Bryant Gumbel has banked enough professional equity and personal knowledge about the TV business to acknowledge that, even with the smallest trace of humor, he hesitates drawing any attention to the fact HBO’s “Real Sports” has already started its 25th season.
“The reality is HBO is considered a cutting-edge network,” said the “Real Sports” host and lead reporter as he drove to the premium channel’s New York studios Saturday morning to do voiceover work on a piece about two extreme athletes racing across Antarctica that will be part of Tuesday’s Episode No. 263.
“But there is a part of me that, I might want us to slip under the radar because someone might turn around and say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not what we do now.’
“I’m very proud of our show as we sit here. I’m happy and satisfied and proud we’re still doing long-form storytelling and turning a journalistic eye to sports. I think it’s important. The things we’re trying to do are, if not unique, certainly unusual. And our primary objectives haven’t changed from the day we started. We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of honors and our perception.
“But I knock on wood every time we start a new year.”
The knock on today’s version of TV sports journalism is it can be an oxymoronic exercise. Networks have all sorts of conflicted business interests with sports entities. The checks and balances for ESPN with its “Outside The Lines” and “E:60” franchises as its reporters turn over rocks must strive to run autonomous as its corporate execs write checks and balance ledgers for shareholders.
HBO’s “Real Sports” reign of sovereignty could be problematic. The recent takeover by AT&T of WarnerMedia and DirecTV brings the ownership of four RSNs rebranded AT&T SportsNet, with pro and college game alliances. TBS and TNT, which have national deals with MLB, the NBA and the NCAA for March Madness, are now HBO sister stations.
When HBO recently tapped out on a 45-year run of live boxing last October, some saving grace to “Real Sports” came with a statement from 37-year-old HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson, also one of three “Real Sports” executive producers: “Because of our association with boxing, people forget that we’re not a sports network. We’re a storytelling platform.”
And if you want to hear a story that’ll give you chills, Gumbel has one about one that took him from his home in Jupiter, Fla., to Portland, Ore., and London. Just not to the place where these two men actually had a spirited competition at the bottom of the world.
“Normally, I like to go to the site of the place where stuff happens, but I had no intention of going to Antarctica,” said Gumbel. “Me and 70 below don’t work.”
But Gumbel, at the age of 70, does the work, especially moreso as far as travel goes than what was required during his run as an NBC “Today Show” co-host. He left that seat after 15 years in 1997, but many still would link him to it despite this HBO journey that has produced nearly three dozen Emmys for Outstanding Sports News Anthology as well as DuPont Awards and Peabody Awards for TV journalism excellence.
Gumbel says he is in the second of a three-year contract, a length he requested rather than taking the five years offered him. For a TV career that started on the KNBC-Channel 4 sports desk in the early ‘70s, Gumbel reflects not just on the legacy of the “Real Sports” franchise but, since the passing of reporter Frank Deford in 2017, how much longer he feels he can contribute to something he helped define in April 1995.
“It feels like you’re eating breakfast every 10 minutes,” he said of how time has passed. “When I first started at KNBC, they gave me the option of doing sports with a little different bent. I always choose to define sports in a broader fashion and look at some of the racial and sociological and gender and economic impacts of what happens on the field.
“I miss Frank. We’ve had great people on our staff, real serious journalists who are eager to have something to say and actually have serious thoughts about issues.
“I’m grateful for each year that comes. In a couple of years I’ll look at the landscape and see how everything impacts us. I never want to be hanging on, or the guy who ‘used to be Bryant Gumbel.’ I’m very sensitive to that.
“Life moves on. That doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m just happy a certain amount of people still think we do good work.”
TUNE IT IN
David Feherty has not only generated a ninth season of his golf-infused interview show called “Feherty”— it’s back Monday, 6 p.m., Golf Channel, with Fred Couples as the guest — but the wit and wisdom of the 60-year-old NBC golf course reporter from Northern Ireland has translated into a one-man show called “Feherty Off Tour: Wandering Around On His Own.” The 13-city tour starts in April in New Jersey and runs through November, but is without any Southern California dates.
TUNE IT OUT
As TV ratings for the NBA All-Star Game continue to dissolve (a 3.8 Nielsen mark for last Sunday’s telecast on TNT and TBS, which ties the lowest-rated games in 2008 and 2010 and as a 12 percent drop from last season), a call by ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy to do away with it should be the start of a discussion. Van Gundy told the Associated Press that last week’s 178-164 win for “Team LeBron” over “Team Giannis,” one that included 167 three-point shots taken, is a “bastardization of the game that is beautiful to watch …
“I would name All-Stars, I would have All-Star weekend, they have all these things, introduce them ... the players are great, they should be applauded. But to take this game and shoot 160 threes, it’s an embarrassment.”