The quality of documentaries has never been higher across the sports world and one of the best original series makes its season debut Sunday night on Big Ten Network.  The Journey chronicles the Big Ten basketball season from the beginning of conference play through the Big Ten conference tournament.  If you haven’t seen The Journey, check out this clip from Wisconsin’s upset last year of Ohio State that goes behind the scenes with both programs.  The Emmy nominated series matches the storytelling of other great documenatry series like 24/7, 30 for 30, and Hard Knocks while gaining incredible access inside Big Ten programs in a relatively real time way.

With more and more conferences (and even teams) planning to launch their own networks, The Journey may be a trendsetter in college sports.  It makes a lot of sense for networks and conferences to follow the lead of BTN and work together to give fans access inside the schools while providing high quality original programming.  This look inside each conference program can be a great recruiting and publicity tool for the universities while providing insights for fans and ratings for the respective network.  That’s definitely a win-win-win scenario.  Even for college basketball fans outside the Big Ten, this series is definitely worth looking into.  The Journey is the highest rated series on BTN and it’s easy to see why after just watching the intro video for the new season below…  

With the premiere of The Journey this weekend, we had a chance to catch up with Bill Friedman from Big Ten Network, who has overseen The Journey since its inception in 2007 and serves as Senior Producer of Original Programming at BTN.  Our AA Q&A appears after the jump including how the network gains access to the programs, the challenges in making a real time documentary series, and what to look for in the season premeire…

Q: How did you transition from focusing on individual teams for The Journey in the first two seasons to looking at the conference basketball season as a whole?

A: We did do two seasons, one on Minnesota basketball and one on Illinois football.  It was more of a viewership driven decision.  If you focus on one school, the odds of getting an audience from that school is great, but it doesn’t guarantee interest from all the other ten institutions at the time, eleven now.  We wanted to find a way to bring the documentary type show to a forum that could touch more than one school per episode.

We did it with basketball two years ago saying let’s try this and we didn’t really know what form it would take, or if it would hold, or if people would like it.  We’ve been fortunate to get along really well with the schools and put some good television on the air.  And, it’s starting to develop a following, which is the greatest compliment we can receive.

Q: How do you narrow down what to show viewers and what stories to follow with more of a real time documentary series? 

A: We want to make sure that over the course of ten weeks we get to every school at least once.  If you’re a Big Ten basketball fan, you probably can’t go to every campus in a year to see a game, but we can.  We can provide that window into each program throughout the course of the season. 

Another thing we strive to do every year is character development.  We want to make sure that throughout the course of the year that we develop characters so you can see their season evolve.  For the audience, that’s a nice thing to see because we hope you become attached and interested in these people even if you’re not attached to the school.  Some of the feedback we get on Twitter that’s one of our favorite compliments is, “man, you make me care about guys on schools I hate.”  We’re doing our job if we can elicit that kind of comment.

We want to keep it fresh, with the school specific show you’re at the mercy of how their season goes.  You hope and you pray that School X’s season is interesting, but you kind of lose control.  Now, we can adapt to the storylines.  When schools are hot we can go and when schools are struggling sometimes that’s a storyline and you want to be on top of that.

Q: We think of college basketball coaches as having so much control over their program and it’s amazing to me you can get so much access and have these programs open up.

A: One of the ways we’ve been able to do that is just familiarity entering our third season.  The schools and the coaches and the student athletes are familiar with us and they’ve seen the show and know what we do and how we like to work.  Each school is a little different and you want to adapt to their comfort level.  I think we’ve done a good job of that.

Q: How does The Journey fit in with the evolution of BTN as a whole?

A: Clearly the main programming we have is our live events, and that will always be what drives our network.  The most compelling programming is not knowing who’s going to win or lose.  There’s a studio component to that to serve our viewers who are hardcore, loyal, intelligent Big Ten fans.  Original programming is just a different way of capturing the interest of Big Ten fans.

For us to do what we do with The Journey, it’s in tandem with the games.  If an Ohio State fan watches a game on our network, let’s say you happen to watch The Journey and saw content that made you more interested in an Ohio State player.  That’s going to continue to drive your interest in watching games and studio programming on our network because you learned something about this kid you can’t learn during a game.  The Journey humanizes the people you watch during our games.

Q: What should we look for early on in this year’s rendition with the season premiere this Sunday night?

A: We usually get a handle of the storylines around the fourth show, so to be able to give you a laundry list of names is a little hard right now.  That’s really the true beauty of our show.  There are some storylines we know we’re going to do during the year, but we want to see what evolves, what’s changing, what’s happening.

For the first show, I really like the lineup of topics.  We have some stuff on Matt Painter, who people forget was talked about maybe leaving Purdue before the season.  We were at OSU with Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas talking about their friendship.  We went to Indiana and talked to Cody Zeller, clearly one of the bigger stories of the season so far.  Then we did a really cool thing, we were able to go with Draymond Green back to his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan to see how his hometown made him the person and the leader he is today.

We always shoot a couple games because you have to pay off your storylines on the court.  We were at the Ohio State-Indiana game New Year’s Eve which was exciting, and fortunately at the Michigan State-Wisconsin game the other night, which is arguably the conference game of the year.  We have some cool elements from both of those games and people should get a good idea of who these people are in show one.


You can follow The Journey all season long on Twitter at @BTNJourney as well as checking out the show page here.

About Matt Yoder

Award winning sportswriter at The Comeback and Awful Announcing. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.