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Lights, camera, action

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times

Reggie Crist was trying to catch his breath Sunday at the bottom of the skiercross course when an ESPN camera homed in on him. Then a microphone was stuck in front of his face.

Crist, a six-year Winter X Games veteran, knew the drill. With the men’s skiercross final being broadcast live on ESPN around the country, there was no time to ask for a quick 20-second breather.

“You’re at the mercy of the cameras,” said Crist, who won silver in the men’s finals. “It’s interesting, with it being live, that you have to perform when they say go.”

Interesting having a double meaning, Crist added. Being scripted into a live television production does have some drawbacks for athletes (see long waits during commercial breaks), but at the same time it’s much more compelling for those tuning in at home, Crist said.

“As an American, you can’t watch the Olympics live, but you can watch the X Games live and that’s huge,” said Crist, a former Olympian himself. “I’ll tell you what, I’ve got a bunch of my family and friends watching TV, and to have that excitement of knowing that it’s live is huge. I’m really excited to watch the Olympic downhill this year, but I’m already going to know who has won it. It loses some of its significance.”

ESPN decided to go live with its Winter X coverage in 2004, adding another fresh aspect to what was already known as the most progressive winter action sports event in the world.

There’s no denying the decision has helped grow the games’ appeal. Winter X’s viewership for the live primetime events has grown at a rate of 33 percent for the past two years. This year, there’s the possibility of more than 1 million households tuning in each night to watch the action ” up from last year’s 677,000 average.

“Fans of action sports will tune in whether it’s live or not, but casual sports fans expect a big event to be live,” said Ron Semiao, the senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment. “If it’s not live they don’t think it’s that important. I don’t think we’ll ever go back.”

ESPN’s 15 hours of live coverage this year is immaculately put together by a small army of television production employees that totals more than 500. The only thing that ESPN can’t control is the weather and injuries, which can delay a production schedule.

The upside of being live, however, far outweighs the downside, Semiao said.

“It’s pretty much that way with most sports,” Semiao said. “When we cover auto races, if there’s rain on the track there can be delays. Weather can delay a baseball game. You have to react accordingly.”

Thus, when snow started falling Saturday night, the first part of the motocross best trick finals was moved to Sunday night and ESPN’s live coverage focused on the women’s superpipe final.

On Sunday, with three inches of fresh snow, the men’s slopestyle final was reformatted as a best-trick contest because the track for the top part of the slopestyle course was too slow.

The men’s skiercross finals weren’t delayed, but with the snow on the course, the action wasn’t as fast as Saturday’s qualifiers. And the first part of the motocross best trick final was again put off, repackaged as a one-part final set to take place at 8:15 p.m.

T.J. Schiller, who won the skier big air contest, said the realities of live television made for a final that wasn’t as compelling as year’s past. If the event wasn’t live, it could have been rescheduled for Monday and “we could have shown what we’re all capable of doing,” Schiller said.

“But it’s cool,” added Schiller. “It gets people stoked, it’s easy to watch, and it’s real easy to understand. I definitely would have preferred to do the slopestyle. But I can’t complain. I just won X Games. That’s crazy.”

Tanner Hall, who won the men’s skier slopestyle in 2004, 2003 and 2002, didn’t compete Sunday because of the course conditions, which he said “were sketchy.”

Still, Hall said he prefers the X Games’ live format ” and said he was excited to compete in Tuesday night’s primetime men’s skier superpipe final.

The pressure of performing on live television distinguishes the best from the rest, he said.

“Some guys freeze up,” he said. “That separates the professionals from the amateurs, you know what I mean? Who has that competitive edge and that can hold on and keep it up every year. You got to be ready to go. You’ve got to be in your competitive frame of mind, and once you’re into that, no one can break you.”

Schiller agreed with Hall’s reasoning. He said that there are some “annoying” aspects of live TV, such as waiting for TV producers to tell you when you can and can’t go while trying to stay loose at the top of the course.

It contradicts certain aspects of what skiing is about, Schiller said. But, there’s no denying the feeling of putting down the best trick on live television ” a feeling that had Schiller smiling while fingering his gold medal Sunday.

“When you go out and ski, you go out and ski. You get to the top and you go down,” Schiller said. “When you get to the Winter X Games, you’ve got to wait for commercials and it’s kind of annoying. At the same time it’s like, well, dude, I get to be on the X Games.”

Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com

Aspen, Colorado


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