Imagine two female producers, both without any sports background, trying to convince PBS, the no-sports network, to let them produce a sports series for public television.
"There was definitely a modicum of skepticism on their part," said Roberta London.
But London and Phyllis Behar won their battle, and the result is "The Sporting Life," public television's first series focused on sports. The 10-part series, seen here on WETA-TV-26 Saturdays at 5:30 p.m., devotes itself to behind-the-scenes profiles of athletes.
"I made some promises to (PBS)," London said. "I promised that a continuing sports series on public TV was newsworthy in itself and that this type of programming could attract new viewers that would stay with us."
The show, hosted by ex-Baltimore Oriole Jim Palmer, is a sober, if slow-paced, half-hour look at how athletes view themselves. Palmer, a man for all networks (PBS, ABC, HTS . . .), chats amiably with the show's subjects, but much of the time, the cameras do the work, allowing us to sit back and follow an athlete through a day of work.
"People don't know what it takes to be an athlete or an umpire. We're looking at what motivates people to do what they do," Palmer said. "Everyone always puts athletes on pedestals and tries to create heroes. We're trying to show who the athlete really is. Myself, I always had the same human frailties and emotions as anyone else."
"The Sporting Life's" first three installments profiled jockey Angel Cordero Jr., basketball star Nancy Lieberman and Washington Redskins lineman George Starke. (This week's show features a Florida umpiring school.) The Cordero and Lieberman segments pointed to the strengths and weaknesses of PBS' unusual production.
In the Cordero show, we get a good sense of the risks and responsibilities of being a jockey -- partly through Palmer's interview and partly through the inside-out approach of following Cordero through his day. Cordero's curious relationship with the public is well documented; he gets heckled worse than a standup comic (of course, nightclub patrons don't bet and lose money on performers), yet he accepts it as part of the business.
The show stumbles in its final minutes when it concentrates on Cordero's futile quest to win a race during last fall's Breeders' Cup. It's a dated event, so the heightening drama fails if you remember the Cup's results. Even if you didn't know what happened, the show's understated technique fails here. It's "A Day at the Races With Angel," but without talking to him directly, the show does not give a proper sense of his reaction to the losses. There's no perspective, no tidy wrapup of loose ends.
The Lieberman show works better and demonstrates the potential of "The Sporting Life." At the show's outset and close, we watch Lieberman playing on the tough playgrounds of New York City. She is "a woman in search of a game," and the show properly focuses on the sadness of an athlete who may never again find a professional forum for her skills.
By examining sports from the inside looking out, "The Sporting Life" perhaps sacrifices a varied picture of its subjects. A fellow jockey or trainer might have given us insight on Cordero; tennis star Martina Navratilova might have done so on Lieberman, who used to train her. But "The Sporting Life" narrows its vision in trying for broader depiction of an individual's motivations.
"What 'up close and personals' do in the Olympics, we try to expand in 20 or 25 minutes," Palmer said.
In addition to Starke, the eclectic "Sporting Life" will include profiles of retired pitcher Catfish Hunter, jockey Steve Cauthen and ice dancers Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, plus segments on rodeo and a Florida softball league for the elderly.
The questions remain: will typical PBS viewers want to watch a sports series, and will hard-core sports fans be drawn to PBS by a show that emphasizes nuances more than numbers?
A second season is in the talking stages. And as the PBS promos like to say, this is, indeed, TV worth watching. But it is not necessarily TV worth missing the Kentucky Derby. That was our choice last week, for instance, here in Washington -- the Derby or George Starke. Let's hope WETA gives "The Sporting Life" a second life down the road and finds a more sensible time slot than one in direct competition with live sporting events.
Little Known Fact of the Week: At the outset of ABC's fine Kentucky Derby coverage, Jim McKay told us, during an ill-conceived series of comparisions between humans and horses at infancy, "At 2, speech is a preoccupation of the human, something the horse can never accomplish." . . .
Spend A Buck trainer Cam Gambolati, who along with Spend A Buck owner Dennis Diaz ranks just behind Bob Irsay and John Elway in the hearts and minds of Baltimoreans, will appear Monday night at 7:30 on HTS' "SportsBeat: The Larry King Show."
Seldom have so many bad teams done so much good for a league as in the case of the NBA's celebrated Patrick Ewing lottery, which will be televised live Sunday during halftime of CBS' 1 p.m. playoff game.
What "Who Shot J.R.?" did for "Dallas" ratings, "Who Got Patrick?" might do for NBA ratings. NBA Commissioner David Stern will read the names of each of the seven nonplayoff teams in reverse order of their draft positions in the first round, with the final team left getting the No. 1 pick. If for any reason the winning team cannot fulfill its obligations in the coming weeks -- say it folds before the NBA draft -- then the first runner-up would assume the responsibility of having to draft Ewing.