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For Bryant Gumbel, HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ is still a serious game

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Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO’s"Real Sports.”
(HBO)

During his 45-year TV career, Bryant Gumbel has gained a reputation for being a perfectionist.

Even famous friends have to clear a high bar. The late superstar Prince, a big fan of Gumbel from his “Today”  show days, got that pointed message when he offered to compose a theme song for CBS’ “Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel,” his 1998 prime-time magazine.

“He took a run at it and I didn’t like it,” Gumbel recalled in a recent phone conversation from his home in Jupiter, Fla. “After three tries I called it off. It was becoming embarrassing  — a guy who can’t read music can’t tell Mozart, ‘No, this isn’t good.’ But I own three Prince songs that have never seen the light of day.”

Gumbel applies the same rigorous standard to “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” which starts its 23rd season Tuesday on HBO. While sports TV coverage has become louder, faster and prevalent across digital video platforms, Gumbel and his crew have continued to meticulously turn out their monthly magazine of investigative pieces and in-depth profiles in artisanal batches. The host and veteran correspondents deliver narrations and conduct interviews with calm authority on an uncluttered screen.

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“We’re kind of an oddball in the modern landscape,” said Gumbel. “Nowadays, everything you turn on — the picture changes every two seconds. There is a drumbeat of music behind it and there are graphics going here and there. We don’t do any of that.”

The program has always relied on seasoned storytellers instead of sports experts or ex-jocks for correspondents. In recent years he’s added Soledad O’Brien, a veteran of NBC News and CNN. He also put one of his producers, David Scott, in front of the camera, joining correspondents Jon Frankel, Bernard Goldberg, Andrea Kremer, Mary Carillo and Frank Deford.

Maintaining the formula isn’t easy. Gumbel believes it’s increasingly difficult to recruit TV reporters who can deliver stories in the “Real Sports” style.

“Finding people who can do long-form journalism is almost extinct because young people coming into the business don’t have a chance to do long-form journalism,” he said. “They do 30 seconds here, 45 seconds there, and that’s it. It’s hard to find good people.”

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Gumbel is more encouraged about how “Real Sports” — a winner of 29 Emmys, three DuPont broadcast journalism awards and two Peabody Awards — has managed to maintain its independence even as sports have become the financial lifeblood of the television business.

League commissioners who negotiate for billions of dollars in broadcast rights fees from media companies such as HBO parent Time Warner would probably prefer not to see their respective sports as a “Real Sports” topic.

Last season the program investigated the physical health of NCAA student athletes, devoted nearly 90 minutes to examining the practices of the International Olympic Committee and looked into the severity and frequency of fans’ being injured by foul balls at Major League Baseball stadiums. But Gumbel says he’s always been insulated from any complaints a league office may make about a tough report.

“[HBO Chief Executive] Richard Plepler and I have talked about this quite a bit and I appreciate the support,” Gumbel said. “He’s got my back 100% of the time. We’re not there to make friends with league executives. We’ve never, ever been told anything that suggests, ‘Oh, wait, they’re a corporate partner.’ We’ve never felt that.”

Veteran TV producer Steve Friedman said it’s the presence of the strong-willed Gumbel that gives the program its firm journalistic foundation.

“The tone is set by the man in charge,”  said Friedman, who first plucked Gumbel from NBC Sports and turned him into a major star on “Today” in the 1980s. “It’s his feeling of what makes a good story. There is nothing dumbed down. You see things you don’t see anywhere else. They have an ability to follow stories for months, even years.”

Viewers will see that in the season opener as Frankel revisits the plight of Kevin Turner, the NFL fullback who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that was linked by a doctor to his on-field hits. Frankel, who chronicled Turner’s decline for six years and became a friend, interviews a doctor who examined the player’s brain after his death. He also speaks with Turner’s son, who has chosen to play college football at Clemson even after seeing his father’s body deteriorate.

The brain-injury issue is raised again in a profile of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel. The otherwise breezy look at the likable NFL star’s abilities as a mathematician — he is working towards his PhD at MIT —  is capped with his description of a how a recent concussion affected his high-level cognitive skills.

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Those stories illustrate why Gumbel is not optimistic about the future of the NFL, which saw its TV ratings decline this season after years of gravity-defying audience growth.

“If you had NFL stock now I think you’d be looking to sell high,” said Gumbel. “I don’t think there is any reason to suggest the glory days are ahead of them. There are too many things working against it. There’s so much on television, concussions, and the fact that the pool of players going into it is slowly but surely declining. It’s a series of fits and starts — a video replay here and there. You can’t do this and you can’t have fun and you can’t express yourself. You can’t hit here and you can’t hit there. It’s not a good product.”

The broadcaster is said to have even dropped out of his football fantasy league because he didn’t plan on watching many games this season. (His brother Greg is still in the NFL broadcast booth for CBS Sports).

Gumbel has never been shy about presenting his opinions on-camera and off — a trait that through the years has earned him considerable criticism. But he welcomes differing points of view among the “Real Sports” correspondents. Long-timer Goldberg can often be seen taking shots at the so-called mainstream media as a commentator on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”

“We’re good friends and are miles apart politically,” said Gumbel. “Bernie has an acerbic nature that works for him and for us. As long as he does good stories and doesn’t try to proselytize and doesn’t try to tell viewers Donald Trump is intelligent or good for the country, we don’t have a problem. Bernie was more opposed to him than I was.”

Gumbel’s disdain for the new president isn’t a recent development: “I used to belong to a golf course in Jupiter, and when Trump bought it, I left. I didn’t want to be around or associated with him.”

The election result is among the reasons that Gumbel was feeling a bit depressed about 2016. The year’s long list of celebrity deaths included several of his close friends along with Prince — sports announcer Joe Garagiola, PBS journalist Gwen Ifill and Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion he first met 50 years ago. Gumbel had been asked five years ago to be one of Ali’s eulogists.

“He finally dies and you realize how ridiculous an assignment this is because you’re talking about the most famous man on the planet and there is nothing you can say that everyone doesn’t already know,” Gumbel said. “I was in Norway when I found out and came home and I spent an entire week preparing to speak 12 minutes. It was really a challenge. My only hope is that I did justice to a great man.”

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Now 68, Gumbel said that after years of examining how athletes are used by large corporate entities and governing bodies on “Real Sports,” he watches games differently than he did when he first broke into television as a young sportscaster for KNBC in Los Angeles.

“I used to care about Dodgers 3, Giants 2,” he said. “Now I think it’s the least important thing about any sports event. The scores are a means to an end. I’m much more concerned about the people in it and the questions it raises.”

‘Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel’

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio


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