From Hard Knocks and 24/7 on HBO Sports to Pros vs. Joes and The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, sports networks have taken a page from the entertainment playbook and adapted the reality-television genre for sports-centric audiences.
At last week’s Sports Entertainment Production Summit in Los Angeles, executives involved with established sports-reality franchises chatted with producers charged with starting up original-programming units for sports networks. After discussing pre- and post-production workflows, camera choices, edit systems, and storage costs, the panelists agreed that the most important factors in any sports-reality program are character development and compelling storylines.
Fly on the Wall
When selecting cameras for The Franchise, a behind-the-scenes look at the San Francisco Giants’ 2011 season, MLB Productions Executive Producer David Check needed a workflow that allowed for a quick turnaround time.
“When working with a quick turnaround [as on The Franchise], we attempt to stay with tape,” said Check, who later in the day presented a case study on the show. “Because we feed a lot of footage back to our facility and capture a lot of [ENG] content, [tape-based] is more conducive.”
Given the nature of the programming, he stressed the need for unobtrusive cameras and an increasing demand for minimal crews.
“One of the key buzzwords we like to use [when pitching the program idea to] the players is ‘fly on the wall’: not [taking] the player out of the rhythm of his day,” said Check. “That seems to resonate with the players. They don’t realize it, but what they’re doing could very often be compelling TV, so it works for all parts.”
Adapting to HD
As sports networks increasingly shift to HD, sports-reality producers must adjust their workflows and production costs to align with network standards and viewer expectations.
“The transition [from SD to HD] happened with Pros vs. Joes, which was a show Mess Media did for Spike TV,” said Scott Messick, founder/president of Mess Media. “The big [question] was really how much does it cost to do it in HD? Because the networks knew they had to carry some of that. It’s become much easier now, but, that first one, there were a lot of battles over how much more it’s going to cost.”
Initial concerns surrounding the transition to HD centered on technology-rental costs for the duration of filming; however, the prevalence of HD-capable cameras has made the upgrade more palatable to producers.
“When all the pro/consumer cameras are HD and your iPhone is 720p, we have to go that way,” said Michael Bloom, SVP, original programming, Fox Sports Media Group. “There’s no question.”
All About the Story
While the need for a director in reality television seems counterintuitive, Messick encouraged prospective reality-programming producers to choose wisely.
“There’s a significant amount of directing in reality TV, as much as it sounds like an oxymoron,” said Messick. “It’s a lot like sports directing: you have the rules, you have the playing field, and you have to put cameras in places where you will up your odds of capturing the significant moments.”
Because those significant moments are the basis of reality television, the panel agreed that selecting characters is the most important step in the process.
“[Pick] the right trajectories before you put anybody on the ground,” stressed Bloom. “[Know] that these characters are going to go somewhere with their stories and there’s going to be some tangible result. Know where you’re starting and know where you’re ending up. That’s the goal; that’s what we all strive for.”
Entertainment-based networks, such as Spike TV, are often faced with retired athletes looking to return to the limelight. Regardless of how big an athlete might have been in his or her prime, the panelists agreed that producers should continue to look for compelling trajectories and interesting storylines and not be swayed by fame.
“More than anything, you have to care [about the characters],” said Tim Duffy, SVP, original programming, Spike TV. “I think there’s a universal quality to storytelling that we must appreciate and value … In reality TV, there’s no difference. Ultimately, what matters most is that you care about the characters, so, if they are big and they’re famous and you care about them, fantastic. If they’re … at the beginning of their journey and you tell a good story, fantastic.”
For Bloom, selecting the right characters and trajectories will be pivotal to the success of Fox Sports’ new original-programming unit.
“HBO set the bar so high with Hard Knocks and 24/7,” said Bloom. “With respect to what they’ve done, [we at Fox Sports] will be looking to put our own stamp on [sports reality programming] … The three things [we’re looking for] are achievement, heart, and heroes, and the inverse of all those: achievement and loss, heart and broken heart, heroes and villains … Those are the filters we’re going to use most notably. We’ll have to strike a chord with all types of viewers that we have.”
An Original Approach to Original Programming
With Check representing the nonfiction documentary side of sports reality programming, Messick giving the competition point of view, and Bloom forging the path for Fox Sports, the panel demonstrated that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the sports-reality genre.
“What’s fascinating about the industry at this point in time is the fact that we have … very different perspectives on how to capture, and approach the capture, in order to edit these stories into something valuable and entertaining,” said Duffy. “Everyone’s coming from such different perspectives and areas of expertise; from the sports side, the game-show side, the talk-show side to the scripted side, this thing is kind of evolving and being born right in front of us right now.”