I’ve long been a fan of HBO Real Sports but have found the 2014 season to be my favorite. When Real Sports debuted this season in January, there were many noticeable changes in terms of content, contributors, on screen look, and overall tone. As the year went on, I became curious about the show’s new direction and what the future may hold. With that in mind, below is an interview with Real Sports Senior Producer, Joe Perskie.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Can you give us some background on yourself and your role with HBO and HBO Real Sports?
I’m the senior producer of “Real Sports,” which means I oversee the show on a day-to-day basis. I’ve been in the role a little over two years. For the 11 years prior to that I produced segments for the show – about 60 of them in all. Before joining HBO I was at CBS, researching for the network’s broadcast of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Within HBO Sports as a whole, I’m a vice president under Rick Bernstein, our executive producer.
As a loyal viewer of Real Sports, I’m of the thought that this year’s season (2014) has pivoted to some degree with an emphasis on attracting a younger and broader audience with changes such as a new set, new correspondents, a focus on social media engagement, and a different mix of features. Am I crazy to say there has been somewhat of a change and if so what caused it and are you happy with the new direction thus far?
You’re not crazy. We’re going to turn 20 next spring, and I think that any show “of a certain age” needs to be sure that the product itself is not aging and stays fresh and current. The challenge is evolving without betraying any of the core principles – both journalistically and stylistically – that have made the show work in the past.
As you’ve seen, we’ve created a new set, along with a new logo, new graphics, and a new version of our theme music. We’ve added three new on-air correspondents in Soledad O’Brien, David Scott, and Carl Quintanilla. None are babies – that’s not really us – but they’re all young and energetic and have brought fresh faces and a fresh outlook. We’ve built a new social media infrastructure, not just to help us reach younger people but to help us get the word out to people in general about what we’re doing. And we’ve tried to be more current with the story selection when possible. We’ve done some fun pieces, like last month’s profile of sports impressionist Frank Caliendo and last spring’s story on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” We’ve looked at some sports that skew younger, like street skateboarding and video gaming. We profiled Red Bull and their empire of extreme sports.
At the same time we’ve been careful not to lose sight of our core identity. We’ve done more heavy, hard-hitting investigative pieces this season than in any season before. We’ve filmed in more foreign countries this season – by far – than in any season before. We’ve done more extended-length pieces than I think we ever have before. These are the kinds of stories I personally gravitated towards when I was producing segments for the show. So even as we’ve tried to keep things fresh, we’ve doubled down on the show’s historical strengths.
It was nice to see Frank Deford on last week’s panel on the state of the NFL. I’ve noticed that over the last 9 months, he’s only done 1 segment for the show. With a lot of younger talent at Real Sports, how much of Frank will we be seeing going forward?
Frank has actually done two stories for us this year: one in July on a special softball camp for child amputees, and one in January on Boomer Esiason and his son Gunnar, and how their remarkable family story actually dovetails with Frank’s own. There’s no better writer and storyteller than Frank, and there’s no finer gentleman. Each winter he asks if we want him to continue and it takes Bryant about two seconds to say yes. So we’ll take it a year at a time and have this discussion with Frank in the winter when the new season of Real Sports rolls around.
Real Sports has covered a lot of hot topic issues this year. What story are you most proud of? What story/stories have drawn the most viewer interest?
I think our story on Qatar, the host country for the 2022 World Cup, was probably the most ambitious and impactful story we ran this season. We researched it for over a year, shot it in six countries, and ultimately produced a double-length story on how this tiny country has long been obsessed with putting itself on the world map through sport – at seemingly any cost. We were the first to put their controversial win of the World Cup bid into this context, and the piece generated a lot of response.
I think in terms of pure viewer interest, our story on marijuana use in the NFL may have gotten the most. We started looking into it during the 2013 NFL season, and by the time we were ready to air it shortly before the Super Bowl, everything had lined up for us. The two home cities of the Super Bowl teams – Seattle and Denver – were in states that had just legalized pot. We also found a scientist in Israel whose work was suggesting that pot could – of all things – possibly help medicate head trauma. This at a time when the NFL was suspending players in some cases harshly for marijuana use, while taking less of a hard line on things like domestic violence. Add in the fact that people seem to love talking and debating about pot, and that story got a lot of buzz.
Lastly I’d note our story in February on the gun industry’s little-known but aggressive campaign in recent years to market to children, with the goal of securing future consumers (and future pro-gun voters). What made it a story for us is how the gun industry is doing it: by recruiting kids with the lure of shooting sports. We avoided making it a piece about whether guns are good or bad. This was a child welfare story. We ran a hidden-camera sequence in which a child actor who we hired tries (and fails) to buy a number of basic consumer products that most Americans agree we don’t want kids to be able to have – cigarettes, alcohol, pornography – and then goes to a gun show and pays cash for a rifle. We were the first ones to lay this all out, and when we can truly be original – not always easy in a crowded media landscape – those are the pieces we’re most proud of.
Showtime launched a similar program in 60 Minutes Sports. What are your thoughts about their entry into this space and how are the shows different?
The truth is that I focus on what we’re doing. I do keep tabs on their website to see what topics they’re covering – I want to know if we might’ve missed something – and between that and the stories I have seen, I think it’s a somewhat different show than ours. Obviously there are superficial similarities, but I don’t see that much overlap in terms of story selection or narrative style.
Circling back to my question about looking to attract a younger audience, have you seen the demographics of your audience change much in 2014? Give us a picture of the typical HBO Real Sports viewer?
The show’s viewership is actually up notably this year – about 10% up from last season. It’s hard to say how many of those additional viewers are younger. I do know we’ve seen certain episodes with youth-friendly themes draw a younger average viewer. But hopefully the improvements we’re always trying to make are appealing to people across the spectrum, not just young people. Our main goal continues to be what it always has been: to tell great stories.
As for the “typical Real Sports viewer,” I don’t know if there is one. Men 18 to 49 are the largest single group, but we have a pretty good cross-section of viewers. For a typical episode, 35 to 40 percent of our viewers are black or Hispanic, and 35 to 40 percent are women, which, for a sports-themed show, feels like a pretty healthy number. I pay attention to that number because I want our stories to appeal to men and women, sports fans and non-sports fans alike. Bryant and I have the same mindset: our favorite thing to hear, whether from a man or a woman, is: “I’m not a sports fan but I love your show”.
Bryant Gumbel’s closing monologues are very often provocative and at times controversial. Are the monologues 100% Gumbel’s or are there writers/researchers/editors who help in that process? Is there ever any dialogue in terms of feedback or criticism or is meant to be a part of the show where Gumbel can just let it rip?
Virtually everything on the show is a collaboration in some form – but those closing commentaries are the exception. They are all Bryant. He puts a lot of work into them because he wants to do something that is increasingly difficult in the era of Twitter and 24-hour sports news: say something truly original and thought-provoking. That space is designed to be his forum to express his views – uncensored and unedited – and that’s exactly what you see. He doesn’t hold his fire if he feels a certain way, nor do we ask him to.
When you take aim at a powerful institution, what is the aftermath like when the segment airs and the institution in questions ramps up a campaign to dismiss your reporting? Do you have to have a certain type of personality or stomach to do these type of stories and withstand the blowback?
It’s the nature of the business that from time to time you’re going to have an individual or an institution push back at your reporting. But we have a very careful, very thorough team here, and when we’ve reported something it’s because we’re confident that it’s accurate and fair. We also have tremendous support from our department’s leadership. I think it’s that knowledge, more than any personality trait, that allows you to withstand the blowback. It also helps greatly that our department’s leadership has always been supportive.
How do you guys find and select your stories? Typically how long is the process to find a story, investigate, tape, and edit each segment?
Ideas for stories can come from anywhere: reading, talking to sources, brainstorming with the on-camera reporters, or just keeping our ears open. Every Thursday afternoon we all get together and everyone pitches what they’re working on. Any ideas survive that are put into the research and development phase. That usually lasts a few months, though for the toughest investigative pieces it can go on for a year or more. Most stories will ultimately die off in that phase, but the ones that make it through will be greenlit and assigned to a full team for production: a producer, an associate producer, and an on-camera correspondent. That team of three then films over the course of a few weeks (on and off, since we’ll typically shoot in various locations). From there it’s a good week of sorting through the material, another week or so of scripting, then about 10 days of editing and all that comes with finalizing a story for air.
Have you ever had to pull a segment late in the game and if so under what circumstances?
There have been times when we’ve completed (and even promoted) a certain story for one month, then bumped it at the last minute when a newsier story materialized. Just last month we had a story on the use of chewing tobacco in Major League Baseball edited and ready to go, but when the NFL’s domestic violence crisis became a major story just a few days before our air date, we decided to postpone the tobacco piece to make room for a panel discussion on what was clearly a more timely topic. We’ll run the tobacco piece some time in the near future.
If Real Sports existed on a non premium cable network (with advertisers), how neutered do you think the show would be if it was beholden to advertisers concerns/feedback?
I think that there are so many challenges to doing independent, objective work, and accommodating advertisers is just one of them. Where that kind of pressure would really affect us and change the show is by forcing us to cater more attentively to ratings and demographics. Obviously we want as many viewers as possible, but when push comes to shove that’s not what drives our decision-making. Our mandate is to do top-quality, thought-provoking work that viewers can’t find anywhere else. The company gives us the resources and support to do that, and that’s what they expect to us to deliver. Happily that syncs perfectly with what we as journalists want to do. I don’t know that we could always prioritize quality and intelligent storytelling if we had to make advertisers happy every 30 seconds.
I think to some degree every storyteller at HBO benefits in the same way. We’re very fortunate to be here.
Any hints at some stuff we’ll see in the months to come and even next season?
I can’t divulge any specifics, but I can say that we’re going anywhere and everywhere to find the best stories. We just finished shooting in the Grand Canyon, and we’re about to shoot two stories in China, one in Australia, and one in a prison. And that’s all for episodes that will air in just the next few months. The upcoming season is our 20th on the air, so we’re hoping to make it a special one.