More like 7-11 than 24/7 Should the
NHL's big wigs step in and get involved in HBO's 24/7? Dennis Bernstein says
yes, to an extent.
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Another Winter Classic is in the books and when we look back years from now, Wings-Leafs will hold the title originally coined for the Rose Bowl, "The Granddaddy of them All."
While future events will have drama and unique storylines, the NHL will be hard pressed to replicate an event that was perfect in setting, execution and conclusion.
So while the event itself was flawless, its companion promotional vehicle needs an overhaul.
When NHL and HBO joined forces to produce hockey’s version of network boxing mini-series 24/7, it was groundbreaking and created unexpected media stars like Bruce Boudreau and Ilya Bryzgalov.
Fans couldn’t wait until the next episode to hear more wacky words
from The Universe or impassioned R-rated locker room speeches from BB.
Unfortunately, for us all, when the production trucks rolled into
Michigan and Ontario in December, little did they realize the end
product would look like something of convenience than all-access.
After watching all four episodes, my takeaway is that we never got to
know any of the players’ life story in-depth.
From a pool of 50 players, each with a unique journey to the NHL we
never learned about the path, struggle and realization of a life-long
dream. We got glimpses of Brendan Smith’s and James van Riemsdyk’s
families, but to me they were appetizers and never a main course.
We spent time with coaches Mike Babcock and Randy Carlyle, but when
times got tough, the cameras were excluded from the reality that fans
want to see, the adult conversations that have to occur when things
are going bad. We want to see Carlyle blister his team when they play
a bad 20 minutes, not see him avoiding blisters when his bread gets
stuck in the toaster.
The characters in the show aren’t to blame for this miss, it’s a
result of a struggle that has gone on for years and has increasingly
gained the spotlight as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and
mover-and-shaker COO John Collins try to expand the reach of the game.
The struggle was brought to light in the messy aftermath of the U.S.
Olympic hockey team and it muted the treatment of two Original Six
teams in 24/7.
As much as this sport needs promotion, I doubt will ever see the level
of engagement that will make vehicles like 24/7
as compelling as the earlier versions.
The push back is not from the players; one of the miracles of this HBO
production was to draw Phil Kessel out of his cocoon to show that he’d
be a pretty cool roommate.
It’s not from the marketers, whose ultimate goal is to increase fan
engagement, defined as keeping you entrenched in the sport in the 21
hours a day that you’re not at a game.
It’s the guys in hockey operations that look upon the all-access shows as nothing more than an obligatory nuisance and a distraction towards their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup. You see it in my hometown when Jeff Carter’s only availability this season was during a promotional day for the Stadium Series and after Tuesday’s game when he was named to the Canadian Olympic team. After practices, there are only certain areas of the hallway you can stand in while waiting for Kings coach Darryl Sutter. While it’s surely not the only case of limited access in the NHL, it’s a great example of what the hockey people want.
In a league that considers designating injuries as only upper or lower body sufficient disclosure, you can’t tell me team management across the board want more cameras and increased access in their rooms.
When Toronto coach Randy Carlyle bid adieu to the HBO’s cameras, he expressed relief that the distraction of those two HBO cameras were gone.
In Toronto. The center of the hockey universe! So, THAT has been the distraction!?
I guess when the daily camera count goes from 15 to 13, it’s a big relief. TFP had van Riemsdyk on our Players’ Lounge radio show on Sirius/XM a day later and he gave a very different version of the impact of the production’s presence. He said the additional cameras weren’t a distraction at all and he had wished they were kept around a bit long as his linemate Kessel was warming up to the spotlight as they packed their bags.
Oh, the magic of television.
The opposing opinions are no surprise when one is from a 24-year-old player and the other from a 57-year-old coach. The reality is that the NHL and its business partners needs more fans of JVR’s age than Carlyle’s in order to keep that hockey-related revenue spiraling upward.
If the NHL wants to draw in more fans through the HBO relationship, it’s time to rework the companion promotional vehicle that is attached to the Winter Classic. The network’s strength is their ability to beautifully craft stories with very high production values. The inclusion of game footage is now at a level of diminishing returns.
We get that in slow-motion the game is an epic, brutal ice ballet, but when a quarter of each show deals with game footage, it’s overkill. We get that players fly on charter planes and busses, to include these same images in all four episodes at the exclusion of superior story telling is disappointing.
I’d much rather hear about how Kessel feels about his down and up journey since arriving in the 416 or Nazem Kadri being the first Muslim ever to be drafted by the Maple Leafs than see a first period goal against the Florida Panthers. Talk to Pavel Datsyuk about his “Magic Man” moniker that Dan Cleary introduced us to and less Mike Babcock jogging around an empty Joe Louis Arena because you pay to see #13 dangle and not Babcock coach.
24/7 became a phenomenon because it told the stories of two boxers and reaching its pinnacle with Floyd Mayweather and Oscar de la Hoya. Even in subsequent versions without those megastars, the subjects are usually polar opposites and create two distinct storylines. At this point in the hockey version, this treatment shows it’s more suited from individual than team sport storytelling. Fortunately, for HBO, they don’t have to rewrite the script -- they just need to move it to another title.
Hard Knocks is the HBO’s treatment of NFL teams gearing up for a regular season; they walk through team practices, sit in on coaches evaluations and never fail to unearth a captivating story about a relatively unknown player. While there is less concern about all-access because the show chronicles a team’s pre-season, HBO’s main rival Showtime has done it in season successfully with The Franchise, which followed regular season travails of the San Francisco Giants and Florida Marlins. The documenting of Ozzie Guillen’s suspension due to his comments about Fidel Castro was a close you can get to perfect sports television reality programming.
With a Hard Knocks treatment, there’s no issue with equal time between two teams and you still have 25 potential storylines to consider over the month leading up to the Winter Classic. There is no question that regardless of the team, the detailing of the individual journeys combined with HBO’s superior storytelling capabilities will increase engagement from current hockey fans and develop new ones in greater numbers.
What the production solution doesn’t cure is the issue of “all access” being granted to the cameras in a way that doesn’t rob of us of viewing inside stories, yet doesn’t give away trade secrets in the collective mind of the very old school hockey operations types. In this case, the NHL executive suite has to take a firm grip of this partnership and use the carrot-and-stick methodology to get to the desired end.
With the Winter Classic elevating to “Crown Jewel” status, NHL owners are lining up for their “tribute,” a term used in the movie Goodfellas when a mob boss got a payoff after a big heist. We’d all see a better product if Bettman and Collins granted future Winter Classics based on the condition that 24/7 is attached to it and the team must give true all-access to the team that hosts it.
Owners waiting on their tributes can make it happen and when the word comes from the top to allow us bear witness to an unfiltered look at all aspects of this great game, there are no losers, only winners.