FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
TRANSCRIPT: CONFERENCE CALL WITH JOHNNY WEIR, TARA LIPINSKI, TERRY GANNON & JIM BELL
DAN MASONSON: Good afternoon everybody, and welcome to today’s conference call. We are joined today by NBC’s Executive Producer, Jim Bell, and our new lead figure skating team of Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski, and Terry Gannon.
The trio will make its fall debut this Sunday at 4 pm Eastern on NBC, for a two hour telecast of Skate America from Chicago.
We’ll begin with some opening remarks from our speakers, before taking your questions. With that, we will begin with Jim Bell.
JIM BELL: Thanks everybody. Good afternoon, and appreciate you spending time with us. I’ll be brief so we can get to your questions. Obviously a great day for us and NBC to be able to launch officially this team moving forward. We have a lot of Olympics under our belts here, and we’ve got many more ahead.
We think this team is authentic, entertaining, fun, fresh. They put in some of the longest hours anyone has ever put in at an Olympics. It’s the first time any team has ever called every single figure skating at the Olympic Games. And I’m telling you, these guys, not only did they never flinch at the long hours and the endless amounts of homework trying to dig out factoids about obscure skaters, but they actually wanted more.
They obviously have a great chemistry together. You’ve seen some of their presence on social media, how they just seem to sort of naturally work and play in that world, as well as being really smart, really great commentators.
And with that, I will give it back to Dan.
DAN MASONSON: We’ll take comments from our new team. Tara, do you want to go first?
TARA LIPINSKI: Sure. Today is such a great day for me, I’ve just been smiling. We were at the TODAY Show this morning and being there with Johnny, it was just a very surreal moment. Because I don’t think we really expected this to happen in Sochi, and we just had a great time and we wanted to bring skating to a new generation of fans. And hopefully we are doing that and we will continue down that road.
It’s just an honor to be part of the NBC family and to have my co pilots with me, Terry Gannon and Johnny. And really couldn’t be a better team.
JOHNNY WEIR: Hi, everyone, good afternoon. Thank you for spending this time with us.
This is so surreal. At the beginning of all of this last year, which was my first season covering figure skating, and of course my first Olympics in Sochi, my main objective was to reinvigorate the public. The people that sit on the couch and watch this sport and applaud these skaters and re-entertain them to the fact that figure skating is an amazing, beautiful sport.
And with Tara and Terry Gannon, and in Sochi, I think we really accomplished that. We were able to teach people, let them enjoy the skating and we with were able to have fun in the process.
I couldn’t be prouder of this team. And of course of the support of Jim Bell and NBC, and we’re so proud and so honored and so happy. And I could throw so many superlative words around to describe it. It’s absolutely a dream come true, and we can’t wait to get to work.
DAN MASONSON: Thanks Johnny. Terry?
TERRY GANNON: I can’t top the superlatives, but here’s my thought, after Sochi I had the good fortune to work another sport and event, and I’m wondering where I had more fun doing an event, and I could not come up with one. To go to work every day with those two, who are unpredictable, I never knew what was going to come next, that was part of the magic and part of the fun.
They think about figure skating, I believe, on a different level than most, and different than each other. And they also feel it. It touches them. And they were reactive, and we all were in the moment. And we went into it with no grand plan other than to do the best-darned show we could do every day and it was authentic, and that’s what we plan to do from this point forward, as well.
I can’t wait to have loads of fun with these guys.
This question is for Jim Bell. Jim, can you give me a sense of how you envision the Scott Hamilton contributor role at both upcoming figure skating events as well as specifically the Olympics?
JIM BELL: Sure. I think that given the amount of coverage that we do, not just competition, but the way the entire company gets behind the Olympics, there is no shortage of need for someone of Scott’s experience and stature to talk about the sport, whether it’s popping up in the late night show with Bob Costas, making an appearance on the TODAY Show or Access Hollywood for our affiliates. So I think the senior statesman, if you will, we’ll be able to keep Scott very busy.
Tara and Johnny, you were at the Kentucky Derby, and that was clearly something you enjoy. I remember when I talked to you a couple of months ago you said there were things you would love to do given the opportunity away from figure skating when it comes to sports broadcasting. Does this deal, or even forgetting about this deal, have you discussed with your NBC Sports bosses appearing on other things other than figure skating?
JOHNNY WEIR: Certainly we have grand plans and we have big dreams. But you have to crawl before you can walk. And I think Tara and I are both kind of in that position. We’d love covering as many things in the sports and entertainment world as we can.
The Kentucky Derby was so fun to us. But first for us is figure skating and gearing up for the next Winter Olympics and helping people get behind their skaters, to get behind their favorites, to get behind the new stars in the sports because we’re starting a new rotation right now. And it’s a very exciting time because we’ll see new faces challenging sort of the old guard.
Aside from that, of course, sitting down with NBC, our work family, we’ve discussed other things that we’d like to do. But for us first and foremost is figure skating and once we get that rolling then we can really delve into the other aspects of the sporting world.
TARA LIPINSKI: I agree with Johnny. I think any additional events are just icing on the cake.
And for the Kentucky Derby when we were there, it was so much fun, obviously it wasn’t our world, it wasn’t figure skating, it wasn’t the Olympics, we were sort of fish out of water. But at the same time I think we both felt very comfortable and had a great time working on it.
So for me, and I’m sure I can speak for Johnny, we would be excited to cover other events. But our main goal is to really bring figure skating to a new generation.
I want to ask both of you how outrageous do you think you can get in the commentary, considering that much of what you did in Sochi was greeted so warmly back home and a lot of it was a little bit outside the box, if you want?
TARA LIPINSKI: It’s funny, Johnny and I talked about this. And I never really think that what we say is that outrageous. But maybe it is. I think for us, you know, we take skating very seriously, but at the same time you really want to be real about what the sport is. And it has flaws and it has all of these other amazing attributes to it. But if you call it as you see it, I think that’s what the audience likes. And Johnny and I just have to keep on that path.
JOHNNY WEIR: Yes, I agree. I think Tara and I are both in our own rights established public figures. And I think when the two of us get together of course we enjoy our time and we love our time with Mr. Gannon. And we absolutely just cherish this opportunity to bring figure skating to people.
And when we talk it’s more of a conversation between us and the audience. And I think that when you are greeting people, when you’re talking to people, just in your day to day life, you have to be real with them. You have to be authentic.
And I think we take that into our commentary, as well, because we’re not trying to talk above people, we’re not trying to talk down to them we like to talk directly at them, in terms of how they’ll understand and see the sport the way that we see it or the way that we’ve lived it. And I don’t think there’s anything outrageous about that at all.
Tara and Johnny, somewhat related to the question just asked, as grueling as your hours were at the last Olympics you did have the kind of freedom of time to have some fun with it and get into things. Do you think it will be a challenge to translate in what you did to that format to the more restricted time of a prime time telecast, and only the top skaters and some often on tape, do you think it will be a different vibe or do you think you can maintain that in kind of a new world?
TARA LIPINSKI: At first you know what I was thinking about the upcoming season and obviously the Olympics, what it would be like, and in this different form. I was a little concerned, because having that live venue to be able to just speak and chat and converse, it was so much fun.
But after speaking with Johnny and Terry I think if we’re on air and we have two minutes of air time, we’re going to do exactly the same thing we did with those two minutes of air time that we did in Sochi with a live broadcast. It really just brings it all back to the same thing, of just keeping that authentic conversation flowing.
JOHNNY WEIR: And I agree 100 percent. Give us one minute or give us an hour, we’re going to be up the entire time. And that’s what people have responded to, people in and out of the figure skating world and that’s what we’re going to continue to be. That’s all we can do.
Who do you both emulate in the world of sports broadcasting, are there people that you’ve looked up to?
TARA LIPINSKI: For me, most definitely. I think Dick Button and Scott Hamilton fall into that category, just looking at what Scott and Sandra and Tom have done, those are pretty big shoes to fill. And hopefully we can do them proud.
When I first started commentating a few years back, I went back and looked at all these tapes. And listening to Dick and listening to Scott, they have these iconic voices and sayings and things that you as a viewer really resonate and mean so much. And I definitely look up to them and hope to bring some of those same things to this audience now.
JOHNNY WEIR: For me it’s 100 percent Kim Kardashian. No, really, looking backwards there’s so many iconic voices that enveloped sports, and they take you back into a place and time when you first heard their voice. And Dick Button has been a wonderful mentor to me and has been so supportive of me as a commentator and as a skater. And I just so admire the things that they brought to figure skating when he was commentating.
And when I first became acquainted with figure skating as a little boy in rural Pennsylvania, and the voice that stuck out to me the most, and it was sorry, guys, it was on CBS at the time, it was 1994, and Vern Lundquist, whose voice and his presence over the air so impressed me. And every time I look at figure skating I almost I can almost hear his voice.
These voices help create the moments for people. And I hope that Tara and I and Mr. Gannon can really make that for somebody watching in rural Pennsylvania that remembers that moment when that little girl won the Olympics, and it was our voices.
Do you guys have a favorite sports movie? There’s been so many great ice skating movies, are there any that really inspired you?
JOHNNY WEIR: For me there was a made for TV Canadian film, again I throw it back to rural Pennsylvania, we had one video shop in our town and one traffic light. And there was one ice skating movie that our video shop had, and it was this made for TV moved called Blades of Courage. And it was really over the top. And it focused on a lot of craziness that happened in the figure skating world. The star character’s name was Lori Laroche, and she was just trying for the triple. And it made me and I will never forget it. And it is by far my favorite skating movie.
TARA LIPINSKI: I’ve never seen this, Johnny.
JOHNNY WEIR: I have it on VHS. If you can find a VHS player I will show it to you.
TARA LIPINSKI: Okay. We’ll watch it together. I would say mine is The Miracle. Watching the hockey team I cry every time. But, I don’t know, I love sports movies in general. So it’s going to be hard to pick one.
TERRY GANNON: When you guys watch that movie, just let us know, because we’d like to watch your faces when you look at it. All three of us will do commentary watching.
Johnny and Tara, if each of you could take a turn and look at the story line, just Skate America, I want to get your thoughts on the men’s field with Jeremy Abbott Jason Brown going against Tatsuki Machida and Denis Ten, and then Tara with Gracie Gold, kind of coming off that so-so performance in her season debut going against, I guess, the young Russian.
TARA LIPINSKI: I’ll take the ladies, Johnny.
JOHNNY WEIR: I feel we can both touch on both.
TARA LIPINSKI: Yeah, I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what Gracie brings this year. I know she’s had sort of a rough off season this summer, maybe some growing pains, and just troubles with her consistency.
But obviously she is the top American to beat. And coming into this event of Skate America there’s no reason she shouldn’t walk away with the gold.
But what’s going to be really fun is to see the little Russian. We say that every year because there’s a new little Russian. But this one is really, really good. Elena. We saw her at the exhibition in Sochi and I remember nudging Johnny, because it’s the first time I had ever seen her skate live and I thought oh, my goodness, this is going to be the girl to watch. She has this fire and she’s consistent. And it’s going to be hard, obviously, as she gross into her body. She’s very limby. She has this little deer look with she’s out on the ice. I don’t know, I think she’s so consistent that she could possibly take away the gold.
And then for the men, I’ll touch on them. What I find interesting, I was just looking over articles is Jason Brown, because he was sort of the underdog this last season. We went to the Olympics, he had a good time. But I feel among the judges no one has really taken him that seriously as a technical threat to other skaters, because the quad is what everyone is looking for. But I know that he’s worked very hard this summer and he’s coming back with a new program. He’s not coming out with another Riverdance. I think he’s really trying to mature and grow as an artist and athlete. So I think he’s definitely one to watch.
And Jeremy this is so interesting to me, just because he’s had such a long dramatic career with so many ups and downs. And obviously he didn’t have his best performances at the Olympics, and he said he was always going to retire at that point, and then going into the Worlds he had the best free skate of his life.
And I find it very endearing and charming just the way that he’s looking at the rest of his career. And he just really wants to do it for himself. And I wonder how that will change his performance and how he changes as a competitor with a new outlook.
JOHNNY WEIR: For me, I think that the men’s competition is going to be very interesting, because my personal favorite of the field is Machida. He is so strong technically, he’s growing as an artist. He really does something interesting every time he’s on the ice. And Tara and I kind of clapped along with him last year with Fire Bird. We absolutely loved every time he was on the ice.
Jeremy, I’m excited with what he comes out with. I’m not sure I’m not quite sure, since he’s been unseen so far this season, what his condition will be. It’s hard to go up after the Olympics.
But Jason Brown we have already seen this season and he was very strong, winning the No. 1 trophy in Germany earlier this year. And he was very strong. Something that will be interesting to see is if he includes the quad in the competition. I think that’s important for him to kind of grab the reins, so to speak, of the leading man, four years out from PyeongChang.
On the lady side I actually just got back yesterday from Moscow and while I was over there I met with several of the coaching team of Adlina Stonikova, the young Russian skater. And they said she’s on fire. Her practices are so strong. She’s so emotional. But there are times that even she was just in tears in practice from a good performance. And I think that says a lot to me as a skater, just that your heart is so in it like that. So I’m really excited with what she comes up with.
Gracie Gold was a little disappointing in her season debut at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany. And I’m hoping that she has her conditioning, her shape a little bit more in form since we’ve seen her there. And she’s a challenge for that title.
TERRY GANNON: What do you guys think of skating to lyrics?
JOHNNY WEIR: I’m terrified of lyrics. I’m terrified that somebody picked a terrible song and we’re going to have to listen to it for the whole season. But on the flip side I think lyrics is going to be helpful to maybe a skater that isn’t that artistic or needs that sort of lift in musicality. Somebody that comes to mind is Max Aaron, former U.S. champion in the men’s division. He is using lyrics this year, and I think they really helped him at a smaller international competition this summer because he isn’t known an artist, he isn’t known as a fluid or elegant skater. So the lyrics actually help him deliver a stronger performance.
Who knows what we’re going to see. People from all over the world trying to choose a song with lyrics, that will please judges from all over the world I think it’s the devil’s playground.
TARA LIPINSKI: I think we’re not going to hear Beyonce anytime soon. But I was speaking with some of the skaters this summer, when they were deciding what they were going to choose for their music and whether or not to add the lyrics. Everyone seems scared. They don’t want to be the first to do it. They don’t want to take the risk. I’m not sure how much we’ll see of programs that are included that have the lyrics included.
But my biggest concern just from what I’ve seen from a new of the competitions that I’ve already gone on this year, I feel like they’ve added this new rule to sort of update the sport, to maybe bring in a wider audience, to really get into the program and feel the program and obviously lyrics can provide that.
But because everyone is being so safe they’re choosing very classical pieces where they’re adding the lyrics, and you have to be careful because you don’t want it to come off cheese or gimmicky. It’s a fine line there.
Terry, I know you’ve done a wide variety of sports across your career here. And I wanted to have kind of your take on working with the Tara and Johnny, now you’ve had perspective and looking back on Sochi and their personality and their approach, and your approach when you entered the booth and called the action.
TERRY GANNON: You know, no matter what the sports is, in terms of an analyst there are some qualities that do run through football, basketball, golf, figure skating. It starts with doing your homework. Hard work is a given.
But once you do sit down, and the red light goes on, the cameras go on, you’ve got to be able to react in an authentic way and give your opinion and not care, on some level, what people think. It’s your honest opinion in the moment. And both Tara and Johnny do that. And that’s part of the reason Sochi was so much fun.
Yes, we had long hours, but every time we’d come back from commercial break I wasn’t quite sure how they would view a certain performance and what they were thinking. I loved that as a play-by-play man. And I loved playing the point guard, the facilitator, to bring out whatever might be on their minds.
So when you look ahead now to what we’re about to do, no matter what they do, as long as they keep that approach and that way to view their roles, they’re going to be great. And we’re going to be great together. We’re going to have a heck of a lot of fun. And I think they bring that night in and night out, did certainly in Sochi.
I wanted to ask you, Tara and Johnny, about kind of alluding back to the question about Dick Button and Scott Hamilton commentating in the past, do you recall any times where they made comments about you and what that impact was, what you remember, maybe your first time when you were on TV as a skater. And to follow that, how much you know that impacts the skaters now, with you in the booth?
TARA LIPINSKI: For me, it was big. I just know that I will be forever scared from the layback. I will never look at my layback as it was ever good enough ever. There was not one layback, not one, that he ever said was okay. And I actually loved that. Because now it’s such a great inside joke between the two of us.
But looking back, Scott Hamilton, Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, Sandra Bezic, they have such an impact not only on the audience listening, but on the skaters. Obviously I have such deep respect for all of them.
But when I go to the event they’re almost like your parents, you want to make them proud, because they’re going to give you honest criticism. You want to please them. And they also give you I would always go home and listen to the broadcast and hear what they had to say. And even if I kind of was like, oh, I don’t know about that, the next day at the rink there I was. And I was concentrating on that specific move or that specific jump spin that they were looking at. So I feel that they can make such an impact on not only the audience, but the skater.
JOHNNY WEIR: For me, I totally agree. There were moments throughout my career when I would have listened or watched one of my performances and heard what they were saying about me. And whether good or bad I would consciously know the next day that the next time I was on television performing for these commentators that I would either have to up my game or repeat something that they found intriguing or loveable. I’ve been called a gazelle by Dick Button. I’ve been referred to as delicate. Dick Button was really ahead of the jump. I have to really be creative to outdo some of the things that he’s created throughout his career. The layback is an example. As Tara said, I will be forever changed and I’ll forever be a critic of the layback because of Dick Button.
And I constantly took their criticism into my heart, that I could improve the next telecast. Because it’s important that the people talking about you like what you’re doing. But as commentators we have a responsibility to teach people what they’re seeing and what that actually means. These aren’t people that necessarily know the difference between a triple and a quad. And how that takes its toll on your body. So we have that responsibility to inform while giving an opinion and critiquing the way the judges might be. It can be a bit of a hairy position to be in, because you can be harsh, because you have to be in that moment or you have to call it like you see it.
I look through my whole career, and luckily I didn’t have any concerns that rose up against any commentators that I talked to. But we want to be skaters friends, we want to be their voice, because they’re out there skating, and we hope they’re out there they’re talking to their audience. And the way we do that is our voices.
TERRY GANNON: Johnny and Tara, I was sitting next to Dick when he said those things about you. It was all said out of love.
TARA LIPINSKI: I’m sure it was.
I know you packed quite a few suitcases to Sochi and Skate America will only be a weekend but not several weeks. How many outfits do you have planned, how many bags are you packing?
TARA LIPINSKI: I was texting Johnny, this is already a problem, because at least in Sochi, when people would look at us like we were nuts, we were like, oh, we’ve been here three weeks, or a month, of course we need all this. We are going for four days and I have two suitcases. This is obviously a problem.
JOHNNY WEIR: We raised the game for ourselves. So we now have to overpack. I have been I was in Russia for two weeks until yesterday and now I’m in New York doing all sorts of things, and then we go straight to Chicago. And then I come back and then I have of course stuff to do. I’m not going to be home for a while. I have three giant suitcases on me, plus a little roller carry on and then my purse. So we really should have thought about this when we did Sochi, because now
TARA LIPINSKI: I know.
TERRY GANNON: I’ve got a carryon for this weekend.
TARA LIPINSKI: We’ll find something to match.
Johnny, not that many years ago you were perceived, I think, of something of an outspoken black sheep in the figure skating world. I’m wondering how it feels to have reached this new milestone and what it says about the sport of figure skating at this point in time?
JOHNNY WEIR: Oh, don’t get the wrong impression, I’m still an outspoken black sheep. But that’s always been my cross to bare. And I skated competitively and lived my way through the figure skating world as authentically as I could. And I’ve always spoken my mind. I’ve never really battened down the hatches and done things just because I was told to. Life’s too short for that.
And I’m so honored that America and NBC has supported me through this amazing journey. And that my voice and my critiques are relative. I think that’s a wonderful thing. But I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of the flock. I think I would be a terrible commentator should I be.
A little bit off the beaten path question for Johnny and Tara. Recently it was proposed that synchronized skating be is considered for the 2018 games. Do you think that would be a popular thing with viewers, and do you think logistically it would work with the number of people that would be involved?
TARA LIPINSKI: If it has eye sequins, glitter, Johnny, I think we could make it work.
JOHNNY WEIR: Tara and I would have to study a bit. That’s basically like having us on water polo, as well.
But people in Summer Olympics have enjoyed the team events for years. People really got behind the figure skating team events this year because it gives you the opportunity to really root for your country in a big way. And I think synchronized skating is a beautiful art form. It’s a wonderful way for people that have the will and have the gift of skating to skate in a team atmosphere every day.
When I’ve skated in shows or seen synchronized skating practiced or competed in front of me, it’s an incredible thing. So I would definitely not be mad at including synchronized skating in the Olympics, I think it would be wonderful and heart sparkling.
TARA LIPINSKI: Johnny, I feel like we should just try it just to prove how hard it actually is.
JOHNNY WEIR: I totally agree, and I want Tara to Terry to skate with us.
TARA LIPINSKI: Terry, of course.
TERRY GANNON: I’m there.