Interview: HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg

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For football fans, it doesn’t get much better than HBO’s Hard Knocks, a show which takes viewers through detailed accounts of what it’s like to be part of on an NFL team during training camp from the meeting room to the board room. 

With tonight’s airing of the “Countdown to Hard Knocks: Training Camp With The New York Jets,” a 12-minute preview of the upcoming NFL reality series featuring the New York Jets, set to air exclusively on HBO Wednesday, July 28 at 11:00PM ET/PT we wanted to get some more information on the show, and HBO Sports head Ross Greenburg was kind enough to spend some time with us last week. 

Mr. Greenburg is an HBO Executive Vice President and President of HBO Sports. It was his vision that has created much of what we know as HBO Sports today, bringing many talented contributors, shows and documentaries to his network since he joined HBO in 1978.

Greenburg has been part of many widely acclaimed movies, shows and documentaries about sports, won countless awards, and produced some amazing work like 61*, Miracle, and When It Was a Game, just to name a few. 

During the course of the interview, Mr. Greenburg was effusive to talk about Hard Knocks, and has he described them to me “our Jets.”

In the short time we talked, it’s apparent that for as visionary a figure as he is in the American sportsmedia landscape, Mr. Greenburg hasn’t lost his passion and love of sports and for telling great stories. 

Follow our interview, after the jump:

TJB: At the introductory press conference, you had said "We have our Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in Rex Ryan" … that’s high praise, so what is it about Rex Ryan that makes him such a compelling figure for HBO?

Ross Greenburg: Rex has been a catalyst of change for the Jets organization; he’s really the lead actor for the show this year. The way that Rex has approached running this organization is changing everything, to the very top, as we’re seeing with owner Woody Johnson. I like to kid Rex about his size, but he’s an incredible figure for this team at this time and he’s done such a great job of changing the culture.

TJB: It’s been just about ten years, so how did the idea of Hard Knocks begin?

RG: It started ten years ago with us getting together and thinking that a reality TV series following an NFL training camp in five parts would be compelling. We were one of the first reality shows and showed actually reality … and turned it around in short order, not like ‘The Bachelorette.’ So, we asked the Ravens, who at the time were fresh of their Super Bowl victory over the Giants, and somehow Brian Billick and the organization agreed. Since then we’ve followed the Chiefs, Jerry Jones’ Cowboys and the Cincinnati Bengals last year and now it’s our New York Jets. We talked to the team for a long time before getting them to agree, but we’re thrilled that they wanted to partner in this with us.

TJB: How did HBO Sports & NFL Films decide to choose the New York Jets this year?

RG: With Rex’s personality and everything else that was going on it seemed like the perfect time. The arrival of veterans like Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson to the team, along with how the season ended for the Jets last year? It emboldened us to ask again, and based on the finish of the season, that seemed to play a part for the Jets. With all the national attention and the national coverage that seems to be coming to the Jets right now, it was the right time. It just seems like the Jets have arrived.

TJB: With all this attention to the team, will this buzz create better ratings for HBO?

RG: I should think that with the excitement and additions around this team, that it will be watched closely. Being that it’s New York and what with fans in other cities like San Diego tuning into watch Cromartie and of course LaDainian … there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to this year’s Hard Knocks. To be honest, I do expect a bump [in ratings] this year.

TJB: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you’ve known Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum for a while … how many years was a season of Hard Knocks Jets in the making?

RG: [Laughs] a few … a few. I’ve been friends with Mike Tannenbaum for years, and last year I talked to him about it. We felt like with Rex there was a sea-change happening in the organization, and that it might be a good time. Mike was concerned about having a rookie head coach and all the things that went along with that, and decided that it wasn’t the right time. After the way that the season ended, there was a chance to re-address it, and especially with how things went in January, the team then felt much more comfortable in opening their doors.

TJB: From your perspective, What do you think make good ingredients for a great season of Hard Knocks?

RG: That’s what’s great about Hard Knocks. Sure there’s all your stars like the Tomlinsons and the Sanchezes, but that it’s not just the stars that everyone knows about, it’s the guys who are fighting for a spot on the roster. It’s the coaches getting into it with their players, it’s the players and their relationships with each other. It’s the reality of being a player who might be at the end of the road of their career, be they a rookie or a veteran. It’s also lighter moments too. Last year having someone like Chad Ochocino was wonderful. Having Chad define for us the usage of “child please” that was great … things like that too.

TJB: One of my favorite storylines from last year’s Cincinnati show was that of the fullback position, because it did encompass a number of those storylines, the young player the older player …

RG: And you’ve got that going on right now with the Jets. The 38 year old Tony Richardson with the drafted rookie John Conner and then Jason Davis, who’s been in the league since 2006? It’s going to be very interesting to see who comes out of that battle.

TJB: That you mention a player like Jason Davis is impressive to me. I’m a gearhead, I should know who he is … but you bring up a very good point .. with over 80 guys on a team right now and 53 spots on a final roster, how does the crew of the show determine what rookies or lower tier players that they will follow? Is it premeditated?

RG: Well, just last Thursday (Note: two Thursdays ago –Ed.) I was out in an NFL Films meeting all day with Steve Sabol and the crew of the show. We were talking through potential storylines to consider from Vernon Gholston and his place on this team to Steve Weatherford and TJ Conley in a punter’s battle. But it’s all about what we get, we go through countless hours of footage to come up with the best storylines. I have to give credit to the team who goes through so much footage to get into a weekly one-hour show.

TJB: You make a great point. This isn’t a reality show where you have months to put the material together, the information from this show can become stale so quickly, it must be hard to stay on top of it, right?

RG: Exactly. Bringing this show to New York, there’s going to be 50 different sources covering the team and looking at the team in a constant state. The show has to be as up to date as possible since things are being reported non-stop during the whole training camp process. With news networks, online publications
it’s non-stop.

TJB: So where’s the cutoff date of what would make the show versus not make the show?

RG: Sometimes it could even be an hour before air, depending on the story .. we’ve had to do that. But more often than not we have to get most of the footage together on Tuesday night for the Wednesday airing of the show. Our team feels like we got into a groove last year with the Bengals, and now we’ve got a real feel for the production schedule of this show. Our guys are going around the clock. We’ll film all week long, and now we’ve got lipstick cameras in all the meeting rooms and around the facility so we can get all kinds of footage.

TJB: How many hours of film does the crew have to work through to get just one episode?

RG: It can be upwards of 250 hours of actual film, and our team does an incredible job of going through all the footage and creating an hour’s worth of television that tells a dramatic storyline for our viewers. And this year we’ve got [narrator] Liev [Schreiber] back, it’s great.

TJB: I know that actors like Paul Rudd and Liev Schreiber have narrated the show in the past … I was hoping that, since I think Rudd is a Jets fan, he’d be doing it again … no chance huh?

RG: Yeah, you’ve got to go to your old warhorse. Liev does a fabulous job for us on many of our documentaries so we’re thrilled to have him as part of this series again.

TJB: And you’ve got another documentary coming out later this year, Vince Lombardi? I can’t wait for that.

RG: Vince Lombardi was a great man, beyond just the NFL, his time at Fordham, at West Point, coaching with Tom Landry. He was an inspirational figure to those who played for him, but also to his family and friends. It’s going to be a fantastic documentary and I can’t wait to see the reaction.

HBO Sports will present “Countdown to Hard Knocks: Training Camp With The New York Jets,” a 12-minute preview of the upcoming NFL reality series featuring the New York Jets, which is set to air exclusively on HBO.  Debuting Wednesday, July 28 at 11:00 p.m. ET/PT, the 12-minute preview special will serve as an introduction to the acclaimed series for new fans as well as a first look at the 2010 New York Jets football team, which reports to training camp on Aug. 1 in Cortland, NY.  Last season, under the guidance of first-year head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets stormed into the NFL post-season as a wild card and earned a berth in the AFC Championship Game.