SES 2011: Ohlmeyer: All Sports Is Entertainment

Since 1967, few individuals have been more involved in shaping the production of sports and entertainment than Don Ohlmeyer. At SVG’s Sports Entertainment Summit at LA LIVE on Jan. 18, the legendary producer/director delivered a morning keynote address that offered insight into his four decades of trailblazing the production of both sports and entertainment. He began his remarks with an important definition.

“All sports is entertainment,” Ohlmeyer told the sellout crowd of 300 sports-technology professionals. “I think, if you can produce or direct a major live sporting event, you can, with a little bit of adjustment and guidance, produce and direct anything. It is, at its core, the most exciting and exhilarating form of television.”

He discussed the varied paths down which his career has led him, from writing to producing to directing sports, music, television shows, and every combination thereof. From screen size to delivery method to production dimension, he noted the changes he has seen in sports and entertainment production over 40-plus years and mused on what changes might be coming during the careers of the next generation of production professionals.

In Ohlmeyer’s eyes, however, not all of those changes have been for the better. He told a story about the changing immediacy of communication and how that change has affected sports and entertainment programming.

“When we did the Olympics in Munich in 1972, there were no 24-hour news channels,” he explained. “When the massacre occurred, it was totally on the shoulders of ABC Sports to handle what was an incredibly difficult situation.”

He compared the coverage of the 1972 massacre with that of the recent shooting in Tucson, AZ. In Munich, the ABC Sports team knew for two hours that the athletes were dead, but ABC Sports President Roone Arledge would not allow the announcement to be made until the German government had made its announcement, because one of the athletes was from Ohio and ABC Sports was the official news source for that young man’s parents.

“Roone was concerned that we were their connection to what would happen with their son,” Ohlmeyer said. “Roone wouldn’t let us announce it until the German government announced it to make sure that all the information we were getting wasn’t wrong.”

In Tucson, conversely, within minutes after the event, NPR was reporting that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead, and all the other networks picked it up — and were wrong.

“It was a simpler time then,” Ohlmeyer said, “and maybe a better one, when broadcasters showed that kind of concern for people in the audience.”

He touched on happier changes in the sports and entertainment business, from seeing more women in production and engineering roles to smaller cameras and more advanced technology on both sides of the production coin.

“Everybody always wants to know where this business is going, and that’s impossible to predict,” he said. “It’s almost imperative for the people doing the shows to be platform-agnostic. Who knows how your program is going to be distributed in the future? I think all of us need to figure that we’re doing programming. It doesn’t matter how it’s distributed; it will get into people’s homes.”

In that regard, Ohlmeyer said, some of basic production techniques are the most important factor in any production, not the least of which is storytelling.

“Storytelling is really where entertainment and sports meet,” he said. “Story is how the mind deals with the chaos that is life. You have to give people somebody to root for and care about. In a drama series, you’re creating characters that the audience can identify with and empathize with. In a comedy, you are creating characters that the audience can laugh with. The same is true in sports. Truly terrific sports telecasts are those that tell a story and make us care.”

To enhance that storytelling, Ohlmeyer shared a list of 10 thoughts that he tries to keep in mind to create a winning broadcast. Here are some highlights:

  • Good sports television is relevant to the hardcore fan, accessible to the occasional fan, and unpredictable to both, making the telecast enjoyable for all.
  • Everything in a telecast should be motivated by and tied to the game being covered on the field. Preparation and imagination provide the best opportunity to accomplish this.
  • Storytelling is at the core of all telecasts. A telecast must periodically reset the trajectory of the story so that the drama is explicit.

These thoughts apply to both sports and entertainment broadcasts, both of which are complex dances, Ohlmeyer said, “but sports is a dance with the unexpected. Sometimes, it resembles juggling blindfolded, but I do think that there is nothing more gratifying than being part of a great event, whether it’s the MTV Awards or the Super Bowl.”

He left the audience with the same challenge that Arledge used to send his own broadcast troops into battle: “Nobody at home cares what your production and engineering problems are. They just want to see a great telecast, so give it to them.”

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