Saturday, April 19, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Tonya and Nancy fallout: too much TV

Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding

ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, DEC. 23 - FILE - In this Feb. 22, 1994, file photo, American figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan, left, and Tonya Harding work out during an Olympic practice session at Hamar Olympic Amphitheater in Hamar, Norway. it's been nearly 20 years since Kerrigan was clubbed after practice in Detroit by a member of a bumbling goon squad hired by Harding's ex-husband with the hope of eliminating his former wife's top competition for the U.S. Olympic team. The assault led to a soap opera that practically created tabloid television journalism, taking what had for decades been a niche sport and putting it squarely into the media mainstream. By the time a recovered Kerrigan and a besieged Harding reached Lillehammer, their saga was front-page news and can't-miss TV. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)

“Skating with the Stars.”

“Battle of the Sexes on Ice.”

“Ice Wars.”

Those made-for-television shows — and plenty others — filled air time as figure skating became must-see-TV following the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal at the 1994 Olympics. Taking note of the incredible ratings from Lillehammer — the apex of the Harding and Kerrigan saga — the networks clamored for more.

With so few true competitions on the schedule — the Grand Prix series wasn’t even around then — TV folks started creating their own. Along with themed shows, there were mixtures of skating and live music, or skating and other sports (gymnastics, most notably).

It was a free-for-all, and some sort of figure skating could be found nearly every night.

“I was producing some of those shows,” 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano said, “but I was also hired as one of the headliners for those. I believe in 1995, we had 13 prime-time network pro competitions. Paul Wylie did all of them. I only did five of them; didn’t have the energy to do more.

“It was full time, nonstop. Networks were buying anything. I remember a rock ‘n roll competition judged by Playboy bunnies.”

Along with so many programs came so much money. Skaters who had to scrounge to make ends meet in their developmental years became millionaires.

That was terrific for them, but it also led to some bad habits. Habits that couldn’t be hidden from the cameras.

“I think we killed the golden goose,” says Tom Collins, who created and ran the Champions On Ice tour for three decades. “With the TV, skating was on too much, there was nothing new that (viewers) were seeing. The skaters were doing so much, the (tour) shows and then TV, they ran out of routines and costumes and they didn’t have the time to do new things.

“They got stuck in a rut.”

Yet TV’s appetite for skating programming was insatiable. That led to the likes of “Too Hot To Skate,” a pair of made-for-television extravaganzas that included competition on a rink outside of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

And the “Great Skate Debate,” in which CBS News imported anchors Harry Smith and Andrea Joyce for an event in Green Bay and then Chicago. Not exactly Packers vs. Bears.

Fox decided it wanted a series of rock ‘n roll shows. CBS lost the NFL and counter-programmed with “Ice Wars.”

“Word went out and ‘Ice Wars’ was rather successful, even on a Wednesday night,” said Rob Dustin, founder of Red Brick Entertainment. “It had Nancy and Oksana (Baiul, who edged Kerrigan for gold at Lillehammer), and Kurt Browning. A lot of household names.

“… Word went out we were looking for more figure skating programming. I don’t think anyone cared if it was competition or shows. Just get it on the air.”

CBS did. So did Fox. And ESPN. And various cable networks.

The ratings were solid. Advertisers and sponsors were happy. It was relatively inexpensive to produce and family oriented. Skaters were exhausted, but thrilled with the attention and the income.

“There was no sense during that point of going overboard,” Dustin says. “All these skaters felt all of a sudden that their talent was being appreciated, and on a larger scale than they reached before, except in the Olympics. I wouldn’t call these silly shows, either. You wanted to look at them as legitimate and we tried to do so, getting real skating aficionados as judges. We were all the same guys who covered the Olympics and were a part of figure skating.”

But the TV bonanza had become too much a part of figure skating. It led to overkill, and by the end of the 1990s, with the exception of Olympic-related events, the spotlight was dimming.

Now it’s a big deal if NBC airs a highlight package of a Grand Prix event.

“I think it comes down to story lines,” Dustin says. “Think about Nancy and Tonya and what unbelievable drama it was. Those story lines got old or went away.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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