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Athletes Footage: ESPN and Fox Sports Net Shoot, Score with Sports Doc Series

By Tom White

Football legend Jim Brown, a subject of ESPN's signature documentary series, 'SportsCentury.' Courtesy of Cleveland Browns.

Over the past five or six years, two of the leading national sports networks—ESPN and Fox Sports Net—have developed documentary series that have taken their places among the pantheon of the sports documentary genre.

ESPN Classic's SportsCentury has earned Emmys and Peabodys for its flood-the-zone approach to telling the story of the world's greatest athletes, while Fox Sports Net has carved its own niche with Beyond the Glory, a series of profiles of some of the most legendary and controversial athletes in recent history-narrated, for the most part, by the athletes themselves.

With three networks, including HBO Sports, investing heavily in sports documentaries, this just might be a golden age for the genre.

Documentary spoke, in separate telephone interviews, to Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president, programming and production; and Read Jackson, Fox Sports Net's vice president, original programming, joined by Frank Sinton, executive producer, from the production company Red Skies Entertainment (Beyond the Glory) about what makes their documentary programs so distinctive.



I wanted to go back to the origins of SportsCentury, to the SportsCentury: 50 Greatest Athletes series that ran in the late '90s. Prior to that series, had ESPN produced documentaries or documentary series?

Mark Shapiro: We had done a lot of documentary one-offs here and there. We had never made such a massive and ambitious commitment and undertaking as we did with SportsCentury.


Talk about how the 50 Greatest Athletes series was developed-what were your goals and objectives for this series?

MS: It was 1998, and everyone was planning for some sort of celebration of the end of the century. We decided that if somebody was going to do sports, not only did we want to be really the ultimate guide, but we felt we had a responsibility. We were going to produce countless hours of programming with all sorts of ancillary offshoots that will put us in a position of having to define and chronicle the century in sports—the movers, the shakers, the influential, the best, the worst—and try to give our viewers a snapshot of how we came to be what we are today.


How would you define a SportsCentury documentary?

MS: Let's focus on the 50 Greatest Athletes series. What distinguished us is that people heard the announcement of the series, and they figured we were going to do a series of bios that would inevitably be puff in nature. We had a totally different tack that I think surprised a lot of people. We were going to set the table for the context of what these athletes accomplished, but the profiles would be more about who the person was, not the athlete—getting behind the curtain, finding out what makes him tick, warts and all. And what would also set us apart is that we set out to interview anyone and everyone associated with that individual athlete. We were looking for something that revealed the inner person, and people really were refreshed by that.

Hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, a subject of ESPN's signature documentary series, <em>SportsCentury</em>. Courtesy of New York Rangers

Did you apply that same approach when you developed the SportsCentury series out of The 50 Greatest Athletes?

MS: Absolutely. We stay on this path of exposing this person inside the athlete because these athletes, while we treat them as demigods, have the same sensitivities and vulnerabilities as every other human being. And breaking them down and positioning them as someone everyone can relate to is ultimately what brings viewers back each week.

The bent that we've now taken is that we're aiming for contemporary athletes. You don't have to be retired or passed away or a legend to be in our series. There are too many major stars of the day that people will want to get an inside glimpse of, so we try to target, for the most part, those that are making headlines today.


In planning and developing a SportsCentury season—and you have 38 episodes in the 2003-04 season—talk me through the process. Is everything developed in house? Do you have a stable of filmmakers?

MS: We do have a stable of producers that work both in-house and out-of-house that have been on the series now for a number of years. Now and then we'll try out a new production team or new producer, but for the most part it's been the same people who have been with us the entire time.


In working with  independent producers, how hands-on are you in the process?

MS: We're unbelievably hands-on. We vet out outlines, we dissect the scripts, we set an agenda for those individuals or testimonials that we want to target. We still go through seven or eight rough-cuts before we get to a final piece. We write all of them, and we are very, very stringent on the look.


What is a typical timeline for an episode of SportsCentury documentary, from idea to airing?

MS: Three months.


In the past year and a half, you've been responsible for all programming, across the ESPN spectrum. Are there other documentary series being developed or programmed in conjunction with ESPN Original Entertainment?

MS: We're doing a new series called Timeless. It just debuted as a pilot. It is a series of those stories that aren't on the front pages, even of the sports section. They're buried underneath. It's the 76-year-old lawn mower at Augusta [the site of the Masters golf tournament]. It's the high school coach somewhere in the back of the woods who's been coaching for 32 years and has an unbelievable winning record. Sports is so beautiful because it's reality, it conjures so many evocative images and emotional traits, and it transcends gender, race and age, and often mirrors society. We do three profiles of an event or a topic or a person for each episode. We've done two episodes, and we're analyzing and evaluating launching an entire series of it in HD.

Besides that we do a lot of one-offs. David Halberstam did a book on teammates, and we did that. Neal Leiffer, the famed photographer—we did a documentary on his career. Dick Schaap [the sports writer]—we did what I think is probably our finest piece of work chronicling his career, which bounced into so many different arenas and genres. That was an Emmy winner for us. So it's really just what comes to us. Right now we're contemplating doing a 90-minute special on Shirley Povich, the Washington Post sports writer who passed away just a few years ago, but worked at the Post for 60-plus years.


If you come across a documentary that was self-produced, would you consider acquiring that for your channel?

MS: If there's something out there that we can just acquire, we'll do that. The Season series is a good example. A couple of filmmakers followed two high school football teams behind the scenes for an entire year. And [the filmmakers] brought it to us. We engaged them and re-edited the show. But we essentially aired their product.


Along those lines, can filmmakers submit work to you, on a cold-call basis?

MS: Absolutely. We get eight to ten pitches a day.


ESPN is part of the Disney/ABC family. With regard to documentary programming, do you collaborate with ABC Sports or with Disney or The Disney Channel?

MS: No. We have terrific synergy and we communicate across all platforms, but I believe that, especially as it relates to sports, ABC Sports and ESPN work in tandem, and I believe that in the next couple of years, you will see ABC Sports endeavor to produce more documentaries.



Did Red Skies Entertainment come to Fox initially with the idea for Beyond the Glory?

Read Jackson/Fox Sports Net: It was a Fox production initially, and I was the executive producer on several other projects at Fox. Frank [Sinton] was the vice president of programming at Fox at the time, and Beyond the Glory originated as a Fox production. We went out of house to hire people on the original production.

Frank Sinton/Red Skies Entertainment: It was a concept that, given the model of Fox Sports Net in terms of looking for programming, would have shelf life and be able to play in different time periods, because part of the network's mission is to create programming that can work around the regional programming. Documentaries and that type of storytelling always appealed to me; we had talked about [Beyond the Glory] in programming for a long time, and finally we put together the right concept, the right people and the right financing to get it off the ground. Once we able to do it, it was an immediate success. It became the highest rated show on the network. It was reset as a Fox Sports Net-commissioned project that originated with the network, and we found producers to do it for us.

Basketball superstar Grant Hill, subject of FoxSportsNet's <em>Beyond the Glory</em>. Courtesy of Fox SportsNet

What were your goals and objectives for this series?

FS: The main thing we tried to accomplish was really try to get, as the title implies, beyond what we're used to hearing about the athletes and be able to get into their personal lives and the stories that we haven't heard about.

RJ: And the key part of that was that they would tell us in their own words. The program on Mike Tyson was almost like a true confession. He just opened up to the producers. It was a bridge that hadn't been crossed too often in any other sports documentary to this point.

FS: Stylistically, we also wanted to create something that was modern, that had energy, that moved, and we tried as much as possible to do this cinematically. While Beyond the Glory was a series that did have some consistency, each story would have its own feel. You bring different things and try to make the creative presentation of the show match as much as possible what the story is and what the athlete brings.


What were some of the sports documentaries in the history of the genre that inspired you going into Beyond the Glory?

FS: It was more than just sports documentaries that inspired us; it was the documentary art form. What Behind the Music did for VH1, frankly, was a much bigger inspiration for us in wanting to create the series. What [that series] did for music was what we were trying to do for sports.

RJ: We wanted to hear the stories of the people who lived the story, rather than those who observed the story. We still claim that as the strongest way of telling a story because what you're saying is not coming out as hearsay and conjecture. You're letting the people tell the story.


Regarding Red Skies Entertainment, do you have a stable of filmmakers that you work or do you work with a mix of independents and in-house filmmakers?

FS: We have about four or five producers that we go to fairly regularly for a majority of our work. We do branch out occasionally; we're always looking for someone to show us a new and better way. But there is a set stable of really talented producers.


Are you open to independent producers pitching their ideas to you?

FS: We're looking for great stories; where they came from doesn't matter. Our Carl Lewis episode came from Ron Kraus; he had just come off directing a feature for the Sci- Fi network and Carl Lewis had just acted in his movie. The director was just so enamored with Lewis' story, and he was looking for an outlet to tell the story. He came to us, we went to the network and they said, ‘Great.' Kraus is now producing it, which is exciting for us—he's a new talent, but is someone who's so intimately passionate about the project that he's going to put his heart and soul into it, and he has a vision of how he wants to do the show. We're excited about how it's going to come out.


What's the process of planning out a season of Beyond the Glory?

RJ: I'll talk from the network side. There's headliners and there's people with stories, and there's the constant balance and the discussion about the balance. There was an incredible story on Oksana Baoul, which turned out to be an incredible piece of film by David Michels, who is Al Michels' brother and uncle of the other executive producer of the show, Steve Michels. Brilliantly told. Okasna gave full access to her life, her coach. With Kobe Bryant, there was limited access; he was a high-profile player, 23 years old at the time. How much life had he had? Oksana did not rate as high as Kobe Bryant, for obvious reasons. So how do you marry those two requirements and tell a good story about a good subject? We have these debates all the time, and we come to conclusions and we change our mind a lot.


What about the collaborative process between Fox Sports Net and Red Skies Entertainment, and Red Skies Entertainment and your producers. How hands-on are those respective collaborations?

FS: It varies. We're in our fourth season. With success comes a little more autonomy. The networks have been great. The key thing is upfront, starting with that list: What are the topics that we're going to go after? Our show is based on the participation of the athlete. So the first step is obviously going back and forth with the networks in terms of who would make good subjects for this upcoming season? Once the list is signed off on, we go out to the various athletes and try to secure their participation.

Once the production begins, we try to give our producers as much autonomy as possible. Obviously the ones who have done ten or 12 shows for us have earned that right, and the network has been great about letting us do our work, come up with our story. We have a regular process—we put together a rough cut and Read looks at it, we get the notes, and it's a very smooth and collaborative process. But the crux of putting the story together is pretty autonomous from the producer's part; we have some tremendously talented editors, and we like to give them time to do their magic on the story.


What is a typical timeline for a Beyond the Glory documentary from concept to delivery?

FS: It varies dramatically. Some can go as quickly as three months, but then the production on Mike Tyson took us eight or nine months. Some of it just depends on the richness of the story, the cooperation and availability of the athlete, how much goes into it, and the time we need to do all of our homework—research, finding footage, etc.


I wanted to talk about Fox Sports Net regional programming vs. national programming. How does that structure work?

RJ: It's a unique environment. For instance, Fox Sports Net/Northwest just did a whole series on the Seattle Mariners. We had nothing to do with it. It's all their producers and their staff. That's part of what makes us unique and very difficult to program. While this is a national show, it's not aired in every region at the same time, necessarily. It's much like the local and national TV markets and networks. We are currently doing a magazine show called Fox Sports Net Across America, in which the regional producers are providing segments for it, and we are putting it together here.


Do the regional producers have a certain allegiance to the national Fox style, even though they're producing documentaries for a regional audience?

RJ: Not really. I couldn't compare the regional attempts to a Beyond the Glory look because of the nature of the experience and the time they had to do it. But they are strong programs and we try to help when we can. We are in an interesting position right now to be grooming field producers to be better at what they do, with Fox Sports Net Across America. If you look at the networks and the documentary and reality magazine and news magazine shows, most of those people who are now producing for, say, 60 Minutes cut their teeth in their local market region for CBS out of Baltimore, or out of Miami. They made it to the show, so to speak. We're hoping that happens here as well.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.