Home runs, touchdowns and slam dunks may be thought of as the domain of channels like ESPN, Fox Sports Net and the myriad of regional sports networks airing live athletic events. But sports programming is entering some pretty unlikely territory these days.
Several networks — including GSN, Travel Channel and Bravo — are getting down and dirty with sports programming. But they’re reflecting it through an entertainment lens.
Using sports as a backdrop, the networks are creating reality and scripted shows that executives say help to broaden their reach without alienating their core audiences who expect to see traditional entertainment programming.
At the same time, sports networks are beginning to rewrite their playbooks and are offering more reality and scripted fare in an effort to increase ratings and expand viewership beyond their traditional male, sports-craving constituency.
The fusion of sports and entertainment on television is not new. Hollywood has turned out many successful and Academy Award-winning scripts based on basketball (Hoosiers), billiards (The Hustler), boxing (2005 best picture winner Million Dollar Baby) and baseball (Pride of the Yankees). But until recently, only a few sports-based series have found their way to the small screen — Most notably, CBS’s high school basketball series The White Shadow in the 1970s, ABC sitcoms Coach and Sports Night, and current CBS series Listen Up.
But with the explosion of reality programming, network executives say its now easier to marry the excitement of sports with the drama that runs through reality shows.
Making that transition easier is the fact that sports have evolved from mostly male-dominated spectator events to a pop-culture phenomena where athletes have become larger than their games.
“From the kind of revolutionary advertising that Nike and other shoe makers created with athletes in the ’80s and ’90s — on through high-profile court cases — sports and the stars that play them are more in the limelight,” says Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick.
“You don’t just see athletes in the sports section and Sports Illustrated anymore,” she says. “They’re dating rock and movie stars now, and it absolutely positions sports in a more pop cultural way.”
Indeed, Bravo has successfully fused sports and entertainment with its Celebrity Poker Showdown series, which is averaging nearly a 1.0 household rating.
Other networks have also boosted ratings with sports-based reality series. While none of those shows are based on action from the major pro sports leagues, the networks have been able to take advantage of the audience familiarity and participatory nature of games like poker and horse racing to build quality and appealing reality programming.
“We can’t afford to do [National Football League] games or those big serious sports, so we’re looking at lighter sports and sports that people can do,” says GSN president Rich Cronin. “We have to look at other sports that have dual appeal.”
Executives say such programming also allows networks to broaden their audience base. For networks like GSN, which generally appeals to female viewers, shows like American Dream Derby and Extreme Dodgeball help bring in younger male demographic, according to Cronin.
“Since our network is about 65% to 35% female in everything we, do we want to make sure it has dual appeal,” Cronin says.
To provide a balance for its male and female viewers, Cronin says the network has incorporated both sexes in the action and drama of its shows like Derby, in which men and women competed for a grand prize of owning a race horse. That’s also the strategy behind GSN’s upcoming billiards series No Limit Nine Ball, in which men and women compete to determine the best pool player of the lot. Such shows give the network the best of both worlds.
“Horse racing skews very male, but if you look at a movie like Seabiscuit, it had a huge female appeal. And reality tends to skew more female,” Cronin says. “There was a lot of the soap opera elements [in Derby] that you’ll see in a series like Bachelorette. We wanted to make sure we weren’t doing a series that was just targeted to men.”
But there’s a male-magnet factor as well. Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, where actors like Ray Romano, Bonnie Hunt and Malcolm Jamal-Warner get together to play a few hands of “No Limit Texas Hold ’em,” tends to draw more male viewers than its biggest hits, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy and Blowout, says Zalaznick.
“We are definitely trying to find ways to really mine this pop-culture field and appeal to a broader audience, and [Celebrity Poker] is helping us do that,” she says.
Even the Travel Channel, which already draws a 55% male viewership, extends that ratio to a whopping 70% with its World Poker Tour series, according to Travel Channel vice president of programming Dan Russell. The three-year old series, which offers poker tournaments from around the globe, is averaging a 1.0 rating for the network.
“It’s a sporting event, but it’s also a reality event. It’s one of the purest forms of reality experiences one can have on television,” Russell says. “It’s opened up Travel to the masses and brought in a much broader audience than would typically come to the channel just to get information or to see great places.”
Reaching Non-Sports Babes
On the flip side, traditional sports networks are integrating reality and entertainment elements in between sports coverage to attract more female viewers. But executives say they’re careful not to anger their hard-core male viewers, who want to watch sports 24/7.
“People that don’t tend to watch ESPN on an avid basis come to the network [for entertainment-based shows] because they find something that also appeals to them,” says ESPN original entertainment senior vice president Ron Semiao. The network offers several reality-based shows, including Dream Job, in which contestants vie for a SportsCenter anchor spot or analyst position.
“We’re looking to broaden, not alienate, the audience,” Semiao says. “And it’s not like they’re on an island eating bugs. They’re competing in something that they’re actually going to be doing for their job. Our viewers can relate to that.”
Golf fans are also relating to The Golf Channel’s hit series, The Big Break, which has become one of the network’s first signature series, says The Golf Channel senior vice president of production and programming Bob Greenway. The show, in which the winner gets a shot at playing in a major pro golf tournament, has not only provided the network the opportunity to expand its audience — particularly to female viewers — but also provided additional awareness for the sport itself.
“It has definitely resonated with everybody — not just our viewers but [pro golf] players, athletes in other sports and celebrities,” Greenway says. “Even if you’re a casual golfer, you can relate to this opportunity to fulfill your dream.”
But while cable has scored several hits within the sports-reality genre, it’s had mixed success playing within the scripted programming arena. For every series like Home Box Office’s Arli$$ and First and Ten or ESPN’s Playmakers, there are a number of others that didn’t fare as well, like Showtime’s college basketball series The Hoop Life and FX’s poker-oriented skein Lucky.
Executives say it’s difficult to translate the passion, excitement and unpredictability of sports into a more structured, defined box where a script determines what happens on and off the field.
Even with a strong script and strong ratings, a hard-hitting scripted sports series could meet an untimely demise due to political considerations. ESPN’s first scripted series Playmakers, about a fictional pro football team, generated strong ratings but was dropped by ESPN after NFL officials complained that the series showcased the sport’s players in a negative light.
“It gets very tricky,” HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg says. “[Scripted entertainment is] a tough world … The competition is difficult, and the writer is always the key in developing that drama.”
Still, networks are taking their shots. Last week, ESPN finished the first season of its second scripted series, Tilt, based in the world of poker. The series finished with a 0.9 rating, according to the network. But the series fell well short of the 1.8 rating generated by Playmakers.
ESPN had not confirmed at press time whether Tilt would return for a sophomore season. Semiao says the series was always slated to have a limited run, although he would not rule out another campaign.
“Clearly we know that we have the ability to keep the program on and develop new storylines, so it’s a matter of whether we do that or look for something else,” he says. “It’s not a situation where we launched it saying, 'We hope it can be on the air for the next five years.’ We really looked at it as a limited series that would come to a specific conclusion.”
Semiao says the network will continue to pursue scripted programming and is currently developing a pilot set in the boxing world with Playmakers writer John Eisendrath.
“Whether it’s fiction of non-fiction, sports is just a great backdrop for storytelling,” Semiao says.
HBO’s Greenburg also says sports can serve as a primer for solid scripted programming. While the network doesn’t have any sports-oriented scripted series in development, he says the seven-year run of Arli$$, about the life of a sports agent played by Robert Wuhl, shows that the genre can work with a strong script and well-developed characters.
“If you look at the great scripted dramas on television, it’s either about the individual story like ER, or character developments like Sex and the City or Sopranos,” Greenburg says. “It’s a formula, but it also has to have a unique type of quality to it for it to really break through. It’s really about developing strong characters and stories.”
But executives say they have to walk a fine line to make sure that the programming remains true to the network’s core message. “We realize that [reality] programming needs to be entertaining, but it also needs to fit within our core demographic and what our viewers are looking for,” says Greenway, who adds that Golf is not planning any other ventures into the entertainment genre.
“With Big Break, it’s credible with viewers, because the contestants are legitimate and it’s real.”
ESPN’s Semiao also says the network will not abandon its hard-core male viewer and reduce the amount of live sports and information programming just to expand its viewership through entertainment fare.
“ESPN always has been, and always will be, about live events and sports news and information,” he says. “[Entertainment] programming tends to get a little more attention but doesn’t make up a lot of our schedule. What we’re not doing is putting on scripted programming in lieu of live events.”
Entertainment networks also understand the peril of drifting away from their core messages.
While Travel will continue to grow World Poker Tour, Russell says the network understands its limitations with regard to sports programming and will not push the envelope beyond profiling adventure-related travel experiences.
“We have to recognize that at the end of the day we are the Travel Channel and so we have to keep that balance,” he says.
Bravo may be planning to launch a celebrity billiards-based reality show later this year, but Zalaznick explains: “Some people ask, 'What are you going to do next, celebrity tidily winks?’ We get it; we’re not going to do anything against the brand or that’s boring. But as long as it fits that brand mandate, we’ll go down that path.”
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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