Sunday, 19 October 2014

Then And Now: Figure Skating, The Internet And Television


It's hard to imagine a world without the internet. In this day and age of smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers and WiFi, anything we could possibly want to know and access to instant communication with people all over the world is literally at our fingertips. This wealth of information and the popularity of social media as a means to share it is really heaven for any figure skating fan. If we want to know what is going on in skating, a quick Google or YouTube search or a scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feeds can usually answer anything. For everything else, there's Mastercard... I mean Wikipedia. It wasn't always this way though.

The internet has grown and evolved exponentially since the early to mid nineties. I remember going online when I was a junior high and high school student in a computer lab that was opened I think one or two evenings a week. The place was packed! Home computers with internet connections weren't something everybody had like they do now, and if you did have one, chances were you were using a dial up or painfully slow connection... not that the computers in this lab were any better. Many websites would crash and freeze and a blue screen of death could set you back a good ten minutes in your efforts to surf "the World Wide Web". You didn't take advantage of the free Wifi at Starbucks. You paid through the nose at internet cafes.

As the internet itself grew in popularity, quite a thriving figure skating community cropped up. Devoted skating fans from around the world shared reviews of competitions they attended and discussed both amateur and professional competition on Usenet newsgroups such as one called rec.sport.skating.ice.figure. There were several and they were basically email newsgroups consisting of one giant back and forth conversation about skating. Sandra Loosemore's Skateweb: The Figure Skating Page was THE trusted and respected go to for all things figure skating. If you wanted the latest news about everything from competitive rosters and results to partner changes and an inside scoop as to the lives of many skaters, Blades On Ice magazine's website was the place to go. Katja Rupp's EUROSKATING and Tino Eberl's The Figure Skating Corner (the latter being still active and a HOST of wonderful information and archival results) offered a distinctly European perspective on the skating world. Fan pages were a dime a dozen, many thorough, excellent and full of every detail of a skater's story you could imagine. Some were simply free Angelfire, Tripod and Geocities pages full of wonky dancing baby type images and scanned photos that often would give you nasty inline ads or pop-ups you did NOT need to deal with. I even briefly maintained a much earlier short lived incarnation of what I am trying to do here on the blog called Intensity On Ice that had its own forum. I also compiled a hugely detailed collection of professional figure skating competition results and music, much of which I remember e-mailing to Paula Slater, who runs the Golden Skate site and maintains a good collection of those records there to this day.

I spoke with Rev. Joelle Colville-Hanson, who offered on her web sites a wonderful archive of information about professional competitions at the time as well as excellently researched fan pages for Scott Hamilton, Dorothy Hamill, Rosalynn Sumners and Kitty and Peter Carruthers. Joelle explained that she "was interested in both figure skating and history and saw that there were no web sites for these skaters and felt they should have fan pages. I was a particular fan of Scott Hamilton and his contribution to professional skating and thought that should be known. Back in those days, you could not just Google this stuff. I went to the library and looked up old Sports Illustrated and Skating magazines to gather all the information. After I was better known people would send me info and old skating show and competition programs. It was a hobby for me. When they took down all the websites that were so easy to use it kind of put the end to all that. I got busy doing other things. I do think it's a shame all that info wasn't saved. Although there is a group that is archiving a lot of Geocities pages and many of my pages are still there. Most of the Scott Hamilton stuff is gone and I'm not sure where I have it. It was probably saved on a floppy disk."

Joelle also talked to me about the closer sense of community (both good and bad) that came from more a tight-knit and far less anonymous group of skating fans back in the internet's Usenet days we don't always see on say, a skating forum today: "I don't know if you remember when my husband died and many people on the Skatefans Usenet made me a quilt. I do presentations on social media now and I use that as an example of how virtual community is real community. I use the example of the Skatefans newsgroup and email list as an example of early 'social media' even though we didn't call it that. I have many friends on Twitter and Facebook now that I met through those venues. The difference for me now is that those little groups were kind of closed and the skaters may have and probably to some extent did read what we said about them but it wasn't as public as it is now like on Twitter where you can tag the skater who is also on Twitter. Me, I just don't say any of the critical things I might have said about a performance or even snarky like 'Alissa Czisny is a head case' because I know for a fact she'll see it... and didn't she go off of Twitter because of that? Few people are like me and refrain from snarky. It's just all so much more public and open. We all knew each other on those groups, what skaters everyone liked, what their hobby horses were, what would set them off. It was more of a community than I think it is now. I don't know if you remember I had a stalker who followed me around on the different venues and just said awful things. On the one hand, I think it might be worse if she found me on social media now but I could block her on all those sites which you couldn't do on Usenet. I'm so much more public now I think I'd be much more worried. Sometimes I wonder if she will show up and start bothering me or if she has a life."

A big part in the challenge of really bringing people together like back in the internet's early days are the competing choices of skating coverage out there right now. There really is something available for everyone's varied tastes and many skating fans tend to be a little more cliquey now than they once were. There's also the glaring lack of television coverage to speak of. Joelle stated that "the biggest difference is that there is so little figure skating on television to talk about. My daughter competed and skated but now she is grown up (although still coaches skating) but to me I don't know the skaters anymore, I don't like the new scoring although I know the skaters really do. I'm just not that into as much, though I did go to Nationals (last year in Omaha)?  The Japan Open was our first peek at many of the world's best sporting new programs that they, like all competitive skaters do, hope will take them to the top."

Let's talk about that lack of television coverage a bit. I'm always about trying to look on the bright side, but sitting down to offer my two cents about televised figure skating coverage is not exactly a topic you can approach with a great deal of positivity. U.S. figure skating fans just got an unpleasant dose of reality when U.S. Figure Skating announced the broadcast schedule for figure skating this season. Coverage on NBC is minimal at best and thirty seven hours of the entire amount of competitive figure skating coverage being presented will be on Universal, which for many isn't a standard station people with a basic cable package would even have. ABC is offering a total of sixteen hours of additional coverage of the Disson skating/crossover shows such as the Skating and Gymnastics Spectacular and Family Skating Tribute.

Then you have icenetwork and live feeds for various feeds on the internet... don't get me wrong, I don't mind a live feed but I would much prefer to sitting on my sofa watching skating, We are fortunate as the coverage up here is generally much better and the sports stations skating coverage usually gets relegated to usually aren't ones you pay a fortune to add to your cable package. My job and life don't really necessitate me watching a lot of skating in real time anyway, so I count my lucky stars for YouTube and other platforms.

One of the more troubling issues as I see it is the fact that a sport who has a huge potential fan base based on the popularity of skating on television in the nineties seems to be neglecting a very loyal aging population. I am in no way saying a ninety year old can't use a computer and search for a live stream of a competition or get an icenetwork subscription, but the casual fans who MADE this sport popular definitely aren't going to watch if they have to go hunting skating down. The fan base is not going to significantly grow unless skating coverage is easily accessible to everyone. 20% of households in the U.S. do not even have internet access and many others who do might not be tech savvy enough to navigate and find what they are looking for necessarily.

Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again. The fundamental problem as to why figure skating is hurting so much and is not getting the ratings necessary to make it an attractive product for network television is that the judging system and the choreography we are seeing as a result simply is not viewer friendly. The quick fix to the problem is not bringing in a younger, more IJS savvy commentary team. There isn't a quick fix. The long overdue decision to allow skaters to use vocals in ISU competition isn't even likely to make the sport any more entertaining, if skaters, coaches and choreographers continue to use Piano Concerto No. Whatever again and again like it's some sort of good idea. There's an almost universal reluctance by many skaters to take advantage of the opportunity to make things a little more entertaining and back away from staid traditional program choices even when the option is clearly there. 

Simply put, times have changed from the internet's early days, and whether we like it or not, we're not just talking about skating on the internet anymore like back in the nineties. Now we HAVE to watch it there. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing for most existing fans. There are pluses obviously. We're not just seeing the five short programs that the television network decides to play. We can look at the skating in an unprejudiced way and develop our own narrative when we watch raw coverage online, which can at times be appealing. That said, there's something to be said for quality TV coverage and the appeal to a fan base OUTSIDE of the small percentage of viewers that are diehard fans. I just think that part of going forward is looking at what worked and trying to recreate that model... with witty commentators like Dick Button and easy to understand broadcast coverage that breaks down the IJS for casual viewers as much as possible. Times may have changed but throwing your hands up in the air, sighing and saying "figure skating is dying" is no more productive to helping rejuvenate the sport's popularity than not admitting there is a problem in the first place.

Did you enjoy this blog? Be sure to always check back for more skater interviews and writing about everything under the sun in the skating world. There is also a Facebook page connected to the blog where all blog articles and interviews are shared - as well as current skating news, photos and videos of amazing skating. Give it a "like" at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard. You can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/SkateGuardBlog. I love talking figure skating and would love to talk about the sport with you!

4 comments:

  1. This is a resume of my query. Re Skateweb the videos have been removed as when I try to play one all I get is an HTTP 400 report. On contacting Sandra Loosemore I was told all videos had been removed and that she did not know when they would be uploaded again

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  2. This blog isn't affiliated with Sandra Loosemore's Skateweb so if Sandra has advised you the videos were removed, unfortunately they've been removed. If you are having a hard time finding skating videos to watch, I can always suggest http://www.youtube.com. I hope you do find what you are looking for and wish you well in your search!

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  3. I'm also wishing for a surge in popularity for figure skating. It may skip a generation and come back. You never know. Great post ...great insight. Thanks.

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  4. Thank you! I think you definitely raise a good point about the popularity of it skipping a generation. After watching Skate America, I still think a big part of the problem lies in the package that is being presented to viewers, not the underlying talent of the skaters themselves.

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