America's Cup On Television- An Interview with Host Gary Jobson

I reached Gary Jobson a few weeks ago to ask him about the media coverage of the AC34. This will be the ninth time Jobson has done coverage for the America’s Cup.  He is a longtime sailor and former America’s Cup racer himself with an intimate knowledge of the event. Jobson will be hosting the NBC broadcasts of the races beginning in August.

(Edited interview transcription follows- author questions in bold)

Author: Are people going watch the America’s Cup?

JOBSON: We did three shows last year for NBC. They were all 90 minute live shows on the America’s Cup series. One in July, one in August, and one in October and the first and third shows, when we came on the air, we doubled our viewing audience from the beginning of the to the end of the show. The second show stayed about even- and the third show it doubled.

Usually in television, if you can maintain your audience from the beginning of the show to the end, you have generally done pretty well. What you don’t want is an audience going down. Even during the second show it went up a little bit, and I don’t know why.  It was in August and maybe a lot of people weren’t around. But, what we have learned is that people start texting each other and calling and emailing and saying ‘hey you should check this out’.

What’s it like working with the new technology?

The liveline is very cool. I immensely enjoy working with Stan [Honey]. I’m a little bit more of the artist of it and he is more the science. But when you are the commentator you have to make a bit of sense of it and use it as a tool and get the viewer engaged … You have got to do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer where it becomes all graphics. So you still want to see the boat and the human aspect of the thing. So, the onboard cameras, the water-shot cameras, which don’t have liveline, integrated with the aerials, which do have liveline, and you get a pretty compelling picture of what is going on.

This is the 9th time I have done coverage of the America’s Cup and all America’s Cups always have their personality and all are a little bit different and have different characters and storylines. But this one is different. Because you really have to think hard about what to say that is relevant for the viewer, so you don’t want to just repeat what you see on the screen. But try and come up with something that’s not expected or some fact or something that enhances what you are already watching.

… And because these boats go so fast and there is not much time between the turning marks, you don’t have much time to talk. You have to learn how to speak in very short phrases ­–to say a lot in as few words as possible. When you are speaking it’s even harder to do that. At the same time, you have to weave your words in with what they are saying aboard the boat because its so interesting and compelling what these people talk about on the boats that you don’t want to talk over them. I have to anticipate when they are going to talk and what they might say and then, even though I might be talking about something else. I immediately have to interpret what was just said on the boat and then go onto my storyline. Then keep quiet and listen and when there are three commentators you try and get a cadence- so a, b, or b, c so we don’t talk all over each other. Somebody doesn’t just talk all the time, so it lets it breathe. When there are two others there I really think hard about what to say. So I keep trying to say something cool or interesting. It doesn’t always come out that way but you try.  I learned at ESPN 28 years ago if you make some kind of mistake on the air, you just correct it and go on and not worry too much about it.

Jobson at Work

How do you see this America’s Cup as being tailored for television?

Several things: number one, the combination of pictures from onboard, from the air, and from the water gives you a very unique perspective. Number two, the fact that we have the sailors, you hear the voices of four sailors, you know the tactician, the skipper, and key players of the boat. In no other sport are you inside the huddle. So that is unique for television.

            You know, Stan Honey, he is a smart guy to figure that out. To get the graphics, so we know precisely who is ahead who is behind, who is picking up, who is losing distance… you know interesting stats. I think that is number three.

            Four, and I speak humbly here; hopefully the commentary is compelling. You know I get emails and they say ‘oh you know you are the greatest thing since sliced bread’ and you know I get other emails that say ‘hey you are terrible’ and so you know maybe I am somewhere in the middle. So like I said it’s a bit of an art form. You don’t script this thing. You know, I might have a list of ten story ideas I might try to get in through a telecast. But you have to know the boats, and the game, and the rules and it just has to come to you quickly. And it has become an important part of this equation.

Then, is the race itself. And the best racing, just like the best sports, are close contests, we have lead changes and who wins is in doubt to the end. I don’t know if you watched the hockey series or the NBA finals, but both of them are pretty darn good. You know, there were lead changes and tied scores and back and forth and one went to game six and the other was seven games. But it’s compelling. So when you ask- what is going to get this over top- its good racing! Whoever wins the first race, I want the other boat to win the second race and at the end of the first weekend I would love to see the score two-two because then it becomes very compelling.

Well, if the America’s Cup World Series is a guide, which I think is fair to say … We found that there were surprising numbers of league changes that left on. One of these might be, lets just be generic here, maybe one is a little bit better when the breeze is 18 knots, and one is a little better when the breeze is 12 knots. Well if the breeze picks up from 12 to 18 the boat that was faster earlier is now slower. So you likely have a league change. And this foiling stuff is really fascinating; to get both hulls, up out of the water.  If one boat gets up on the foil they can go ten miles an hour faster, so if you are four lengths behind and you are suddenly going ten miles and hour faster. You are going to blow right by. So I think there are going to be these spurts of speed that will be really fun to watch. Then the close quarters, they are not out in the open ocean getting far away from each other, It forces the races to be close. So when the races are forced to be close the best part is the emotions are running. We are going to hear what they say. Its not going to be like a NASA countdown to a space shot, its going to be raw and compelling and important and mean a lot and the guys are going to be yelling hard and working and we are going to be part of it.

No other sport does that.

Why hasn’t America’s Cup been successful on television in the past?

So, there is a couple of reasons. One, it doesn’t happen consistently. I mean, it’s every three or four years we have an America’s Cup. Two, I hate to say it but it is true, a lot of people don’t understand what sailing is all about.  Why does one boat get ahead of the other? So that is our [commentators] job to try and do it.

But there are a couple elements that can help boost this up. One is the patriotic aspect. You know the United States has the America’s Cup. This thing the Americans have won 28 times over the years. Are we going to be able to hold onto it? And the winner [of the Louis Vuitton Series], wants to take the cup away.  As I’m sure you know, there is no love lost between Ellison’s team and the New Zealanders or the Italians- they don’t particularly like each other too much.

So that makes it kind of an emotional roller coaster ride and a compelling story; the intense rivalry, the patriotic element to it, the speed of the boats, the newness of it, the technology behind it the emotions onboard, you know all that. I hope combine these to get people watching, and you know if our world series is any guide- as I said two out of three shows, the viewership doubled from beginning to end of the program. And I hope that is what we see.

So is it going to become a mainstream television-sporting event?

Is it going be mainstream? I’m not smart enough to predict what is going to happen. You know, like I said maybe Ellison wins it, but I don’t know. But clearly, right after this cup, all of the players and all of the stake-holders have to sit down and say ‘OK, this happened the way it did’ what can we do to improve it and make it better. So that exercise will have to happen immediately right after the cup.