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Original Issue

Adding that personal touch

ABC's profiles of athletes bring warmth and bad grammar to the Olympics

Besides ABC's relentless self-promotion—the arrogance of a network that links the Olympic rings to its logo speaks for itself—the most obvious characteristic of its Olympic coverage over the last 12 years has been the little profiles called Up Close and Personals. To be sure, a lot of people make fun of the pieces, especially their title. Are they Up Close and Impersonals or Out Front and Up Tights? But they usually make the athletes come alive and lend a certain warmth to the proceedings.

It's probable that at the end of ABC's 180 hours of Olympic programming from L.A., we'll have had it up to here with Jim McKay's cheerfully saying, "Now let's go to Timbuktu for another Up Close and Personal...." If so, it's the name that will have deadened our enthusiasm, not the profiles. What does "up close" or "personal" refer to anyway? The cameraman doing the shooting, the shootee or the camera itself? And how can "up close and personal" be a noun? Edwin Newman get in here!

Not surprisingly, the name was dreamed up by an ABC promotion exec. His name: Don Foley. Before the 1972 Games, the network's sports president, Roone Arledge, decided to film athletes in their everyday surroundings, and it fell to Foley to find a moniker for this aspect of the network's prime-time coverage of the Munich Olympics. The name stuck. Foley, now a Madison Avenue adman, says, "I did it with some embarrassment—it's so ungrammatical and advertiserese. I started life as an English teacher. But I decided to forget my pride and go with the thing."

The guy who got stuck with the title was Brice Weisman, 47, coordinating producer of ABC's special projects unit for the '84 Games. Weisman and his team have produced some 225 "profiles"—he scrupulously avoids calling them Up Close and Personals—since '72, and with his boss, senior producer Chet Forte, Weisman is responsible for all 63 profiles prepared for Los Angeles. Although Arledge imposes a time limit that threatens to trivialize the profiles—the average length is two minutes, 30 seconds—the minicreations remain the closest thing to art in Olympic television. The earliest Up Close and Personals often were fat, flat and fuzzy, but Weisman & Co. have since learned to create a mood for each profile. During the coverage of the Games at Sarajevo, for instance, U.S. figure skater Tiffany Chin was cast as a china doll. All the lighting, camera shots and settings were selected to remind the viewer of her fragility.

The profiles, not to mention the other taped pieces the special projects unit was responsible for, including McKay's sweet, lyrical tribute to Yugoslavia and a hilarious Hughes Rudd piece about folk music in the Bosnian foothills, were the class of an otherwise lackluster performance for ABC in Sarajevo. For Los Angeles, the unit also has prepared life-style segments on the city, historical pieces on the '32 L.A. Games, sports psychology shorts, and segments on the origin of certain Olympic sports. The profiles, though, are Weisman's meat and potatoes—a sometimes frustrating menu to serve.

For one thing, it's the producer at the venue or Arledge himself, who determines if a particular profile will make the air. The ratio at Sarajevo was 31 profiles "on" for 61 produced. Then there's what we'll call the Too Dull Syndrome, a malady most often found among figure skaters, gymnasts and swimmers who train from dawn to dusk. Forte figures that 5% of the athletes turn out to be TDs and never get on the air. Finally, there are the Heel Draggers who refuse to cooperate when the cameras arrive. The worst HD Weisman ever encountered was Oddvar Brå, a Norwegian cross-country skier. In 1979 Brå agreed twice to be interviewed, Weisman says, but twice stood him up after he went all the way to Norway. "When we got word at Lake Placid that he'd finished 12th in his first race," Weisman recalls, "none of us was terribly sorry."

Weisman was sorry when the Soviets boycotted the Summer Games. A total of 23 Up Close and Personals went by the board, a loss of six months' work for him and, at $12,000 to $13,000 per profile, a lot of money for ABC. That's a pity, for the best of the unit's latest work is introspective and unusually revealing, much stronger than the formula profiles of the mid-'70s, when every athlete seemed to be relaxing at a mountain chalet, strolling in a meadow filled with buttercups or eating dinner at Mom's. Boycott or no, Weisman is hot. The final proof is that ABC lets him call an Up Close and Personal a profile.


Weisman & Co. have got up close and personal 225 times.