Last week’s “Mixed Signals” about Peter Jennings at the 1972 Munich Olympics elicited some wonderful critiques, recommendations, and other helpful responses. These included several dialogues from the ABC Sports Alumni Association, which is a group founded by former ABC executives Bob Apter and Geoff Mason, with several hundred members today.
Of particular note were three comments from three former ABC Sports producers and/or directors, i.e., John Wilcox, Doug Wilson, and Jim Jennett. I found them helpful enough to want to restate them here, for the world at large. Indeed, if ever there were to be a Broadcasting University, with a course on “The Olympics,” a couple of fine points from the comments below — and from Geoff Mason, mentioned in a 2011 version of this “Mixed Signals” blog – would be worth considering.
John Wilcox was my first real boss at ABC Sports. He was also an early producer, director, and head of the ABC Sports Films unit, and later the assistant to ABC Sports’ executive producer, Roone Arledge.
Wilcox’s memories of Peter Jennings and the tragedy we experienced are perhaps the most vivid and varied of those below, in part because he worked directly with Mr. Jennings throughout the Munich Games.
Roone Arledge’s selection of Peter Jennings as the ABC Sports Munich Olympics “news” correspondent couldn’t have been a better choice, considering what happened, notes Wilcox. This was possibly luck, but more likely Arledge’s realization that the Olympics actually transcend a mere sports event in its importance to people. At some point, the Olympics become both sports and news.
Once in the hot seat of the story that became the terrorists’ capturing and killing of the Israelis, “Peter was as cool as a cucumber, and totally informative and aware of Black September,” Wilcox recalls. Yet, at the same time — and here’s that lesson for every reporter, present and future - Peter Jennings was also strikingly prudent and cautious. Wilcox’s example was a single report that came into ABC, suggesting that the Munch terrorists were planning on strapping dynamite to the hostages; Jennings would not put that on air without a second confirmation.
But perhaps most fascinating, even today, were memories of the German government and German police representative, Manfred Schreiber. Schreiber confirmed in later interviews what Jennings already recognized, which was that the 8 terrorists were certainly not amateurs. “From the beginning, Peter pointed out to everyone just how professional these gunmen were,” Wilcox recalls.
Following an on-camera interview with Manfred Schreiber in the ABC Sports broadcast studio, in the morning of September 6, 1972, Jennings and Wilcox had a chance to do that extra reporter follow-up, post-interview, and thus obtained one of the most critical pieces of news at that point. In response to a question about the involvement of the Israeli government in the September 5 planning for how to deal with the kidnapping crisis, Mr. Schreiber confirmed that the Israeli’s were certainly involved. Asked in follow-up if the Germans were told what to do by the Israelis, Schreiber answered, “No, but we followed their advise.”
Wilcox further recalls in the days following, Israeli premier Golda Meir was asked of this involvement. Her first response was to deny, but later she confirmed, direct Israeli participation. “The big thing was that a decision was made that the terrorists were not going to leave Germany. Second was that the Germans were not going to respond inside the Village. And third, they didn’t know how many terrorists there were. It wasn’t until the airport that they finally had a count,” Wilcox summarized.
Doug Wilson, whose truest Olympic broadcast sports expertise was in figure skating (and an occasional opening and closing ceremonies), worked at ABC Sports for FIFTY years (yes, half a century!), from 1958-2008. Indeed, Wilson is currently scribing a book about his ABC Sports days, due to publish in 2013.
What Mr. Wilson recalls most fondly about Peter Jennings — coming down from Canada “…as a kid trying to be a mid-afternoon news reporter in a slot following ABC Sports’ Wide World of Sports” — was Peter’s “…being very much a regular guy, but at the same time being extraordinary.” As an example, Wilson cherishes the memory of Peter Jennings regularly joining those in the ABC employee dining room at HQs on 66th Street in NYC, rather than heading to the top of the building and the “top executives’” dining room, where most would have expected to see Jennings.
Wilson fondly recalls Peter Jennings’ penchant toward being severely self-critical, and very concerned, when he did not absolutely understand a topic he was chosen to cover. “Peter was very dedicated to the idea that what he said had value and was correct,” adds Wilson. Yet, in Munich, the opposite was true. For there, Jennings was on his firmest ground, as an absolute expert on Middle East dynamics. This today is a good one of many reasons why the Munich Games had such an impact on the people of America.
Flashing forward to the XXI Summer Olympics in Montreal, Wilson recalled a related example of Jennings’ professionalism. “ABC Sports’ film unit manager, Toni Brown, received a call, and then turned it over immediately to Peter, who was in the room at the time. It was some kook talking about how he was planning to kill Dick Fosbury, the high jumper. Peter found out the threat was bogus, right then and there, and diffused what otherwise might have been another Olympic tragedy.”
Adding one more, short tale of Jennings and the Olympics, Doug Wilson recalled a time in Calgary, during the 1988 Winter Olympics, when a final shot of a full moon over Calgary was superimposed over a shot of skater Dorothy Hamill. It was a shot that took a lot of effort, and some heroics, on the part of one of Wilson’s closing ceremonies camera crews, and although not entirely “true” (because it was superimposed after the fact), it still presented Calgary and her Olympics in a stunning light. Back at the hotel that evening, meeting by chance at the front desk, Wilson will never forget the glow in Peter’s eyes and his simple appreciation, “I want to thank you for that Canadian moon, Doug.” (Wilson never had the heart to admit to Jennings that the moon part was pre-recorded, and not quite 100% authentic).
Jim Jennett nearly rivals Doug Wilson for ABC Sports longevity record, having served as a producer and director for over 40 years, from 1967-2008. Jennett also did his fair share of producing and directing Olympic ceremonies, and still works for ESPN today.
Joining Jennett in the broadcast booth for the L.A. Games’ opening ceremonies again was Peter Jennings. Recollects Jennett, “No matter what the Olympics, Peter always added a whole ‘nother view beyond our ‘normal’ sports perspective. He saw things we didn’t see.”
And although not Munich, the example remains a great one for future producers and directors in training: “During rehearsal, Peter pointed out that the world video shot was too wide.” “Too wide,” in this case, meant that there were not enough separate shots of the colors and splendor of specific U.S. and other athletes. Moreover, as the host U.S. Olympics broadcaster has learned repeatedly many times since, that is what Americans want to see in their U.S. Olympic broadcasts.
Summarizes Jennett, “Peter’s international personality was perfect for our Olympics. It wasn’t bad for great news, either.”
Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman and CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based telecom consultancy The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com).