The NHL’s signature event, The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, will have a new venue (Nationals Park in Washington) but an old partner (former head of HBO Sports Ross Greenburg) to help with the buildup. On Tuesday, December 16th, the 52-time Emmy Award winner will be back delivering all the behind-the-scenes drama for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Capitals as EPIX and the NHL unveil “The Road to The Winter Classic.”
At first, many media members and fans looked at the move to EPIX – with its limited distribution in the US – as a step down for the NHL from HBO. However, the addition of Greenburg to pull together the series using the vision that he had when it was originally launched, and the all-access strategy EPIX and the NHL has come up with (the ability to watch the show as it airs on any device as well as on NHL.com and EPIX.com for free) has appeased many of the critics. Now all we need to see is the show to see if it is back to the dramatic standard it was known for.
Q: You started doing these types of series really way back in 2000. How has the business changed as a filmmaker and producer?
Greenburg: The biggest thing is technology. We can do things quicker and turn around compelling stories almost at the last minute now, which is much faster and better than even a few years ago. Within an hour something can be shot in a city and we can get it at the edit studio and drop it into the broadcast. Before that was hours, if not a day, and you will see very recent stuff in “The Road To The Winter Classic” that reflects the technology. It gives us the opportunity to be very flexible.
Q: You helped create the genre at HBO and are now working with EPIX and Showtime, and have also done some things for broadcast outlets like NBC. What is the biggest difference or challenge as a producer when dealing with premium vs. broadcast?
Greenburg: Language. A premier channel, especially EPIX, wants to make the show as authentic as possible and take the reality up a notch. When guys aren’t mincing words or you are constantly bleeping I feel you lose some of the authenticity. I’m not saying the show is a curse-fest and we don’t overdo it, but you hear guys speak as they do in the locker room, and I think the fans enjoy that.
Q: We live in a short form world now. Is there still a place for long form shows?
Greenburg: I think so and I think it’s growing, especially when you can do so much in an hour on a premium network. There is this thought that young people won’t watch. That’s not true at all. You have to have authentic, compelling stories in a timeframe that fits well, and we think the hour works really well. You will get short bites and added value this year with the show because EPIX is doing so much to promote, more than ever before, but I think the core show, in an hour, is compelling and it will draw if it’s good. You don’t want to cheat people, and you don’t want to bore them, and I think we have found the right mix.
Q: What leagues do it the best with this type of anthology show?
Greenburg: I think it’s the NHL. They give you the access in season and trust you to do your job, at least in my experience. They have great players and coaches with untold stories and the stories lend themselves to this type of programming because we don’t know enough about them. The NFL also does a great job I think, but they have so many outlets to tell these stories, and the NHL has made it a priority, which is why it works.
Q: Who are the people in the genre who are the best storytellers?
Greenburg: First and foremost my partner the late Steve Sabol did it better than anyone, and NFL Films continues to do amazing work. I think Fritz Mitchell, who has worked on 30 For 30 and others, is fantastic. Johnson McKelvy is outstanding as a filmmaker and producer and it’s great to be working with him on this project as well. The medium has made it a little easier to produce the film, but you still need the writing and the eye for storytelling, and those guys have it better than anyone.
Q: HBO seems to be scaling back on these types of series, why do you think that is?
Greenburg: I don’t know you would have to ask them. I think these series when I was there really helped boost the network and there is even more value in the content today. Their view may have changed or be different now, but I know other networks, like EPIX and Showtime, see the value that these stories can bring.
Q: How is this year’s “Road To The Winter Classic” different from the past few years?
Greenburg: EPIX did two big things. First they encouraged us to dig deeper and go back to the grittiness to tell the story. Then they worked with the NHL to make the show available to anyone on any device when it airs. So we will go deeper into the story lines with players like Brad Richards and Crawford and Sharp and Ovechkin and Backstrom, because we have gotten better access than perhaps ever before. It will be similar to when we first launched the show, which we think is what the fans want, and we will be able to expose it to the largest audience ever on whatever device or website they choose, in addition to the subscribers who get EPIX across the country
Q: You’ve now done several projects with EPIX, including the documentary Forgotten Four. What has that experience been like?
Greenburg: EPIX has been very aggressive in working with partners like MLB and the NFL – and now the NHL – in getting the word out and showing that they want to be a player in this space. By making a series like this available outside their network on any device to all fans, they’re showing that they’re willing to take chances. They believe that once people see what they’re doing in sports, they’ll get hooked and will also see what EPIX is doing in entertainment. It’s a very smart approach. I’m sure it will help change the dynamic in how premium channels engage with fans.