sometimes a personnel decision I make can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars difference to a career. That breeds tension and competitiveness."
Weisman is frequently asked how long he will stay at the job. Ohlmeyer, for instance, left NBC to start his own production company, branching out beyond sports. Given the nature of working in network television, it's a bit hard to envision Weisman being of sound mind in 2001 as executive producer.
"Sometimes I think about what Ohlmeyer now does," he said. " . . . When I see an awful movie, I do get frustrated. But then I'll see a Spielberg movie. I'll sit there with my mouth hanging open, thinking, 'How did he make E.T. do that?' And I'll say to myself, 'I better stay in sports.' "