SBJ/October 24 - 30, 2005/One On One

One-on-One with John Filippelli, Yes Network

In more than 30 years of sports TV production, John Filippelli has seen, and helped us see, many of the great games and moments in recent sports history. He continues to try “to translate as much as possible of the experience that one would have at a ballpark to the viewers at home.”
As president of production and programming at the YES Network, the most-watched regional sports and entertainment television network in the country, John Filippelli is responsible for all aspects of on-air content. He grew up literally in the shadow of Ebbets Field, where his family owned and ran a bar, Doubles, across from the Dodgers’ former stadium in Brooklyn. As a teenager Filippelli worked as a vendor at Yankee Stadium.

He began his broadcast television career at NBC Sports in 1974; eight years later, he was the network’s lead producer for the World Series and All-Star Game. Filippelli also worked as coordinating producer at The Baseball Network and Fox. Moving to ABC, he supervised its coverage of “Monday Night Football,” NCAA football, the NHL, the PGA Tour, the Indy 500 and “Wide World of Sports.” He joined YES in September 2001, six months before its launch.
Filippelli spoke with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh at the conclusion of the Yankees’ season.

Favorite vacation spot: My home (Greenwich, Conn.)
Favorite piece of music: Anything by the Beatles
Favorite author: Shelby Foote
Favorite movie: “The Godfather”
Last book read: “April 1865” by Jay Winik
Favorite quote: Winston Churchill’s “Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; we must do what is required.”
Biggest challenge: With all the tools that are at your disposal — all the cameras and replays and graphic information and all the technology — a really good producer doesn’t give in to the temptation to overproduce. Less is more.

You’ve had baseball in your background since you were born. What are your early memories?
I remember as a little boy meeting Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Preacher Roe, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. I remember the feel and smell of the grass. It’s intoxicating. Once it gets in your blood … baseball has always been the one constant for me throughout my entire life. I’ve always had a love and dedication for it. I’m one of the lucky people who’s been able to turn a passion into a livelihood.

You have 25 Emmy Awards and have received more than 160 Emmy nominations. That’s a lot of hardware.
You’re only as good as your cameramen and your tape people and your director and on-air talent. Television is truly collaborative, and in terms of Emmys, it’s a very subjective process.

Is there a philosophy in your approach to a broadcast?
Sure. What I like to do is take the game to the viewer, to bring that experience — what’s taking place on the field — into their homes. To let them hear and feel and see and experience as much of the reality of a baseball game as you possibly can. Whether that’s through pictures and close-ups, replays, specialized graphics and effects or microphones, where you can hear the sound of the crowd and get goose bumps when there’s a home run hit or you hear the crack of the bat or the sound of a 95 mph fastball hitting the glove. To translate as much as possible of the experience that one would have at a ballpark to the viewers at home. Make them feel as if they’re at the game.

Is there one broadcast moment that stands out for you?
The loudest ball I have ever heard was actually picked up by one [microphone] hanging over the announcers’ booth. It was the ’71 All-Star Game in Detroit: Reggie Jackson’s famous home run off the light tower. The sound of that ball hitting his bat was so electrifying. That’s the hardest-hit baseball I’ve ever seen. It was reminiscent of “The Natural.” I wasn’t even in the business in ’71, but I remember that the sound had such an effect on me. That’s when I first became cognizant that you could do so many things.

The shot of Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series was a “great mistake,” Filippelli said.
You worked the 1975 World Series at Fenway Park when Carlton Fisk hit his climactic walk-off home run.
If you go back and look at the tape of that telecast, it’s about the seventh replay. Harry Coyle, who was one of the great directors and one of the pioneers in our business, didn’t even know it was in the sequence package. It was one of the tape guys who saw it. He kept hitting the tape machine so we could see it in the mobile unit. That was just a great mistake by a cameraman who got confused as to where his assignment was and decided to stay on Fisk. That was the beginning of the reaction shots that now are so common.

With all the technology and innovations today, is there a risk of the sideshows overshadowing the main event?
You’ve got to realize how our culture has changed. To answer your question: Yes, there is a danger that sometimes you can overdo it, that you can overpower the main event and make it secondary. Sometimes, the best decision is to do nothing, to let the director cut the shots and let the announcers go silent and the crowd go wild and just let the moment speak for itself.

How you cover an event, a moment, is almost as important as the moment itself because it’s how people will remember it. The other day I saw a commercial that was a parody of the Kirk Gibson World Series home run. I was the producer [then]; Harry Coyle was the director. Harry decided to stay on Gibson. He decided Gibson was the moment. There were no wild cuts to the dugout or the crowd or anywhere else.

You were the producer in 1998 when Mark McGwire broke [Roger] Maris’ record.
I said to Billy Webb, the director, “If he hits the home run, I want you to stay on McGwire, the way Harry did in ’88 with Gibson.” It was the intimacy of the moment. Had we cut away, we never would have seen McGwire miss first base, which he did. [First-base coach] Dave McKay told him, “Go back. Go back. Touch first.” So, sometimes the best producing is to do as little producing as possible.

To just keep the camera on the ball, for example?
Right. I’m from the [old] school. That’s why at YES you see a lot fewer crowd shots. Because the action is on the field. The drama and tension are on the field. Drama and tension are everywhere. The key to doing this is not to overdo it. Today’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s cliché. And now I watch, and in the middle of dramatic at-bats, they’ve got shots of nuns praying and people, you know, holding hands and crying. I’m not saying that that is inappropriate. I’m just saying that a little of that goes a long way and moderation is the key.

You’re showing the game, but you’re also trying to tell a story.
Exactly. You want to convey to the viewer what’s going on. For a long time baseball was very afraid of what [we] would do. I remember getting in an argument in the 1996 World Series. I wanted one shot, with a hand-held camera, of the bullpen doors opening. I wanted the world to see what [Yankees closer] John Wetteland saw as he came out into the vast expanse of Yankee Stadium on a crisp autumn night with a full stadium going wild. I wanted to give some sense of what he was experiencing, of bringing the game to the viewer. But that was something that wasn’t done. [Baseball] didn’t want cameras in the bullpen; they didn’t want hand-helds in the bullpen. But baseball — Paul Beeston, to his credit — relented and let us do it.

The fans want that inside access.
They want intimacy. That’s why close-ups in baseball are so telling. You see the sweat on the brow. You see the determination, or in some cases, a little bit of fear on the batter’s face or the pitcher’s face. You get into the eyes of the base runner and watch him focus on the pitcher. You see the intensity. Close-ups are a powerful tool the producer and director have at their disposal, particularly in a baseball game. Baseball lends itself to the intense close-up because there are delays in the action.

What’s next? What can the viewer look for, and what do you want to see happen?
I’d like to see cameras everywhere. I like the idea of having cameras in the bases, where you could see the batter slide in, and cameras in dugouts. If I had my way, I’d have reaction of every single person on the bench. To be as ubiquitous as possible, to be all over that ballpark, so that the next best thing to being there is watching it on television.

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