New reality shows are like Knight and Daly
Two new cable shows herald a shift in sports programming toward personality-driven fare.
Fans of reality TV will soon be able to get up close and personal with scarlet-faced basketball coach Bobby Knight, he of chair-tossing fame, and John Daly, a roller-coaster golf star capable of turning the quotidian into catastrophe at the drop of a putter. Talk about fear factor.
Both men, equal parts famous and infamous for professional triumphs and personal missteps, are set to debut in reality series on sports cable networks. The focus on the outsized personalities behind the putts and playbooks - what viewers say they want - is where 24-hour sports networks "can create ... lifestyle shows and carve a bit of a niche," says Terry Hanson, a sports media consultant and former executive at Turner Sports.
On Jan. 18, The Golf Channel begins a 13-episode run of "The Daly Planet," which follows the daily exploits of the former British Open and PGA Championship winner, also known for his impulsive nature, gambling woes, alcoholism, weight battles, and three failed marriages.
Beginning Feb. 19, ESPN will air six 60-minute episodes of "Knight School." The eponymous coach won three national championships at Indiana University before leaving under a cloud of controversy sparked by his tantrums (a reputation the coach even profited from with several ads and a cameo in the Adam Sandler comedy "Anger Management"). The show follows 16 players vying for a single walk-on roster spot Mr. Knight's Texas Tech team.
The Golf Channel, by contrast, plans to focus on the periphery of Mr. Daly's competitive life. Viewers will ride with Daly on his private jet to the British Open, watch him jaw with waitresses from Hooters (one of his sponsors), and witness him smoking and drinking. A lot.
"We let John be John," says Wayne Becker, vice president of programming at The Golf Channel. "It's important to show John in all of his colors. He's a good guy. And like many people we all know, his greatest downfall is himself. He's his own worst enemy."
Executives at ESPN have revealed little about "Knight School," which was shot last fall. (The channel's newfound partnership with Knight is ironic because a 2002 ESPN made-for-TV movie portrayed the coach as a foul-mouthed tyrant with few redeeming character traits.) The network, anticipating strong viewer interest, has begun informal discussions of similar inside-the-game shows.
"We're giving our audience an unprecedented look at this coaching style," says Joan Lynch, coordinating producer at ESPN Original Entertainment. "It answers the question that has been on the minds of many basketball fans for years. That is, what is it really like to be coached by this man, to be in the gym with him?"
While most people think of "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" when it comes to reality TV, ESPN's Lynch and other experts say the genre is a natural fit for sports. "We really think sports coverage is, in essence, the best of reality television," she says. "It has all of the things that the best reality shows have in terms of competition and compelling characters and a winner."
Others say the advent of prominent sports reality programs satisfies more pragmatic concerns. "There are so many [channels] out there that there are a lot of people running around trying to fill them with video material," says Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports executive who now serves as a consultant to NASCAR and other professional sports leagues. "This will continue. It's not going to go away."
Mr. Becker, the Golf Channel executive, agrees. Viewer surveys show a strong desire to learn more about stars on the PGA and LPGA Tours. Viewers want insights into the players' personalities and what their day-to-day lives entail, he says. That sort of reality programming will soon have an impact on broadcasts of games and tournaments, according to observers.
"You'll see some of these reality aspects incorporated in the coverage, because sports is all about big events and big games," says Mr. Pilson. "You're going to see more and more microphones on the field, more cameras in unusual places, more instances where a coach or player talks [to the viewers] while a game is in progress. That's where all of this is headed."