NBC Sports Launches Documentary-Film Unit

NBC Sports is taking on whole new kind of game – the growing popularity of documentary programming.

For years, producers at NBC’s dedicated Olympics unit have produced hours of documentary-style features to accompany its parent company’s mammoth coverage of that event. Now, with the debut of a new unit, NBC Sports Films, NBC Sports wants to take that type of programming and play it across everything from the sports-focused NBCSN cable network to its digital properties.

“Our goal is to produce one a quarter,” said Mark Levy, senior VP of original production and creative for NBC Sports Group. The documentaries are likely to focus on sports with which NBC has an established relationship — hockey, Nascar, and the like — rather than portraits of players from Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association, Levy said. “People are not coming to us for that content,” he explained. “If you came to us to watch a hockey game and you are being served a great hour right after that game, you are going to stay with us longer. We like to engage our viewers for longer periods of time. That is anyone’s goal.”

NBC Sports Films’ first project is “Center of Attention: The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson.” The one-hour documentary will look at the up-and-down life of former NHL star and two-time Stanley Cup Champion Derek Sanderson, who went from being a sports superstar to spending time homeless to, later, becoming a financial adviser to athletes. The program will premiere on Monday, June 8, following Game 3 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final on NBCSN. Actor John Slattery, who played adman Roger Sterling on “Mad Men,” will narrate.

The appeal of documentary-style programming has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. TV networks ranging from CMT to CNN have adopted the format to offer shows ripped from the headlines without being saddled with the ongoing costs of long-term contracts for talent and production.

Besides, say NBC Sports executives, the division already produces hours of such stuff. During the course of an Olympics broadcast, said Levy, staffers craft more than 50 athlete profiles, 10-12 longer features, 10 to 12  vignettes lasting four to five minutes, and a number of eight-minute pieces. During the most recent Winter Olympics broadcast, NBC Sports created the hourlong “Nancy and Tonya,” a look back at the famous 1994 rivalry between ice skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, and the assault on Kerrigan orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband.

“This is an opportunity for us to take a larger story and produce a film about it,” said Dan Fleschner, director of editorial content for NBC Sports Group. “We’ve had one-off opportunities to do that in the past, and now there’s this opportunity to make it more of a series.”

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