Preparing for Death: The Most Difficult Task in Television

Within moments of Hannah Storm announcing to the SportsCenter watching audience that longtime ESPN host Stuart Scott had passed away at age 49 after a prolonged battle with cancer, a 14 minute and 52 second trip down memory lane aired.

The classical music bed, soft dissolves and never before seen footage inspired goose bumps to battle Mt. Kilimanjaro for pure majesty.

Much of the story was told from a viewpoint we don’t often see, a behind-the-highlights look at the subtle reactions his myriad of co-hosts would emote while Scott delivered his trademark lines. A young Rich Eisen looking adoringly at his so-called “TV wife” as he delivers a line in a manner only he could pull off.

dealing with death in television

Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen helped propel ESPN to another level, their bond did not end when Eisen left for the NFL Network.

Former ESPN colleague and fellow cancer battler Robin Roberts artfully narrated the commemoration that was littered with co-anchors sharing behind the scenes stories of the man that became a legend in Bristol.

It is beautiful. A study in story-telling that could be analysed in classrooms spanning from Emerson College to Chapman University. (see and study the entire video tribute at the bottom of this article)

But how did it happen? Stories told this well take weeks of writing, interviewing, producing and editing, and yet it aired shortly after his death was announced.

Therein lies the TV secret that isn’t often shared.

Crafting Obituaries

In any facet of television reporting, whether it is news, sports or entertainment, advance preparation is paramount to success. Being proactive provides the best chance of delivering on audience expectations, if you react you are often too late.

I vividly remember during my first year at CNN being fascinated by what our team of writers were working on at any moment. That was my gift of being on the inside, knowledge of what was happening before the public.

As I sat down one day to get my editing assignments in order I casually asked a staff writer what he was up to, his response, “I’m writing a Ted Williams obituary and life retrospective.”

splendid splinter ted williams

Preparing for someone’s death before it has happened is one of the most awkward tasks in Television reporting, but being ahead of the news maintains relevancy and value

As a card carrying member of Red Sox Nation I was floored, how had the Splendid Splinter died and I knew nothing about it?

The writer then followed up nonchalantly, “After I finish this one I’m on to Arnold Palmer and Richard Petty.”

Oh dear god. This had to be the worst day in sports ever!

As the pit in my stomach grew a Producer nearby, realizing my state of disbelief, explained that these were to prepare for the inevitable and predict the unfortunate, not because they had all just died.

What can I say; I was one year removed from dorm life and had spent the majority of my time thus far editing highlights, not building editorial calendars or contingency plans for worst case scenarios.

The writer then took me to a cabinet where all of our Obit features sat waiting – written, produced, edited and ready to air at a moment’s notice. As I stared down the names of many of my childhood heroes – Magic Johnson, Johnny Unitas, Derrick Thomas, Walter Payton – I felt this overwhelming insincerity, like I was part of a death pool where we bet on other people’s misery.

That feeling passed, as I realized this was an essential part of the career path I had chosen. It was an enlightening moment for the young journalist in me, the first time I realized being proactive, preparing for all situations no matter how dreadful, was the key to success in television reporting.

Stuart Scott’s battle with cancer took this preparation to the next level. His obituary was being worked on as he lived and worked in the office. His friends and colleagues were being interviewed about his pending death.

“He brought his own attitude and energy and lexicon and he owned that distinctive style of doing the show the way he wanted to do it”, says co-anchor Scott Van Pelt as part of the 14 minute plus epilogue.

“He didn’t push the envelope, I mean, he bulldozed the envelope,” adds former colleague Dan Patrick.

He brought. He owned. He wanted. He didn’t. He bulldozed.

All past tense.

Is it cold-hearted to be crafting someone’s eulogy before they die?

No. It’s just the reality of a business that Stuart Scott loved.

Years later as I sat in the Producers chair the day Dale Earnhardt unexpectedly died on the Daytona 500 track, that obituary cabinet, so infrequently called upon to do it’s work, cast in the back of our newsroom, bellowed out to me, “I’m in here, I’m ready, my time is now.”

From what I am told of Stuart Scott the man, if he walked in on an editor in the midst of crafting his ESPN legacy set to air upon his death, he wouldn’t have been mad, he probably would have used the awkward moment to console the editor and let them know it was OK.

As Rich Eisen said in his tearful, honest moment on NFL Network: “Wherever you are Stuart…Godspeed, rest in peace”

About Brian Clapp

Brian Clapp has worked in the sports media for over 14 years as a writer, editor, producer & news director. After beginning his career in Atlanta at CNN/Sports Illustrated, he switched coasts to Seattle to work at Fox Sports Northwest. In 2010, Brian began pursuing a new found passion on the digital media side, launching a successful website and then taking on the role of Director of Content for WorkinSports.com & WorkinEntertainment.com.

Recently, Brian has become addicted to Google+ and LinkedIn so add him to your circles and make him a contact. No seriously, do it.

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Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff, and not just for entertainment icons. Pre-crafting eulogies seems like a decent way for anyone to maintain a sense of gratefulness and respect for the meaningful people in our lives. Perhaps we should all do it more often. (just don’t write them down or post them to your blog — else you may find yourself on death row for pre-meditated murder)

    • Hank – always good to hear from you, I was hoping you would chime in since this seemed like the type of article you have commented on in the past. You make a good point, pre-crafting eulogies is a good way to collect the memories of anyone important in your life (and your parenthetical advice is another example of intelligence!). I felt so many were writing these great memories of Stuart that I wanted to take a different approach and teach something about the business. Glad it worked. While I can’t say I was always a fan of Stuart on-air, he wasn’t speaking to me, he had a larger audience he was trying to appeal to and he did it with great skill. Sports Broadcasting is a small world, I have many friends who were close with him and they always are quick to point out the wonderful person and father he was “behind the Boo-Yah!”

  2. Wow I never knew this about the entertainment world! But, it is a unique idea. Many everyday people craft their obituaries and have everything prepared at the funeral home long before their death. This makes it easier on family & friends as they grieve the lost of their loved ones. Thanks for sharing!

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