October 16, 2010

Interview With Steve Lansky, HNIC's Youngest Producer

Today I have the great honour to share with you my interview with Steve Lansky, former television producer with Hockey Night In Canada and Roger's SportsNet. Steve was the youngest producer in Hockey Night In Canada history, hired at the age of 21. He now has his own website - Big Mouth Sports.com . He can also be followed on Twitter @bigmouthsports

What years did you serve as producer of HNIC?

I produced HNIC from 1983 - 88. Initially, living and working in Calgary, then moving to Toronto in the summer of 1987.

You were the youngest producer in Hockey Night in Canada history. How tough was it be breaking in at Hockey Night In Canada at that age?

Breaking in with HNIC, frankly, was a no-win situation. I worked as a booth statistician for Tim Dancy and Gary Dornhoefer on ITV in Edmonton in April 1983. In December 1983, I walked into the rink, with the same production and technical crews, as the ITV show's producer. There were a large handful of people who were never, ever going to be able to accept the fact that a 22-year old kid was going to provide guidance to our telecasts. I knew more about hockey than anyone on that crew. I knew less about television production than everyone. And I knew less about handling crews and personalities than probably anyone on the planet. Frankly, if I was put into that situation again, knowing what I know now...it's still a no-win. I tried my level best every single day, but some folks simply were not going to buy into the program. And that's the nicest, most diplomatic way I can put that sentiment.

What do you think of HNIC's progression over the years?

The answer to that question could be a college thesis. I wouldn't even know where to begin to answer it. Technologically, it advances by leaps and bounds on a regular basis. Because CBC has lots of $$, they are never limited. If they can dream it, they can do it. In short, their problem is that they don't dream it. They just continue to go through the motions year after year.

How is better? How is it worse?

It's better now because HNIC has a much, much, much deeper on-air pool than years ago. We had ten qualified on-air guys. Today, they probably have 25 or 30. It allows them to engage in much bigger, in-depth on-air conversations and debates than we were able to. Years ago, the only people who produced HNIC were "hockey people." We all lived, breathed, ate, slept and dreamed hockey. That's when HNIC was run by Canadian Sports Network, for CBC. Today, CBC handles the production, but the people involved are not exclusively hockey people. That shows. It shows every single night. It does not allow the show to be as great as it can be.

What are the biggest issues facing HNIC?

The biggest challenge any ongoing sports production faces is getting better. That does not mean more cameras...or more this or more that...or HD...or 3D. It means getting better. Giving the viewer more of what the viewer wants/needs to see. Some guys, like Jim Hughson and Ron MacLean, always seemed to understand that. But being able to do that for viewers is a top to bottom mentality that starts with exec. producers and in-truck producers. That's why having "hockey" guys in those positions is critical to success and improvement.

What is HNIC doing right?

HNIC does lots of things right...and they are all based on ideas and concepts that were pioneered years and years ago. But the absolute golden condition for HNIC is that their viewership understands the game completely. They don't have to start the discussion on the bottom rung of the ladder. They can pick it up halfway up and viewers get it. Years ago, before cost-effective technology existed, we desperately wanted to have Dave Hodge in a neutral studio ~ rather than stuck in an arena. Now, they can do that and having Ron at CBC HQ gives them an incredible number of benefits and options. He's not distracted by what's happening in the rink, and he can host a great show.

How has Don Cherry's evolution compare from now and then?

Don Cherry has done a lot of things over the years...but "evolving" is not one of them. His act is exactly the same. Oh, he's more bombastic now. Louder. Way more confident. But he's still the same horse in the race. His act has worn thinner than anyone in television...ever. And CBC has done absolutely nothing to help Don advance his work. I think that's a true shame. He knows the game extremely well, but his presentation method is inhibiting any growth or expansion. Shame.

You do a lot of writing nowadays. Is there any chance you'll write a book like Ralph Mellanby? What did you think of Mellanby's book(s)?

Ralph put a photo of me in each book...so I love them! LOL If I don't write a book, I'll be very disappointed. While I produced HNIC, I kept a journal...so I have a pretty good day-by-day record of my entire tenture there. I have written a lot of stories down already. Not sure when it'll all come together. If you know Ralph, his books were him on paper. We all have massive egos. If we didn't, there's no way we could sit in the big HNIC chair. Ralph's may be the biggest of us all!

Lastly, what are some of your biggest hockey/sports memories from your unique vantage point?

I produced the show during what was, arguably, the most exciting era in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers were the kings of the hill, and I was a personal friend of Glen Sather's. I may still be the biggest Edmonton Oilers' fan on earth. I probably saw Wayne Gretzky play about 600 NHL games in person. But I lived in Calgary and spent a ton of time with Bob Johnson and his Calgary Flames. I guess my absolute greatest memory would either be the night the Oilers won their first Cup ~ May 19, 1984...or having the good fortune to produce the game in which Paul Coffey broke Bobby Orr's record for goals in one season by a defenceman. But I have a million great memories...and they'll all be in the book!

You were hired at the age of 22, the youngest producer ever at Hockey Night in Canada. Who gave you your break at Hockey Night In Canada? 
Actually, I was hired when I was just 21. I produced my first game eight days after my 22nd birthday. I was given extremely generous breaks by three specific people. Edmonton Oilers' head coach Glen Sather (who lived about three doors down the street from my family), during the summer of 1979, suggested I might be a good fit as the Oilers' team statistician as they entered the NHL. Needless to say, I took the job. Then, when I was working with the Oilers, a wonderful lady named Elaine Ell (who was the Oilers' assistant PR director) suggested my services to HNIC as a statistician in the broadcast booth. Being able to do that Oilers' job for four years got my work ethic known to the HNIC producers. Then, one day at a game, that night's producer, John Shannon (yes, the same John Shannon currently on-air at Rogers Sportsnet) told me there was a position open at their HNIC Calgary office. I applied and John, with a gesture I truly appreciate to this day, took a leap and hired a young, enthusiastic kid.

For most of fans, sports, especially hockey, is a television experience first and foremost. How can we better improve the presentation of hockey games, so that the speed and intensity is better captured? 
Television slows every sport down. If you have ever been to an IndyCar or F-1 race in person, you know it is absolutely nothing like it appears on television. Football is harder hitting in person. Basketball players are much taller in person. And hockey is much, much faster and skilled in person. If you look at an old kinescope from the mid-1960s, speed and intensity portrayal are not even a small part of the equation. Over those forty years, the game has come miles on TV. The sound is exponentially better. Low camera angles can portray the speed and intensity...but it's impossible to cover an entire game from down low. I think one way to ratchet up the heat would be to simply mic a handful of players every game. But the mics would have to be used live...and you know the language problems that would cause. I also think a hurdle is simply getting game producers to understand sports truisms. One is that a game-speed replay (rather than slo-mo) is always a fan favourite. You have to pick your spots, but more of those would convey the speed to the fans. One of the things I find tough to watch these days is how few new things are tried by today's producers. If you don't try it, there's no way to know if will be appealing to the viewer.

In 1998 you were instrumental in the start up of Rogers Sportsnet. How difficult was it to start a sports channel right from the ground up? 
I would not say I was instrumental. I was a contributor...one of about 40-or-so on the production side. When CTV Sportsnet (as it was known then) launched, we were hammered with the idea that we had to "beat TSN." To this day, I'm still not sure what "beat" meant. I was one of the few production guys with experience that Sportsnet hired. A lot of our production staff was very young, very inexperienced. It was very, very challenging to guide them, plus produce a network-worthy telecast. I have always been, and had instilled in me by people like John Shannon, a producer who aims very, very high in terms of quality. I found that to be a tough thing to dovetail with the youngish folks who populated Sportsnet's studio. That includes on-air talent. I think we did a great job over the five years I was there, especially when, in 2002, we bested TSN on numbers drawn on NHL Trade Deadline Day. That was an extremely gratifying day.

Do you think the decision to provide regional channels as opposed to one main network paid off?
Regional channels are always a win-win for the viewer. One of the biggest challenges national networks constantly face is "How do we appeal to both the grandmother on Vancouver Island and the ski-lift operator in Quebec City?" With regional networks, problem solved. They show your team first, all the time. Perfect. It's everything a sports' fan could ask for.

We've HD and 3D, hopefully soon complete internet integration. What is the future of sports television?
I think television should be very, very careful about how strongly it pushes the internet integration factor. Frankly, if the telecasts and producers are doing their jobs, the viewer should not want to be tweeting and watching alternate camera angles, etc. during the game. Fans want to see hockey action. Period. But, all that being said, network production teams must never, ever stop asking, "What if we do this?" Or "Do you think the fans would want to see that?" Those are the keys to keeping a production fresh, new and invigorated.

Tell the readers what Steve Lansky is up to nowadays.
I was extremely lucky to have been able to produce network sports television for two decades. Today, I do a lot of writing (not nearly as exciting as a live production mobile). I write for my website - bigmouthsports.com - and a few other websites/magazines. I do a little on-air work. I'm also putting my stories from my HNIC years on paper. I'm planning on them eventually being a wonderfully engaging book about the personalities and hijinx of that era. And, being an Edmonton Oilers' fan, I'm preparing to begin work, doing research, on a book re-living the Oilers' dynasty years from my unique perspective. I can't wait until that's done! I'd love to contribute more to today's Canadian sports television production scene...but that's not in the cards right now.

1 comment:

Paige said...

Wow! What a fascinating guy! I sure do love reading his blog! Interview him again soon!