Last year, CBS launched a Four Sides of the Story documentary series on CBS Sports Network, covering Kris Jenkins’ 2016 NCAA championship-winning buzzer beater for Villanova, Tiger Woods’ first PGA tournament, how football’s kicker position had evolved and the 2016 Army/Navy game, each a half-hour documentary with at least four different perspectives broken up into four segments. They announced Monday that they’re bringing that series back with four new documentaries along those lines, beginning with Alabama Audible (on Alabama’s surprising switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and subsequent comeback victory in last year’s NCAA football national championship).
Alabama Audible will air on CBS on Sept. 22 leading into the SEC on CBS game that day, and will later re-air on CBS Sports Network on Sept 24. It will be followed by Mayweather vs. McGregor (a look at that famed fight from last summer) on Oct. 22 on CBSSN, UMBC – Bracket Busted (#16 seed UMBC’s upset of #1 Virginia in last year’s NCAA basketball tournament) on Nov. 19 on CBSSN, and Holy Loyola! (Loyola (Chicago)’s run to the Final Four last year) on Dec. 17 on CBSSN. CBS Sports vice president (original programming and features) Emilie Deutsch spoke to Awful Announcing last week about the series, saying that it stands out in a crowded documentary field thanks to the focus on presenting a moment in time and how different figures involved saw it.
“The challenge and the key to the approach is that you’re not just telling the story of what happened,” Deutsch said. “You’re not just saying, for instance, in The Alabama Audible, the first one that comes out in September, you’re not just saying that Tua came in at halftime and threw for so many yards, you’re actually getting into ‘How did each person experience that moment? What were the feelings? What are the anecdotes? What were the emotions surrounding it for that person?’ It’s a little hard sometimes to get to that, but that’s the challenge and that’s the key for this series.”
Here’s a trailer for this year’s Four Sides of the Story installments:
Why 30 minutes and four (or more, in the case of some segments with two points of view) segments? Deutsch said part of the approach there was to make documentaries that centered in on particular perspectives on specific moments and didn’t require a huge time investment from viewers.
“It sounds a little pragmatic, but we wanted to do easily-consumable bits of content, so we wanted to do half hours. And there are four segments in a half hour, so we thought that an interesting approach might be to take a moment in sports—it seems to work best with a moment, although we’ve also done an event or a theme—to take a moment in sports and look at it from points of view so that each segment has basically one voice in it, sometimes the segments have two voices.”
She said it can be difficult to get those specific perspectives unlocked in a way that fits for this series, but that’s something that’s become easier with practice.
“These are hard to do. It’s hard to translate to my producers exactly, because they’re not necessarily used to digging out the anecdotes, experiences, emotions. You can do emotion pieces, but these are to focus on a particular moment and how that moved a particular person. A lot of times it takes a little while to develop an idea, to hone an idea, to make sure the idea is working. I think we learned a lot last year.”
Deutsch said she thought last year’s One Stunning Moment (on Jenkins’ shot against North Carolina to win the national championship) particularly stood out as an example of what they were going for.
“The one on Villanova, specifically, Kris , that came the closest to accomplishing what we wanted to accomplish. And the four sides in that were, we had Ryan Arcidiacono, he’s the one who made the pass, we had [former Villanova coach] Rollie Massimino, who’s kind of the mentor to [current Villanova coach] Jay Wright, and so Rollie and Jay are in the same segment. And then we had Jim Nantz describing from his point of view that moment, and then in the last segment, we had Jenkins and his adopted brother Nate Britt Jr. [who was on the UNC team] and they each gave their point of view, which was really, really interesting.”
Last year’s documentaries covered two recent events (the Villanova title and the Army-Navy game, both from the previous year), one further-away event (Woods’ first PGA tournament), and a theme (the evolution of the kicker position). This year’s all focus on specific events from 2017. Deutsch said covering recent events can be great for the documentaries’ relevance and appeal, but it also can make it tough to dig perspectives out of those involved, especially those on the losing side.
“I love all the topics because they’re very current, which provides its own challenge. Because a lot of times, especially in a situation like Georgia [‘s loss to Alabama] or a situation like UVA [‘s loss to UMBC], they’re so current that it’s still so painful for people to talk about. So that in itself is tough. But I really like all four of them and I really think all four of them are going to bring unique stories and anecdotes to life.”
Deutsch said the four-sided approach is something they plan to keep building on going forward.
“In the future, we might do four shows around one theme, something like that. But I do think that CBS is committed to the concept and we will definitely be continuing the series.”
How does this series fit into CBS’ larger approach to sports documentaries? Deutsch said they try to cover a wide range of topics, and from different angles.
“We actually have quite the history of doing documentaries at CBS Sports Network on the cable side, not so much on the broadcast side, once in a while. I oversee both of those areas. The cable side is obviously easier as we have access to 24-hour programming windows. And so we’ve done in the past many many documentaries based on all kinds of different topics. Just as an example, we did a special on the Florida State circus; Florida State is one of two schools in the country that has a circus, an operating circus that the students run.”
“And then specifically to this year, we have the four four-sided documentaries that will start on Sept. 22 and air one a month through football season. And every year, we’ve done four to five Men of March half-hours, where we take one high-level coach in college basketball and spend several days with them and really get to know them, so we do those. And this year we will have a Black History Month offering of some kind.”
Deutsch spent 18 years at ABC Sports, where she oversaw documentaries and many other aspects of their programming, and has now been at CBS for 14 years. She said a key focus for her with documentaries is finding stories that haven’t been overdone.
“One of the things that I’ve made kind of a mark of my career is doing documentaries on diverse subjects, whether it’s women or African-Americans, Black History Month, topics like that. We have done a long-running series of Black History Month documentaries that I’m really proud of. And one of the reasons I love those stories is they’re not overtold. It’s hard in this day and age when there are so many outlets and storytelling is at a premium and content is everything. It’s hard to find those stories that are important enough to tell that haven’t really been told before. So philosophically, that’s kind of what we go for with some of the documentaries.”
She said there are some benefits from the growing numbers of outlets making sports documentaries these days, but also some challenges in an increasingly-crowded space.
“I have kind of the long view; I’ve been in the sports documentary business for a long time. It used to be…HBO has always done incredible stuff, and the four documentaries that they would do every year were just at the highest level and really set the bar, I think, for the industry. With [ESPN’s] 30 for 30, the success of that series and the fact that people are actually really interested now in those stories has just catapulted the documentary genre into a different stratosphere. But I think these days, there are so many people out there who are storytelling, there are so many more outlets, and there’s so much more demand for certain stories, it can be very, very challenging to get access.”
“The other thing that has changed, to be honest, is footage and the understanding of the value of footage. People understand now that that historical footage has real value, so that’s changed. But it’s fun to find a story that no one else has told and to be able to explore it. …It is difficult in the era of 30 for 30 to break through a little bit, but we’re hoping that the concept and the [small] time you have to invest to watch these stories can make them relevant and make them popular.”
This year’s Four Sides of the Story series begins Sept. 22 on CBS with “Alabama Audible.” More details on that documentary and the other 2018 installments can be found on CBS’ site here.