REFLECTIONS

Johnny Esaw: A Canadian Television Legend

The 2011 World Figure Skating Championships marked the 49th anniversary of the first broadcast of this prestigious event on Canadian television.

Figure skating would likely have not made it to the Canadian airwaves when and how it did if were it not for the efforts of one man.

There is no doubt that the matchmaker between figure skating and television was none other than Canadian broadcasting pioneer Johnny Esaw.

It was through his vision that so many great moments in the sport have been recorded for posterity.

FIRST TAKE

Esaw’s first foray into the world of skating came by way of Bert Penfold, a Saskatchewan representative of what was then known as the Canadian Figure Skating Association (CFSA), who wanted to broadcast a skating show on the radio.

Always game to give a good idea a try, Esaw agreed, on the condition that someone else describe what was going on. The fundraising show, held at Regina’s Wascana Winter Club, was a mix of skating and news from some of the Hollywood stars of the day.

The broadcast was well-received and Esaw’s imagination went into overdrive; he envisioned how figure skating could be presented on the small screen. It was just a matter of time, but little did he know that the time was about to come.

A MATTER OF FAITH

To celebrate the launch of the CFTO network in January 1961, Esaw hosted a skating exhibition on a tiny rink set up in the studio parking lot, where the dazzling young Canadian pairs team of Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell performed to rave reviews from the network’s executives.

Esaw was convinced that if he could get figure skating on television, Canadians would watch it. He knew people were interested in figure skating, following the victories of the country’s pairs team of Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden at the 1954 and 1955 World Championships.

Esaw told his superiors that he was going to put skating on television but had no idea how he was going to accomplish the feat.

Fate intervened when ABC’s eccentric genius Roone Arledge asked him to acquire the North American rights to the 1964 World Figure Skating Championships for Vancouver. Arledge believed that the price tag would be higher for the Americans and his idea was to have the Canadians “piggyback” the American feed.

Esaw acquired the North American rights to those championships for $10,000. He felt Arledge owed him one and persuaded Arledge to sell him the Canadian rights to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” coverage (the gold standard of sports broadcasting of the day) of the 1962 World Championships.

For the first time in history, Canadians witnessed the action. When countryman Donald Jackson made history by landing the first triple Lutz and won the 1962 World title in Prague, Canadians half a world away cheered the feat.

“Everyone knew about what I had done because of television. It opened a lot of doors,” Jackson recalled with a laugh. “I seemed to live on that particular 10 seconds of skating and the judges’ scores.”

It came as no surprise to Esaw that he was able to make national stars of Jackson and 1962 World silver medalist Wendy Griner and World pairs champions Maria Jelinek and Otto Jelinek.

NEW ERA

Capitalizing on the success of Worlds, Esaw began broadcasting Canadian skating events, starting with the 1963 national championships in Edmonton.

Respecting the athlete and the event while serving the interests of both the network and the viewer proved to be a delicate balance.
Karen Magnussen, the 1972 silver Olympic medalist, described Esaw as a man who was always interested in the athletes and who would do whatever he could so that Canadians could witness their successes.

She recalled what happened at the 1973 World Championships. “I never knew until years later that Johnny had paid off the Zamboni driver in Bratislava to get the ice cleaned five minutes faster so that I could be shown on Canadian television before the satellite feed was finished,” Magnussen explained.

Not only did Esaw ensure Canadians saw her performance, but he also announced that Magnussen had won the World title in the final three seconds before the feed went dead.

Doing what needed to be done was the backbone of so many achievements in Esaw’s career. Based on accounts from his former secretary and Wilkes, his commentary partner, Esaw was all about business and wanted the world to think he was tough as nails. Behind the scenes, however, how athletes fared was just as important.

TELEVISION GURU

Esaw made his mark by negotiating the television rights to some of the most important Olympic sporting events of his time, including the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series. However, the pinnacle of his career was negotiating the rights for CTV as the host broadcaster for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary.

His innate ability to drive a hard bargain in acquiring rights meant more money for television sports broadcasts, which translated into higher advertising revenue. The success of the sports department at CTV, where Esaw eventually rose to the position of vice president, supported other areas in television such as news and entertainment.

BUILDING A LEGACY

David Dore, who was the president of the CFSA in 1981, was concerned about the perpetual financial issues figure skaters faced.

“After talking to a couple of skaters, we knew that they could have more success if we could find the funding,” Dore recalled. “I phoned Johnny and asked, ‘How do I make this happen?’ Before the conversation ended he was writing a check.

“He was the very first personal contributor to the Athletes’ Trust Fund. He then sold the concept to corporations.

“Johnny was always very interested in the Athletes’ Trust, particularly the educational component that awarded university scholarships. This was one of our most successful programs.

“We thought if people could go to school, have a career outside of skating and become a complete person, they could come back as judges or be involved in the sport in some way.”

Dore recalled that Esaw’s style was to be completely involved. As a board member of the Athletes’ Trust for 20 years, Esaw invested the time to review the merits of athlete applications and always followed up with recipients. “I can’t say enough about him,” Dore said.

For a man who never skated, Esaw left an enduring legacy for generations of Canadian skaters and fans.

“Without him, I think skating wouldn’t have been as popular,” Jackson said. “Dick Button was on the ‘Wide World of Sports’ and if CTV hadn’t taken it — well, I don’t know what would have happened.”


Originally published in June 2011

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