SBJ/July 21-27, 2014/In Depth

Network strategies differ on sports docs

The sports documentary market is as frothy as it’s ever been, thanks largely to the sports channels that are increasingly finding room on their schedules for the genre.

“The networks are definitely eyeing sports documentaries, and they’re definitely taking advantage of it,” said former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg, who has deals to produce documentaries for several channels.

NBC followed race coverage with a Kurt Busch documentary.
But the sports networks are using different strategies when it comes to commissioning sports documentaries. Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network use sports documentaries to supplement their live rights, while ESPN uses its “30 for 30” brand as a storytelling vehicle that is not dependent on whether its subject is on ESPN’s schedule.

“It probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense for us to do a baseball doc. Nobody’s coming to NBC Sports or NBC Sports Network for baseball or the NBA,” said NBC and NBCSN Programming President Jon Miller. “We’re going to focus on the sports that people are coming to us for so that they know when they come that they’re going to be well-entertained and treated well.”

For NBC, that means more documentaries like “Kurt Busch: 36,” which followed the race car driver as he competed in the Coca-Cola 600 and Indianapolis 500 on the same day this year. NBC, the broadcast channel, carried the half-hour show after the Formula One race in Montreal June 8. NBCSN carried a one-hour “director’s cut” later in the month.

“We were able to take advantage of the lead-in and expose people to it,” Miller said. “Plus, we had the benefit of getting multiple uses out of a documentary that really helps benefit both NBC and NBCSN and also serves to promote IndyCar racing and NASCAR racing.”

Fox Sports executives outline a similar strategy for its channel, Fox Sports 1, that launched last August. Fox Sports 1 has commissioned documentaries that support the company’s live rights deals. As an example, Michael Bloom, Fox Sports senior vice president of original programming, brought up an upcoming documentary he is doing with MLB Productions called “Closer Kingdom.” The documentary will focus on baseball’s late-inning pitchers. Fox Sports holds rights to live MLB games including the World Series.

“We’re a young network. We’re growing. It has to make sense to support our live event programming,” Bloom said.

ESPN takes the opposite approach in its “30 for 30” series, focusing more on storytelling than supporting live rights. In fact, the next documentary to come out of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series will be a story from the Tour de France, even though NBC holds the rights to that event. “Slaying the Badger” is scheduled to debut Tuesday.

“You may not like cycling, but this is an incredible story,” said Connor Schell, vice president and executive producer at ESPN Films. “It could be easy to fall into the trap of doing all films about college football or the NBA because we’ll attract more viewers. What we’re trying to accomplish in this series is to continue to be interesting.”

ESPN’s strategy is more in line with premium channels, like HBO, Showtime and Epix, than other basic cable channels. Premium channels are more interested in finding good stories rather than supporting other programming.

“We’re looking for the really important stories — ones that fit our idea of what can cut through the clutter, be important and elevate the HBO brand,” said HBO Sports President Ken Hershman. “Those are not easy to find.”

Added Showtime Networks President David Nevins: “It’s not the most valuable content to own. It plays really well on our network and our subscribers seem to like it. We get a lot of viewers. And they can be evergreen. They can live on the Showtime Anytime platform for a long time. Sports documentaries have an afterlife in a way that topical sports content doesn’t.”

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