Mixed Signals

Geoff Mason: The Premier ABC/Disney/ESPN Storyteller

4/24/2011 10:44 PM

I always considered Fate to have been pretty good to me, especially when the first “TV” person I met - and worked for — was ABC Sports’ 1972 coordinating summer Olympics producer, Geoff Mason.

The date was August 7, 1972, I was 20 years old, and the place was Munich, West Germany, in a large, warehouse-like facility north of downtown called Barnathan’s Bunglaow, adjacent to the Athletes’ Village in the park called the Olympiade Gelande. I began painting doors across the street in the broadcast center.

Geoffrey MasonThis past weekend was a perfect one to pay tribute to Mason, my first real “boss” in my 40-year telecom experience: Many of Geoff Mason’s shows are about to be aired on ESPN Classic starting Monday, April 25, 2011, as part of a 50-year tribute to the men and women of the show so many of us grew up watching, almost religiously, late on Saturday afternoons across America, appropriately titled ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Geoff and his wife, Chris, now reside full time in Bonita Springs, Florida, while his son, Geoff, Jr., serves as a producer for the NBC News Affiliate Service/NBC Newschannel in Charlotte, NC. At 70 years, Geoff Mason continues to accept projects from his original employer, only his roles and the kind of company ABC is now, have both changed a bit in four plus decades. Today, in his spare time, Mason is also is the webmaster for the ABC Sports Alumni Association website, which he patiently and consistently nurtures on behalf of we scores of web- and technically-challenged website users.

Great Coaching
From a professional point of view, indeed, as his ESPN Hall of Fame bio concludes, he was always just really good at slowing down to walk a newcomer through a new project, or a new production, or a new just about anything. And Mason nearly always did that with some grace and dignity toward those he taught.

My late father, Willy Schaeffler, who also worked often for ABC Sports, used to say, “The difference between a good coach and a great coach is the ability to tell whether to pat the athlete on the back, or to kick him in the butt. The problem being, the two places are so close together.” Using my dad’s metaphor, Geoff was almost always just a real good, perhaps even a great, coach.

Furthermore, perhaps what has endeared me unusually so to Geoff Mason is his ability to openly acknowledge a struggle with addiction, head on, and to use that to help others. I, too, come from a family where a multi-decade addiction did its damage, and that empathy makes me that much closer to Geoff Mason. Again, a great coach takes his life experience and uses that to specially relate to students who will listen.

Saving Storytelling
But I think the thing I like professionally the most about Geoff (revived after a recent update conversation), is his emphasis on storytelling as the key part of what made our old ABC Sports shows - including the many Olympics we worked on together - such great classics of a great American - indeed a great human — culture. Put another way, with so many of those old sports shows, it didn’t matter what country or religion or gender or ethnic background the viewer claimed, even if you needed a translator to get the full set of words, the story always shined through.

For many telecasts today, Geoff Mason believes that sports production teams’ storytelling abilities have waned. In its place, young producers and directors often glued to their laptops instead rely all too heavily, he believes, on the technology, gadgets, and production wiz-bang. Geoff Mason laments that the emphasis on a first rate story and a first rate communication between the production truck and the talent announce booth, and between the production team and the viewer, is the exception to the rule during many modern-day sports productions.

Sums up Mason: “The biggest problem in sports TV today is young producers and directors who can’t develop and can’t work with their on-air talent, because they’re too beset with the [production] bells and whistles. The talent just gets left on its own, and the viewer — and the story — suffers.”

Looking back on Geoff Mason’s TV career, it appears most fitting that there is a direct link between events needing special storytelling skills and those Geoff Mason rates among his favorites, i.e., the 1972 Olympics, the 1989 Earthquake World Series, and the quadrennial America’s Cup sailing races. After all, he is a born and bred East coast Massachusetts sailor, by nature, and the other two events involve such extraordinary acts of men and Nature, to have not told the stories well would have meant a generation would never have properly understood them. That would have added tragedy onto tragedy. More importantly, sometimes as humans, and as storytellers, we just can’t leave that to mere Fate. Nor has Geoff.

Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman and CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based consultancy The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com).

November