By DAVID BAUDER
AP Television Writer
NEW YORK — Events such as the Masters golf tournament remind Bryant Gumbel why he does ‘Real Sports‘ on HBO.
The monthly newsmagazine marks 15 years on the air this week, standing even more alone as a home for strong television journalism than it did in 1995. Gumbel, its host, suggests the deals that media companies make to televise sporting events – for example, CBS and ESPN for the Masters - keep competitors largely out of that business.
A phrase he can’t stand is “broadcast partner.”
“If you strike an agreement with somebody and you’re in bed with them for profit, you have every right to try and protect and promote that which brings you the most profit,” he said. “But to do that and try to continue to offer it under the guise of objective journalism is when you run aground.
“Look, it’s the way of the world and with the price tag these things are now, it’s about the only way these things get done,” he said. “But that’s small comfort for the people who really want to hear the unvarnished truth and to see things with an objective eye. If you’ve got a major contract with the NBA or Major League baseball, the NFL or whatever, you’re not going to jeopardize that contract.”
He heard, for example, that NFL officials weren’t happy with ‘Real Sports’ reporting on concussions and other health problems in football. Unlike the broadcast networks, HBO doesn’t have to worry about whether that will affect ratings, or if the NFL will retaliate with a lousier slate of games the next season.
To a certain extent, ‘Real Sports’ is a misnomer.
Its stories must have a connection to sports, but they often really aren’t about sports. Gumbel is proud of his Emmy Award-winning story on Marcus Dixon, a college-bound athlete jailed on an abuse charge when he had consensual sex with a young woman, which resulted in his release. A recent feature about a blind skier was less about skiing than about how he responded to an operation to restore some sight.
Correspondent Bernard Goldberg reported on young boys being enslaved to be camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates.
The show’s report on dog fighting in the wake of quarterback Michael Vick’s conviction illustrated not only the brutality of the practice but the reasons it was popular in some cultures, said A.J. Daulerio, editor-in-chief of the sports Web site Deadspin.
“It’s probably the only thing we have in sports journalism right now that is the equivalent of `60 Minutes,’” Daulerio said.
Goldberg was not an HBO subscriber and didn’t see the show until he went on vacation with his family. When he returned, he called then-CBS News colleague Gumbel to tell him how much he liked the show. Gumbel immediately responded with a question: “Do you want to work here?” Gumbel had hit a nerve. Goldberg was losing enthusiasm for ’48 Hours’ and its shift toward true crime stories. He quickly accepted, becoming part of a stable of correspondents the includes Mary Carillo and Frank Deford.
“I found it interesting that I was doing more serious journalism on a program about sports than I was doing at CBS News,” Goldberg said.
Last month, Gumbel reported on the lives of two transsexual sportswriters following the suicide of Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner, who had changed his name to Christine and began living as a woman. He had returned to calling himself Mike shortly before his death.
Gumbel said it was the most emotionally involved he has ever gotten in a story. “I was very empathetic toward them,” he said. “I can think of no more difficult hand to be dealt with in life.”
The longtime “Today” show host, who considers himself semiretired except for the monthly ‘Real Sports,’ ends each show with a commentary. January’s closing words ripped Mark McGwire about his “phony nonapology” for using steroids.
The show isn’t all serious. Gumbel saluted good people in sports in February. And the mix of moods each month resembles ’60 Minutes.’ There are profiles – one recent one on Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo – and humorous pieces such as Goldberg’s backstage look at the Westminster dog show.
One place where Gumbel said he has seen the show’s influence is ’60 Minutes’ itself, which he noticed is featuring more sports stories. CBS producers have acknowledged doing more sports stories, but many are shown for the fall when the network uses them to hold onto large audiences from football games that lead into the newsmagazine.
“We’ve tried to do things that are important and hope that people pay attention to,” Gumbel said, “and if they arrive late to the party, that’s fine, too.”
“Real Sports” almost didn’t get the chance to reach its 15-year milestone. When Gumbel worked at NBC, its executives were fine with him moonlighting at HBO. But when he shifted to CBS, leaders wanted him to stop when his contract ended. Instead, Gumbel agreed to eliminate some perks in his contract in return for keeping the show alive.
Gumbel, 61, has also suffered his own health scare. He had surgery last fall to remove a malignant tumor from his chest, along with part of his lung.
“I’m OK,” he said. “I’m OK. Life continues to be a challenge, but I’m all right. I look forward to getting well.”
He recently signed a new four-year contract with HBO, and said that might be it.
“When it’s over, I think we’ll be in our 20th year and I’ll be 65,” he said. “That all kind of has a nice ring to it. On the other hand, I never say never.”
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