An insider's take on the business of sports storytelling programs

By Tanner Simkins, Posted: 12/11/15 06:52PM EST
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Some of the best business work in sports is now being done in the storytelling form of films. From HBO's "Hard Knocks" to ESPN's "30 For 30," to the NFL Network's the authenticity and the insider's view that fans get now for personalities big and small is pretty much unprecedented and the trove of opportunities seems to still be pretty vast.

One of the keys to that visual storytelling is the narrative that it is set to, and few do the narrative better than writer Aaron Cohen. A winner of  eighteen Emmys and a Peabody Award, as well as a three time recipient of the Dick Schaap Award for Outstanding Writing, he has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the sports and entertainment business on documentaries, studio programs, and live broadcasts, as well as books.

In addition to HBO work like "24/7," he has written three Emmy award winning documentaries - "Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush" (HBO, 2007), "Assault in the Ring" (HBO, 2008), and "The Doctor" (NBA TV, 2013), worked on countless other documentaries and now will lead the writing for "EPIX Presents The Road To the Winter Classic," which premieres thiscoming Wednesday night on EPIX, NHL.com, EPIX.com and BostonBruins.com, as the Bruins and Canadiens move closer to their matchup on New Year's Day outside at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

We caught up with Cohen to talk about the business, and some of his favorite projects.

Q: You have written for a lot of shows, how is this one different?
A: I think as far as other comparing it to other docu-reality "follow" shows, the thing that has me excited about this show is the rivalry between the Canadiens and the Bruins, which is one of the most historic rivalries in all of sports.  So there's a ton of material to mine there.  Further, the schedule-makers did us a favor by having the teams play each other this past week, meaning that we can cover the game in our first show, and set up the e stakes and the hatred and intensity of the rivalry, well in advance of the Winter Classic, which will come in the fourth and final episode. 

Q: How has the genre evolved since you began?
A: I think the biggest thing that has changed is a direct product of the proliferation of the genre: how the subjects -- the athletes -- approach participating in a series like this.  In the beginning, I don't think there was as much of a sense of how closely fans would pay attention to the shows, and how different clips and revelations could go viral.  So you have some subjects who retreat somewhat, and don't want to be featured, and then conversely some subjects who love the camera and the opportunity to show themselves to the world.  I also think that it's incumbent on us -- the production team -- to constantly be searching for new ways to tell these stories, to profile these characters, to cover games, etc.  We want to maintain what has been successful, but also keep our approach fresh. 

Q: Are there subjects or sports that are easier to write for vs. others?
A: I like to think there are great stories everywhere in sports.  I've always liked writing about boxing because of the rawness, the reality, and the simplicity of what boxers do -- the risks they take, the courage they have.  The Olympics are great to write about because, again, there are huge stakes -- athletes training for entire lifetimes for maybe just one shot at gold.  My favorite aspects of hockey are the uniqueness of the sport -- nothing looks quite like it -- and also the devotion the players have to their teammates and the game.  It's real, and that makes it easy to write about. 

Q:  What is the hardest part of writing scripts for live to tape shows like this?
A: The turnaround.  Putting together four straight hour-long shows over four weeks is a brutal challenge for the producers, the editors, the cinematographers, everyone.  From my perspective, I have to be constantly turning around segments, writing, rewriting, etc.  I like deadlines, but the sheer volume of the work over these four weeks can be a challenge for all of us. Now that product placement is becoming more the norm in shows, do you ever have to weave in brand names or other advertorial pieces, or are you usually editorial agnostic?I haven't had to do that, as far as I can recall -- I don't know if that trend has hit this genre yet.  Who are some of the writers in the space that you think do a great job?
Well, there aren't too many writers who I know of working regularly in sports docu-reality, but anyone who gets a show like this on the air is my kindred spirit!  In the larger space of sports television, I have been fortunate to have been mentored by Bob Costas, who is as great a writer as there is.    

Q: Are there writers not in sports that you follow or collaborate and share ideas with, and what do they write for?
A: I definitely try to read as much as I can in the longform print/web space, and I won't name individuals for fear of leaving someone out.  But I am constantly looking for good stuff in The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Grantland (now defunct), ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com, and plenty of other places.  I started out hoping to be a print writer, and there's still nothing quite like the feeling of reading something great and being moved by it. 

Q: Do you see this type of programming slowing at all in the coming years? Will fans ever get enough of this type of programming?
A: I think the appetite is still increasing, actually.  A lot has changed in sports over the years, and specifically, a lot has changed with respect to how sports are covered.  But if you're a fan, and you get a chance to get closer to your favorite team, to learn more about your favorite players, etc. ... that is as exciting as ever.  And sports are still the best reality show -- so even if you're a casual fan, our goal is to suck you in to the characters and the narratives as they unfold in front of our cameras.  If we do our job, you won't want to turn away. 



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