When one talks about documentaries on cable television, the image of The Discovery Channel’s Walking With Dinosaurs, National Geographic Channel’s National Geographic Explorer or even A&E Network’s Biography series come to mind. But a new breed of sports-based series, specials and events have helped introduce the documentary genre to hard-core and casual sports fans while enriching their viewing experience beyond live game action and sports news. Usual cable sports suspects such as ESPN and Fox Sports Net — as well as non-traditional sports entities such as Home Box Office — are devoting a liberal amount of their on-air schedules to documentary-based programming.
Executives say programs like ESPN Classic’s Sports-Century and Fox Sports Net’s Beyond The Glory not only help networks broaden their viewer base beyond traditional die-hard sports viewers, but also provide valuable content that could appeal to MSOs anxious to boost the value of their video-on-demand and subscription VOD platforms.
While documentary programming on sports-based networks is a relatively new phenomenon, individual sports personalities have been prominently featured in numerous documentaries from the entertainment networks over the years. It’s not unusual or odd to see Biography, E! Entertainment Television’s E! True Hollywood Story or Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait offer a look at the lives of such athletes as Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretsky, Arthur Ashe, Kobe Bryant, Florence Joyner, Lance Armstrong or O.J. Simpson.
But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that networks actually began to focus on developing sports-specific, story-based programming to complement live event programming. The birth of such shows as ESPN SportsCentury series chronicling the lives of past athletes like Jackie Robinson — which later moved to ESPN Classic — proved to the industry at large that storytelling within the context of sports can draw audiences and critical acclaim.
ESPN Classic executive producer John Dahl says sports documentaries have become more prevalent today because sports fans are looking for more insight into the games and the athletes they root for on a day-to-day basis.
“It really gives you an opportunity to get to know the person or the people involved,” Dahl says. “With just game broadcasts or just press conferences, you don’t get to know [sports] people at all. Documentaries offer you that chance to understand what was behind certain decisions by a team or in a person’s life. It’s about an opportunity to tell a fair and balanced story.”
Indeed, with a cornucopia of networks offering live sporting events replete with flashy, in-your-face graphics and hyper-active play-by-play announcers, industry observers say sports documentaries give viewers a chance to exhale and see the game from a different perspective.
It also gives younger viewers an opportunity to learn about the history of a particular sport and players who paved the way for the superstar athletes of today.
“People like to look back to see how sports and athletes were presented during different eras,” says Tony Paige, a sports-talk host at New York’s WFAN radio. “[The documentaries] are well done, and give people a chance to be entertained by history and not be yelled at [by announcers].”
For sports networks, documentaries provide a respite from the taxing and often expensive production of live sports programming. It also provides cable networks with unique sports programming that the broadcast networks don’t have the resources to develop or are unwilling to produce.
“There are a lot of networks out there that can televise a game and give sports news, but it’s hard for them to go beyond that,” ESPN’s Dahl says. “You can’t see these documentaries anywhere else, and I think cable has more time to devote to storytelling.”
CSTV president and CEO Brian Bedol adds: “On broadcast, every minute of time is precious. One of the luxuries of cable is you have the time and shelf space to tell important stories.
“Cable has the ability to superserve viewers interests,” says Bedol, whose network is devoted to college sports. “So while there might be a big game on broadcast, there might be an opportunity on cable to dig in deeper into the players, the coaches, the rivalries, the history, the context or whatever.
For non-sports networks like HBO, such fare helps broaden its potential subscriber base.
Despite offering very limited sports programming — the network featured Wimbledon Tennis tournament coverage as well as World Championship Boxing Events — the network in 1991 produced When It Was a Game. The baseball-themed documentary took personal video clips of players during the 1950s and 1960s to present a rare vintage look at the sport.
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg says the success of Game emboldened the network to take the financial and creative risk to develop quality documentaries in an effort to reach sports fans who may not have ordinarily subscribed to the pay service.
“It’s has become a huge programming category for us,” Greenburg says. “Our motto is: ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think and send a tingle up their spine.’ When you can draw on that kind of emotion from the viewer, then you have a major success story in television.”
Frank Sinton, executive producer of Fox Sports Net’s weekly Beyond the Glory series — which profiles the lives of contemporary athletes like basketball great Kevin Garnett — says that niche-oriented cable networks have the ability to devote the necessary production resources and air time to give viewers multiple opportunities to view the various sports documentary programs.
“I think sports documentaries have become such a staple [for cable] because it’s the essence of good storytelling, and there are a lot of good storytellers out there between us, ESPN and HBO. There’s a lot quality out in the genre,” he says.
Targets Male and Female
Traditionally, such mini soap-opera type shows have resonated more with women than men. But executives say the sports element within such content gives documentary programming a one-two punch effect of drawing both female and male viewers.
“What we strive to do is tell stories that appeal to a broader audience, both male and female as well as casual- and hard-core sports fans,” says Fox’s Sintron.
ESPN’s Dahl adds that such network shows as The Season, in which a team is followed for a full sports season, appeal to action-heavy male viewers who want a behind-the-scenes look at their favorite teams, and women who like the storytelling aspects of the show. The network this month will debut a new anthology series Timeless, which revisits historical sports events with the people who made them great. Upcoming episodes include a contemporary look at the players and people surrounding the 1954 Indiana Hoosiers team which inspired the film Hoosiers.
“We try to humanize sports. There’s no reason why a male isn’t going to want to have a better understanding of their teams, their heroes and stars,” he says. “We give them that chance in a fair and impartial way, not only for what they did on the field but you get to know what they’re like as a person.”
Cable sports networks in particular are also willing to open the purse strings to develop quality shows. Executives say the cost of a one-hour documentary series ranges between $100,000 and $500,000 — less than a traditional scripted series, but certainly not inexpensive fare.
Also, executives say documentary fare does not come close to generating the ratings that live pro sports telecasts, or even daily news programs like ESPN’s SportsCenter do. Typically ratings fall in the ballpark of a 0.1 to 0.7, the sources say.
Nevertheless, network executives note that such shows are worth the investment because they provide networks with quality programming to fill around its live sports events. “One of the keys to having a successful network is having a balance and variety of programming,” CSTV’s Bedol says. “You obviously have to have live games and events, but if you want to super service a category like we’re doing with college sports, you want news and information to supplement it, and you want to have documentaries.”
For upstart sports networks like CSTV and the NFL Network — which can tap the vast library of football documentary programming from NFL Films — unique and compelling documentary fare also opens up marketing and promotional opportunities within the mainstream press that ordinarily wouldn’t be available with just live sports programming. Bedol points to the CSTV’s recent special on the life of 1980 U.S. Olympics hockey coach Herb Brooks, which garnered reviews and headlines from sports television writers that ordinarily wouldn’t be afforded a network like CSTV which doesn’t have mass cable distribution.
He adds that the network is ramping up to devote as much as 20% to 30% of its programming lineup to documentary programming.
“The most important aspect of any network’s success is marketing and promotion, and documentaries are able to get reviewed and get columnists to write about them,” Bedol says. “From a marketing standpoint, it provides a good foundation for people to notice the network. From a values standpoint, documentaries — while they can be expensive to produce — have a much longer shelf life than a game.”
Even in a subscription environment, HBO’s Greenberg says sports documentaries serve as an effective retention and acquisition tool that supersedes whatever ratings such content garners for the network.
“The noise it generates in the marketplace is of greater value to us [than ratings],” Greenburg says. “If we can put an hour on television and then have every writer in America write an inspiring commentary on our product in every newspaper in the country, then we’ve generated a certain amount of HBO buzz in the market, and that justifies our putting the piece on the air.”
The Tennis Channel is also using documentaries to help sell the channel beyond traditional sports fans. Along with acquiring several rarely seen vintage tennis documentaries featuring such stars as Althea Gibson, the network features a documentary series, No Strings, which profiles the off-the-court lives of today’s touring pros.
Tennis Channel executive vice president of programming and marketing Bruce Rider says the series — which features such athletic and attractive stars as James Blake and Anna Kournikova — has helped the network not only attract non-tennis viewers, but also gives hard-core tennis fans an opportunity to get to know the players they root for.
“People have seen a lot of tournaments on television, but what they haven’t seen is something up close and personal with these players and understanding them as interesting people and interesting athletes,” Rider says. “One of the great things about Tennis as a network is that we have stars and players who are celebrities beyond the sport and have much media recognition. What we’re doing is helping people to get to know those players but also get to know the other players that they don’t know so well.”
Because of its timeless appeal, documentary programming also gives sports networks a bargaining chip in carriage negotiations with operators. Network executives say such content could be offered as library fodder for MSO VOD and SVOD offerings.
“Our goal is to be very responsive partners with our distributors, and one of the objectives of our distributors is to make compelling on-demand product for their customers,” CSTV’s Bedol says. “This type of programming tends to perform well on the VOD platform.”
Adds ESPN’s Dahl: “VOD is certainly an option. We have to look at rights and clearances issues. Sometimes we’re able to clear a certain piece of video for air on ESPN networks that we may have to slightly re-work for VOD purposes, but we want to maximize the opportunities for people to see them.”
Plenty of Stories
Despite several cable-network outlets offering documentary programming, network executives say there are plenty of compelling stories yet to be told — and enough interest from viewers to keep the genre going.
With several documentaries in production, including a look at baseball after the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks, Greenburg says HBO has more than enough projects to keep sports fans watching the network.
“We’ve always felt like there’s a bottomless pit of dramatic stories that would lend themselves to solid television, whether it’s the story of the 1980’s U.S. Olympic hockey team, or Joe DiMaggio or the [American Football League] or the [American Basketball Association] or the curse of the Bambino,” Greenburg says. “These are great stories, and if you can tell them in an effective way with a beginning middle and end, then you can really attack people’s emotions.”
Adds Dahl: “You know sports documentary storytelling is catching people’s attention when SportsCentury received a sendup on Saturday Night Live a few years ago. That’s a pretty good indication that people are noticing.”