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Legends Behind the Lens: Bill Fitts

15/07/2020

Legends Behind the Lens: Bill Fitts The sports television production pioneer shaped the industry for more than half a century By Brandon Costa, Director of Digital

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 12:00 pm

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Story Highlights

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
LINK: https://www.sportsvideo.org/2020/07/15/legends-behind-the-lens-bill-fi...
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