Sports Television Production Pioneer, Innovator
No one has likely surpassed Bill Fitts in the scope, depth, firsts and legacies in sports television production. From producing the first Super Bowl to first NFL studio show to daily 24-hour ESPN coverage to SportsCenter to whip-around NCAA basketball games to NFL Draft, X Games and more, Bill pioneered coverage of most every sport with innovation, an eye for on-air talent and inspiring storytelling.
Ever humble, not seeking acclaim, he is most proud of the dozens of protégés peppering the industry. With decades of experience from CBS and NBC, he patiently mentored a band of diverse college grads to help build an American icon in ESPN.
Summary of Production Innovation
Bill Fitts’ television career spanned five plus decades from the earliest days of broadcast television in the1950s and ‘60s to the pioneering of cable television coverage and its major impact.
In broadcast television at CBS and NBC, he was executive producer of five Super Bowls, including the first game, which aired on both CBS and NBC. At CBS, he established regional networks for all NFL teams. He pushed the use of remote feeds, integrating reports from multiple locations; editing just before and during live productions (then done physically by editing tape); and incorporating the use of Iso-cams to better explain the action. He was executive producer of the 1963 Army-Navy game when video instant replay was used for the first time. With the CBS team, he introduced Slo-Motion replays. All these approaches – taken for granted today – were revolutionary at the time.
In addition to winning the only sports Emmy at the time in 1969 with CBS NFL coverage, he conceived and produced The NFL Today show which won a Sports Emmy in its debut season in 1974. He won three Eclipse Awards for CBS’ horse racing coverage. At NBC, he created Grandstand with host Jack Buck and brought in Bryant Gumbel, and he implemented a travel wrap-around unit.
Joining the fledgling ESPN in 1980 against skepticism about cable’s future, Fitts served as the production architect for many of ESPN’s signature programming, including the NFL Draft, flag-to-flag NASCAR races, Top Rank Boxing and “whip-around” coverage of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Unlike the scheduling array of any other network, Fitts formed entire department structures to address the huge volume of programming – from hiring to workflow to policies to production philosophy and training. He found John Colby to compose ESPN’s music themes including the popular SportsCenter “Da-da-da” song and to build ESPN’s music library.
A Coach for Talent Behind-the-Scenes and On-Air
Fitts influenced and mentored dozens of producers and directors, too numerous to name all but including Sandy Grossman, as well as Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff on Sunday Night Football.
Fitts also worked with hundreds of commentators parlaying their skills into suitable roles such as moving Pat Summerall from analyst to play-by-play – the rest is history. He launched Brent Musburger’s career on NFL post-game shows and then NFL Today. He brought Bryant Gumbel to New York for Grandstand. He suggested to Chris Berman that staying on SportsCenter, rather than moving to remote, would reap greater visibility and success.
He ensured women were part of his production and on-air team, to mention a few: in 1975 hiring Phyllis George on CBS’s NFL Today; Gayle Sierens, who later became the first woman to do play-by-play on an NFL game in 1987 on NBC; and Gayle Gardner, the break-through sports newscaster in 1983 on ESPN. Fitts interviewed Gardner at 9 a.m. on a Sunday; asked her if she wanted to give SC at try at noon because someone called in sick; and he hired her after the show.
Fitts continues to draw stellar praise from men and women who benefited from his coaching.
Starting Out in Local TV
Fitts learned his craft from the ground up. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1953 as a multi-sport athlete (providing insights later applied in TV), he began his career as assistant to the program director for WHUM-TV in Reading, Pa. He then spent eight years with WCAU-TV, the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia – a fortuitous opportunity. In addition to production of an extensive local TV schedule, the station originated about 30% of CBS network programming. From stage manager to assistant director, master control supervisor, studio/remote producer/director and finally production & operations director, he would eventually be responsible for production of all live and taped shows as production manager; serve as executive producer of all prime-time specials including election coverage; and create two children’s series.
Broadcast Pioneer in detail
Fitts joined CBS Sports in 1962 and established regional networks for all NFL teams. The concept of a national sports network providing regionalized NFL coverage was unexplored territory, fraught with audio and video peril in the pre-satellite era. He built the infrastructure for what would become the most important day of the week in American televised sports – NFL Sundays.
While at CBS, he served as the executive producer for five Super Bowls, including the first telecast which aired on both CBS and NBC (also II, IV, VI and VIII). For Super Bowl VIII in Houston, he filled the dual role of exec producer and producer.
Bill was the creator of The NFL Today, which became the template for sports pre-game shows. He ultimately served as executive producer of CBS Sports, responsible for all live and videotaped sports programming. This included the NFL, NBA, NHL, motorsports, horse racing, and college sports.
One major step for both Fitts and the coverage of the NFL was a CBS collaboration with a young company called NFL Films. Fitts and his team provided audio techniques and the advice to hire Telra, then producer of NFL highlights. This led to effective elements for the Countdown to Kickoff show hosted by Tom Harmon, featuring on-field demos from the Saturday practices of at least four NFL teams isolating on players not normally seen (linebackers, centers, tight ends, etc.). These helped improve the isolations employed during game telecasts and helped NFL Films develop its approach to live sound, as well as its own isolated approaches.
Another legacy of Countdown to Kickoff was better development of tape editing. At the time, no one thought it possible to make a huge number of edits in three hours from all the remotes. An offshoot of the show was the concept of meaningful production meetings with coaches which led to standard meetings between the broadcast crew and coaches a day or two in advance.
He produced the first of the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973 when Bobby Riggs defeated Grand Slam champion Margaret Court. In 1975, Fitts moved to NBC Sports for three years where he produced the studio show Grandstand which served as the “wrap-around” and host element for all sports programming, a precursor to applications at ESPN. From 1978-1980, he produced nationally syndicated auto racing and football telecasts.
Cable Pioneer – in Detail
In February 1980, Fitts made an unconventional move, joining a new outfit with the unprecedented plan to televise nothing but sports, ESPN. The unlimited hours and creative freedom were irresistible to him.
As senior remote producer (1980-84) and executive producer, remote production (1984-87), he played an integral role in providing the voice of experience with an eye on new approaches, such as flag-to-flag auto racing coverage. Fitts was responsible for producing the first-ever coverage of the NFL Draft in 1980. Some scoffed at televising a Draft but Fitts found knowledgeable people like Mel Kiper and NFL reporters. He knew video was critical to liven the telecast, however, and inconceivable today, highlights of the numerous athletes didn’t exist. Fitts called on college sports information directors to provide footage.
Also in the early ‘80s, Fitts was directly involved in the “electronic cut-ins” for ground-breaking, buzzer-beater coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, harkening back to his use of remote or satellite technology in broadcast TV. He created SportsCenter Plus, eight hours of live studio programming Saturday and Sunday. He led ESPN’s efforts at the multi-sport, multi-venue U.S. Olympic Festival throughout the 1980s. Record-breaking heat in Baton Rouge caused the primary remote truck to catch fire. Personnel begged Fitts “to abandon ship.” He yelled, “Not until the next commercial.”
He played a role in the creation of ESPN’s studio production department, which he led for two years. He defined the duties of the assignment desk and strengthened the cooperation between studio and live remote production.
From 1987 – 1990 he was executive producer, programming, setting up the standards for client-supplied programming. He worked with the many outside production companies, including various motorsports. He created the Saturday morning ESPN Outdoors block of programming. The adoption of standard graphics and animation across the many shows – along with a host for “wrap” segments and providing written critiques to producers – helped elevate outdoors programming to levels of quality and popularity previously unknown. Fitts became the creator of the Great Outdoors Games.
Fitts then served as executive producer, special programming, responsible for overseeing the production development of special projects, including the initial unique look of ESPN2 when it launched in 1993. He provided guidance to everyone from production assistants to associate producers to producers – a role he even often filled himself – because ESPN2’s production approaches were significantly different from ESPN.
Author Jim Miller described Bill Fitts’ ESPN role as “the veteran quarterback of an all-rookie squad that still managed to play proud.”
Retired…but not really!
Although Fitts officially “retired” in 1997, he is not one to stand still. He remained active in numerous ESPN projects, including the X Games and Winter X Games, Great Outdoor Games (2000-2005), the Bassmasters fishing series and annual Bassmaster Classic tournament, reflecting his passion for outdoors activities.
Growing up in Sports
Born October 6, 1931, in Birmingham, Ala., and raised in suburban New York, Fitts is a lifelong sports fan and avid athlete. He credits his experience as an athlete to helping design a production approach for a variety of sports, especially for seldom, if ever, televised ones. At Woodbury Forest School in Orange, Va., and later at F.E. Bellows High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y., he lettered three times as a center and linebacker on the football team, three times as a catcher and right fielder in baseball, and twice in wrestling. At Swarthmore College, he was a four-year letter winner as a linebacker as well as a three-time letter winner in lacrosse and one as a freshman diver on the swim team. He even was a sprinter for one track meet, the final one of his senior year. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1953. Also, during his two years of military service, he remained active in sports as a soccer goalie for a 7th Army team in Germany.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that even today he is training and competing in Dog Agility with his two terriers.