Here’s the pitch: a half-hour TV series that examines the history, personalities and milestones of surfing--mini-documentaries on surf filmmakers, say, or on the world’s greatest surf breaks.
Surfer’s Journal Publisher Steve Pezman knows how the big kahunas at the major television networks would greet such an idea: Later, dude.
“TV programming executives look at surfing as being akin to wrist-wrestling,” Pezman said from the quarterly’s San Clemente office. “Generally, if you don’t surf, you don’t have much empathy for surfing as subject matter, and you don’t realize the passion and the interest and the actual size of the market out there--that millions of surfers are interested in this stuff.”
And yet, “50 Years of Surfing on Film,” a 12-part Surfer’s Journal series of profiles debuted on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) last June; the span of the series includes work from filmmaker Bud Browne in the ‘40s to videographer Taylor Steele in the ‘90s. And beginning this June “Great Waves,” a 12-part weekly series focusing on the people and lore behind a dozen top surf spots.
Roger Werner, president and CEO of the 2 1/2-year-old New York City-based network, signed off on the first nationally aired series chronicling surf culture because he says the sport hasn’t received the coverage it deserves.
“It’s been one of the most influential lifestyle sports of our generation and probably had a greater impact on youth culture than a dozen other major pro sports you can name,” said Werner, 48, a Midwesterner who learned to surf in the mid-'60s on family trips to Redondo Beach.
In those days, several independent Los Angeles television stations aired programs featuring surf footage and surfer guests. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” covered the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship and other major contests. Then surfing all but vanished from the airwaves.
That changed in the mid-'80s with a cable TV boom that created air time for diverse programming and niche sports. As president of ESPN, Werner began sending crews to surf contests. In 1987, he linked up with Pezman, then publisher of San Juan Capistrano-based Surfer magazine, to create “Surfer Magazine,” the first regularly scheduled national surfing series--in prime time, no less.
After moving to Prime Ticket Network in the early ‘90s, Werner developed, along with the Assn. of Surfing Professionals, the U.S. Open of Surfing, In conjunction with the San Clemente-based environmental group Surfrider Foundation, Werner also created programming on protecting the ocean.
After starting the adventure-oriented Outdoor Life Network in 1995, Werner again turned to Pezman, who had left Surfer to start a magazine aimed at an older audience. Surfer’s Journal offers in-depth historical features, profiles, essays and gallery pages of photography and fine art, earning it a reputation as the National Geographic of surfing.
“I thought it was time to try a new take on surfing on the air,” Werner said.
In creating the Surfer’s Journal series, Pezman re-teamed with Ira Opper, whose Solana Beach-based Opper Sports originally produced the “Surfer Magazine” series (now handled in-house and airing Monday nights on OLN).
The Surfer’s Journal shows try to mirror the quarterly’s approach of taking “a more literate look at the sport of surfing on an adult level of interest through the eyes of an experienced surfer,” Pezman said. “We’re covering 10-, 20-, 50-year swatches of time about the chosen subject matter, be it a classic individual or a surf break.”
The scripts are written by Matt Warshaw, a former Surfer editor who has a degree in history from UC Berkeley and is arguably the premier surf journalist and historian. The shows are edited by Dana Brown, son of legendary surf filmmaker Bruce Brown and a driving force on “The Endless Summer II,” the 1994 sequel to his father’s 1966 classic about the quest for the perfect wave.
“Ira and his cameraman, Justin Krumb, complete the team,” Pezman said, “and Ira is really good at doing field interviews and just digging for building blocks.”
The most important building block is stock footage from what Opper describes as the world’s largest library of surfing film.
Fifteen years in the making, the library includes more than 50 surf films, more than 500 videotaped interviews with surfers and other significant figures in the field and an untold amount of contemporary surf footage. Pezman’s contacts and the Journal’s goodwill in the sport opened the door to historical footage from surf filmmakers who normally wouldn’t have participated.
Judging by the viewer response, the first Surfer’s Journal venture, “50 Years of Surfing on Film,” was a hit. A review in Surfer magazine hailed it as a “first-rate documentary that covers the history of surf movies--and, in effect, surfing.”
Outdoor Life reaches more than 13 million homes nationally, too small to be covered by the Nielsen ratings. Werner says the Surfer’s Journal series was renewed because it is high quality and has generated positive worth-of-mouth.
Pezman says the “Great Waves” series, which begins June 1, tells “the story of the people and historical events based around  surf breaks at points in time. It’s really a surf history using the breaks as a vehicle to spill the goods.”
The series, which began production in September, will profile spots in Hawaii (Waimea, Honolua and Pipeline), Australia (Narrabeen, Kirra and Bells Beach) and California (Huntington Beach, Malibu and Maverick’s--the big wave spot in Half Moon Bay above Santa Cruz). The final three shows will focus on “outposts"--Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, Tavarua in Fiji and Grajagan (or G-Land) in Java.
“I’m hoping people realize it’s the most definitive program ever done on a particular location,” said Opper, who recently returned from Australia, where he and Krumb shot the series final interviews.
The episode on Pipeline spans from the day in 1961 when Phil Edwards became the first to ride the now-famous break (captured on camera by Bruce Brown) to 1995, when Kelly Slater won his third world championship there.
Opper says the Journal crew scours hundreds of hours of footage “to find that exact moment” that best tells the story.
“We have material here in the library that hasn’t seen the light of day in 30 years,” he said. “And when you start looking through all that stuff, you’re seeing discovery; you’re seeing innovation; you’re seeing all the things that made surfing what it is.”
* “50 Years of Surfing on Film” has been released as four one-hour videos ($29.95 each), available in surf shops or by calling Surfer’s Journal, (800) 666-2122. The first segment of the “Great Waves” series, on Australia, will be available on videotape at surf shops beginning Wednesday.