By Barry Janoff
June 10, 2014: When cable TV was in its infancy, people wanted their MTV, which launched in 1981, for music; and HBO, which hit the air in 1971, for movies and sports.
HBO Sports quickly became a major player on the media landscape due to agrressive programming that included boxing, NHL, tennis and Inside the NFL.
Seth Abraham arrived there in 1978 after tenures with PR firm Hill & Knowlton and MLB. He built the boxing platform, HBO sports and in turn HBO itself with fights that included an exclusive deal with Mike Tyson, at the time the biggest draw in boxing history, and on-air talent such as Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard.
He remained with HBO Sports and Time Warner Sports as president until 2000. He then moved to Madison Square Garden Company as executive vice president and COO. He left there in early 2004 as president, and went on to form Starship SA, which works with clients in such areas as sports business opportunities, marketing, sponsorships, TV negotiations and arena management.
On June 11, the Starship-produced Personal with Bill Rhoden will premiere on Epix, the premium entertainment network that is a joint venture among Viacom, MGM and Lionsgate, which is available via cable, satellite and telco partners to more than 45 million homes nationwide.
The 30-minute show premiere show features NFL Hall of Famer Calvin Hill and his son, Grant Hill, who played in the NBA from 1994-2013 and now works for NBA TV. They are interviewed by Rhoden, the award-winning sports journalist with The New York Times. (See the promo spot here.)
According to Abraham, who is co-executive producer for the show with Tim Braine, the two Hills have never appeared together on-air in an interview show format.
The second show on Epix features Oscar de la Hoya, which is scheduled to air in July.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Abraham about sports, athletes and how his illustrious past led to the development of Personal with Bill Rhoden.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How did the concept for the show and having Bill Rhoden as the interviewer come about?
Seth Abraham: I've known Bill for about 25 years, going back to HBO, where he did a lot of on-air work for HBO Sports. More importantly, he did quite a bit of writing for HBO Sports, including a number of documentaries. Perhaps the most important was based on Arthur Ashe's book, A Hard Road To Glory (A History of the African-American Athlete, a three-volume book published in 1988). We worked together on various projects there. As far as the concept of the show, this has been in my head since the early 1980s. Bill was the person that I wanted to work with. That was my Plan A. If he didn't want to do it, I really didn't have a Plan B. (Laughs.) So I'm glad that he wanted to do it and that we were able to move it from concept to reality.
NYSJ: Did it come as a surprise to Bill that you wanted him to do this?
SA: He knew I was interested in doing this type of show and he knew I would want him involved. For various reasons I couldn't get it done at HBO. But conversations I had with Bryant Gumbel about this show led to HBO's Real Sports. And then conversations I had with Bob Costas led to (HBO's) On the Record with Bob Costas, which became Costas Now. So it's interesting that, although the show I wanted to do didn't work out (at HBO) it led to those other shows. Real Sports is still airing on HBO and is a terrific show.
NYSJ: How did it eventually find its way on-air at Epix?
SA: Mark Greenberg, who is the CEO of Epix, worked in the marketing department at HBO and went on to (become the evp-corporate strategy and communications for) Showtime Networks. He helped bring boxing to Showtime and then to Epix. He is not just a boxing fan, but someone who is knowledgeable about sports and understands how to present sports to people. The boxing show (at Epix) become much more, not just about boxing for boxing people but a general interest sports show. It looked at sports figures, people who help to define what sports is today and what it will become. Epix became the place where I could get the show I wanted to do on-air. And that attracted Bill's interest.
NYSJ: The $24,000 question: Why is your show different from the others in the genre?
SA: What I want to do with this is get people on the show and ask them, 'Who are you exactly?' Not who are you as a basketball player, a football player or, in the case of our second show with Oscar de la Hoya, not who are you as a boxer. The center of this show is, 'Who are you as a person?' The fact that the name of the show is Personal with Bill Rhoden is not by accident. Sports shows today are about sound bytes, what can you get someone to say that can be cut down to 20 or 30 seconds. There is not much substance in a sound byte, no matter how good it is. So I wanted something that had much more substance. I also wanted the look and feel of the show to be completely different. Here, you don't see the interviewer. In our first show, the camera is on Grant Hill and Calvin Hill. In the second show, the camera is on Oscar de la Hoya. And we have Bill Rhoden as the person conducting the interviews. That alone sets us apart.
NYSJ: It's hard to believe that Calvin and Grant Hill have never done this type of show together.
SA: It's true. They have never done a show together. This was serendipitous. We wanted to get a generational discussion going about sports, culture, about issues that impact players and fans. It was Bill who started the conversation about having Grant and Calvin and the more we thought about it the better it sounded. They both are accomplished athletes and well-versed in speaking about hard-hitting, controversial issues. Grant was an academic All-America at Yale before playing in the NFL (as a running back with the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns). Grant was an academic All-America at Duke before joining the NBA (where he played forward for the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers). So you have two men from different generations who are not just father and son, but who also are incredibly gifted, thoughtful, articulate men.
NYSJ: What was the process in deciding what topics would be discussed?
SA: We wanted to talk about the issues that are affecting not just sports and sports fans but also society. Race, equality, politics, gay athletes, Jason Collins, Michael Sam, the issue with Donald Sterling. We talk about the fact that when Calvin's wife and Grant's mom, Janet, attended Wellesley College, she shared a room with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Calvin and Grant were not adverse to talking about any of these topics and taking them head-on. They provide impactful answers and insights. When they speak it is not programmed. It is how they feel.
NYSJ: The show itself is 30 minutes, but is there much more that was filmed? And was it difficult to coordinate their schedules?
SA: There is more, and it did take some effort to get them together logistically. We taped the show in Atlanta. Grant works for the NBA, so we were able to get access to a studio in Turner Broadcasting. Calvin flew in from Washington, D.C., where he lives. I'd say we taped for about two hours. We edited it down to what we felt was the most impactful discussions and what best displayed who these men are and what they feel and believe. There is a lot of very good stuff that we had to edit out and we could have had a second show with them. But we'll probably use some of the [outtakes] for promotion, marketing, on social media, those types of outlets.
NYSJ: Do you feel that the next show, with Oscar de la Hoya, will be a strong follow-up to the Calvin and Grant Hill interview?
SA: Absolutely. It is amazing. He talks about issues and situations about which he has never spoken. His relationship with his mother. A very tempestuous relationship with his father. The fact that his mother wanted him to be a singer and that he took singing lessons. His life outside of the ring. Personal things that he just doesn't normally address. But he opens up to Bill. After you watch that show, you will know who de la Hoya is as a person and not just as a prize fighter.
NYSJ: Do you expect to hear from athletes and others who might want to appear on the show?
SA: Yes. I know that there are many people in sports, and not just athletes, who have something important to say. And when they see that this is a show that offers them the opportunity to say it, and not just in distorting sound bytes, and not edited to embarrass them — and also knowing that it is Bill Rhoden who is handling the interview — they will sit down with us.
"There are many people in sports who have something important to say. And they will see that this is a show that offers them the opportunity to say it."
NYSJ: Do you and Bill have a list of people who you would want to approach about being on future shows?
SA: Yes. Bill and I sat down, actually as we were flying to Atlanta to do the show with Grant and Calvin, and we each wrote down on a pad 20-25 names of people we would want to interview. Interesting people who have something to say and who have the gravitas when they say it. When we compared our lists, I'd say we overlapped on ten or so names. That includes politicians, authors, others who were never athletes, but who have a great affinity for sports and can address the issues that are shaping and will shape sports.
NYSJ: So if you add together your time and experiences at HBO Sports, Time Warner, Madison Square Garden and elsewhere, are you today where you want to be and doing what you want to do?
SA: Yes. This project is very personal for me and very near the top of the list of what I want to be doing with my life at this point in time. Many of the people with whom I am working are former HBO people, people with whom I've worked and people who know their stuff. So it's not just working with people who are the best at what they do, but people who I trust and are proud of. As for the show itself, I like the fact that it's different, that it will make an impact, that we are focusing on people who have opinions and make observations that are intelligent and articulate.
NYSJ: If nothing else, what impact would you like to make with Personal with Bill Rhoden.
SA: My intention is to have Personal with Bill Rhoden mark the end of sound byte shows. This is the anti-sound byte show.
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