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The TV Sports Documentary
By Ron Steinman

The sports documentary is a genre of its own, with many of the techniques used by ESPN, Fox Sports and HBO, honed by years of the segments produced for the Olympics where sports producers sharpened their theory of soul for an audience that really could not care anything for Olympic sports. These techniques work for the average sports fan and perfectly for the non-believer who rarely watches sports on TV.

These documentaries are a curious breed. They are each a template for the other -- look alike, sound alike, and have the same pace. The independent documentary filmmaker should not attempt to enter this market. It has its own form of limited creativity, a formula never deviated from that the masters of that universe are happy with and will not change.

Sports Century on the ESPN Classic channel is ESPN’s answer to Biography on A&E. They use many interviews in medium close up and medium shot, with heavy shadowing on the subject’s face, usually in heavy contrast, and a soft, non-descript background. There is a minimum of narration, and the lower third identifiers have a flare to them. The interviews mix in a minimum of actual archival footage that shows the athlete playing his or her game. Having produced films about athletes and other entertainers, I know how expensive the actual footage is and how often limited budgets are. The producers therefore rely on family photos, news clips and for ESPN a studied method of using many elements in a single shot to form the cutaways for the interviews and to break the monotony of the talking head.

Many of those cutaways, the glue that holds these shows together, have their origin in editing. What I call planted shots prevail, meaning those created either in the field, or processed in the edit room through the medium of dissolves, such as a football against a barn door, hockey pucks neatly arranged against a newspaper headline, a low angle shot of a basketball with the net in the background in deep shadow. These are always in deep contrast with sepia the dominant color, as if that gives the images serious meaning. It is as if the producers and their clever tape editors are saying that these lives in sports that we are portraying are indeed serious because we are conveying them in deep earth tones. The editing is crisp and combined with the processed images, the interviews move well with a minimum of narration. Statistics drive sports coverage. Sports fans are willing addicts so many statistics fill the hour. The research is good, I like to think, with hardly any detail left unmentioned.

The music always sounds the same with the tinny sound that comes from using synthesizers rather than life musicians. Obviously, cost is a factor because real musicians cost too much money. Thus the mostly forgettable, especially when it is under the talking head’s statements, thus fighting the words because it is often too loud or too disconcerting.

Mostly the Sports Century shows are not critical of the athlete, and are rarely controversial, though they do touch on the flaws in the men and women they profile. But always with excuses about their family life, the neighborhood they come from, their suffering parents, or any other excuse. These shows, other than making money for ESPN, serve a purpose because they try hard to humanize many of these god-like figures. After all, ESPN’s audience is looking for heroic feats in sports beyond what we mortals are capable of, so why not entertain with a neatly controlled story. ESPN’s formula works for well and the network will probably not change it. Sports fans can relax.


1 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

Now to “Mantle” as presented by HBO Sports. My only question, is why Mantle yet again? I do not know how many documentaries there have been on Yankee great Mickey Mantle, but this last one was unnecessary. Rarely have I endured as much reverence in tone and execution in one hour toward Mantle in every phase of his life. He is victim. He has no control of his faults. Almost everyone wonders how great he could have been if not for his drinking and carousing. He could not live up to his father’s expectations. Now that is something new that probably none of us ever experienced. Hero. Feet of clay. A wasted life.

Veneration to the extreme in how the many interviewees talked about his life. We all know the story. I will not repeat the outline of his life and his public death. Some of the interviewees were downright sweet. Here was Mickey, the country-boy, and the man-child, making it large in the big city with the greatest sports franchise in history. The subtext was that he was one of the best despite his drinking and wasted life. Here is Mantle trying to overcome the family curse, a silly euphemism for alcoholism. Call it for what it is. I think we can handle it as grown-ups.

The opening sequence or tease was so good that I expected more of the hour to be the same. It was not. It was as if all the producer’s energy and effort went into that few minutes designed to suck you in if the Mantle name had not already done the job. Then came the rest of the profile, and except for the excellent archival research into stills, film and newspaper and magazine clips, I almost expected the large cast of on-camera participants to genuflect at the thought of Mickey swinging the bat and making a remarkable catch in centerfield. But HBO Sports gives its producers big budgets because sports teams and their leagues charge heavy fees to use their product on the air.

The phony, predictable, studied shots on the farm were clearly that, phony. The way the producers framed other shots of a baseball bat in various positions against barn walls were unnatural. The viewer deserved better. I would have rather seen the farm in a more natural setting. By the way, the farm was too neat, not muddy or dusty, unlike any I saw over the many years when I covered political primaries and national elections.

I believe the producers and HBO had a love affair with Mantle and allowed the idea to get ahead of their good judgment to produce the film, and then put together a film that would be lasting instead of fleeting. Think, HBO, of all the important docs you could produce. The recruitment of athletes from the time they are children and how that affects the lives of all who touch them. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in all sports and their effect on all of us. College athletes and how the schools use them to create huge revenues and do not seem to care about the individual athlete. Where are the college super stars now considering that even few of them make the pros? Sports medicine and do doctors really conform to the teams wish and the coaches wish that the team must come before the athlete. Race in sports, a hidden illness. These are a few and some of the more obvious ones. HBO Sports should know better that to waste our time with the likes of “Mantle.” HBO has the power to influence its audience. With all its money, it is a shame to waste it the way it did on a film that revealed nothing new about an icon whose time has come to finally rest.

At one time, I followed boxing closely. I watched it regularly on TV, went to St. Nick’s Arena and Sunnyside Gardens to see fights in person. Not anymore. I had head of Bernard Hopkins but I knew very little about him. After watching "Beyond The Glory: Bernard Hopkins" on FSN, I now know more and, I am glad of it. He is a fascinating character. His is a compelling story. It is about the rise of a kid from the ghetto, his five years in prison, and then his struggle to become a successful champion in his division.

The interviews, shot in close up without over modeling, meaning the faces were not hidden in deep shadow showed care in the setup. The usual soft, non descript background or occasional limbo shot completed the look. Obviously, the interviewer listened to what the interviewees said. I will discuss that more in a moment. Original shooting of Hopkins in his old neighborhood, talking to troubled teens, and an emotional return trip to prison were good additions. The fight footage filled in well where necessary. The graphics were simple, almost too simple at times, but I did not mind that because they did not distract from overuse, and that is important to the continuity of the film. Often the overuse of graphics means there not much footage is available, whether new or old, and using stills and newspapers stories helps cover the lack of other visuals.

The music was unfortunately, forgettable. It is a problem with all sports documentaries. It is as if natural sound or even silence is a sin. Here the music strove to lead us too often with obvious cues rather than the more subtle ones required for documentary film music. Music in a documentary should form an underpinning for the film and not be more than the film itself. It should not overpower the viewer. It is not Hollywood where the music often dominates a film because the story, the acting and the execution is weak.

The toughest part of any documentary, especially those made for TV, is to be free of a narrator. Most cable executives have little respect for their audience and believe it needs help in getting from one point to another. To its credit, this story of Bernard Hopkins achieved its goal with the benefit of a narrator. It managed to keep my interest through the interviews and how the producers strung them together to tell a story. That takes effort and a good sense of design to build a narrative track through only interviews. It means the interviewer must pay particular attention to everything said by everyone so he can then mesh image and sound to create a narration that makes sense. It is easier to add narratyion to cover a point not covered in the interview, but that changes the tone of the documentary. There were times in Hopkins when the story required a leap, but mostly this small sports film succeeded well with a narrator.

I understand that Fox cancelled “Beyond The Glory. That is too bad. I liked Bernard Hopkins for not trying to be more than what it was: a portrait of a boxer seeking his place in a very tough world. .” If sports fans want to see more of these that have already aired, I am sure that Fox Sports, the same as all cable channels will find ways to repeat them.

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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