There are a handful of “We’re in the Golden Age of Sports Documentary” articles floating out there (psst mine was first). This is because well, we’re indeed in the golden era of sports documentaries. If you’re a fan of the space like myself, it’s encouraging to see more sports documentaries are being produced, acquired, distributed, watched, talked about, and so on.
But in the many articles that have existed in these observational articles, one thing that has bothered me is there really hasn’t been much genuine guidance from HBO on if and when they’ll look to reclaim some of their former status as king of the hill in the sports documentary game. Given the amount of time that has passed since ESPN’s splashy entry with 30 For 30 and the years since HBO shuttered its in-house production unit (which won 31 Emmys between 1991 and 2012) many may have forgotten that HBO was once the dominant force in the space.
Unfortunately, since the in-house unit was shuttered and HBO has looked to fill the void with external ideas, directors, and projects, the pace of documentary output from HBO has throttled down. Additionally, the scope of projects has narrowed a bit as a higher percentage of the films that have aired have been boxing-focused, piggybacking off HBO’s investment in the sport.
HBO puts out so much quality work, I wanted to check in and see if a re-emphasis on sports documentaries could be in the cards in the near future. With that in mind, I was granted access to HBO Sports President, Ken Hershman, in hopes of getting more insight into HBO’s plans going forward. Below my Q&A:
AA: There have been many articles on how we’re in the golden age of sports documentaries and yet it seems the original pioneer of this space has throttled back its ambition in this space. Going forward what is a realistic expectation to set in terms of output of sports documentaries a year?
Hershman: HBO is dedicated to providing our subscribers with the best original programming on television and that mantra extends to sports documentaries. We have an open-door policy as it pertains to our documentaries. We listen to ideas and pitches from filmmakers from Hollywood to New York to Chicago, and we are dedicated to working with talented producers, and directors. We review dozens of treatments each year. The challenge is to find stories and filmmakers that can create something that stands out in an already very crowded field.
AA: ESPN launched 30 for 30 in 2009. In 2011, HBO shut down it’s in-house sports doc production unit. How much of a role did ESPN’s entry into this space play into that decision?
Hershman: HBO is just like any other successful company in that it needed to adapt and make changes in order to remain ahead of the pack. In doing that, we were not influenced by any other networks but rather motivated by our own success. The company simply saw no need to stick with an in-house documentary unit and while the decision was made before my arrival, I agree with the strategy. HBO Sports needs to be flexible, opportunistic and avoid slipping into a routine or cookie-cutter mode. We have been successful since those changes took effect with documentary films such as Namath, Klitschko, Legendary Nights: Gatti-Ward, Tapia and the Peter Berg-produced State of Play franchise.
AA: For those who really enjoyed the HBO sports docs of yesteryear, what is the biggest constraint that is limiting production of new projects? Is it ambition, programming hours, the economics, lack of access to exciting projects, a fear of not living up to the reputation of previous works?
Hershman: The amount of sports documentaries offered on television has grown exponentially over the past few years. The sports documentary landscape is more crowded and competitive than ever before and HBO wants to make sure that we are using our resources in the most effective way possible. That means being receptive to meeting with established talent in the field while also listening to creative newcomers to the industry and being selective in pursuing projects that we feel will live up to the incredibly high standard that HBO has set for itself.
AA: I have a theory that the issue is largely a term we call in Silicon Valley “deal flow” in which the top tier venture capitalists get pitched by the more elite startups and those VC’s who are a bit further down the chain often don’t have access to those same opportunities. Is HBO suffering from a lack of “pitch flow” given 30 for 30 films have larger audiences on regular cable and have been more active? If so, how do you reverse that trend?
Hershman: I don’t feel that HBO is suffering from a lack of pitches or ideas at all. As I stated earlier, HBO is open to working with anyone and take projects from anywhere. We remain the gold standard for sports programming and have no shortage of talented people pitching us their ideas.
AA: Here are two quotes in various “We’re in the golden age of sports documentaries” articles that have come out in the last year:
“For us, sports documentaries still remain an important component of what we do,” Hershman said. “We are held to a high standard, and we strive in everything we do to fulfill that promise. Given our legacy in sports documentaries, it’s something that needs to be cherished and protected and guarded carefully.” – SBJ 7/2014
“Ken Hershman, the president of HBO Sports, said the company had not abandoned sports documentaries but wanted to create a “different space” for experimentation, rather than have a largely in-house group of filmmakers, like the one that won 31 Sports Emmys for HBO from 1991 to 2012. Those films, “were nice stories and nice projects,” he said, adding, “But we wanted to break the mold.” – NYT 3/2015
The first quote seems to point to a concern of quality for new releases given the HBO’s legacy while the second quote seems to ease off that reverence for the older films by calling them “nice” twice. Is HBO chiefly worried about a perceived lowered quality of new docs compared to older projects or are those old projects just “nice” and not an intimidating bar to attempt to jump over?
Hershman: The marketplace for sports documentaries is a crowded one. HBO is always focused on meeting the high quality standards that we have set for ourselves with all of our past success but we don’t measure the new path we are forging against the roads we have traveled. Instead we look to bring in creative new minds who speak to the audience in a way that we might not have five, ten or fifteen years ago. We just acquired a compelling biography on Greg Louganis (“Back on Board”) that will air in the next few months and in the fall we have Kareem: A Minority of One, our big sports documentary of 2015 that will tell Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s incredible life journey. We’re excited.
(Below is a trailer for “Back on Board”)
I was appreciative of Hershman’s time and thoughtful answers. From what I gathered, the ambition still seems to be there, which is a positive for those who have high opinions of the HBO Sports documentary brand. However, the new lay of the land both externally and internally for HBO has seemingly reset the landscape to a point where it will be tough for them to reclaim the frequency of quality output the in-house department provided for the company. Hopefully as HBO begins to build out more relationships with external filmmakers, there is some optimism that the frequency of green-lit projects and acquisitions could begin to pick up pace over time and we could see a bit more of an arms race with ESPN. What would be even more fantastic would be HBO partnering with Bill Simmons on a slate of documentaries and maybe a talk show. That’s probably more wishful thinking at this point, but at the very least it makes more sense than giving Joe Buck his own late night show.