Excitement about TSN's upcoming "Engraved On A Nation" series of eight Bell Media-commissioned CFL documentaries has been building ever since they were announced this spring, and that took another step this week with the release of the broadcast schedule. The series starts Monday, Oct. 8 (Thanksgiving Monday) with the premiere of The 13th Man (on the Saskatchewan Roughriders, their relationship with their fans, and how that was affected by the finish of the 2009 Grey Cup) at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, immediately after the Saskatchewan-Toronto clash that day, and there are plenty of other interesting films in store, including Friday, Nov. 9's The Photograph and Tuesday, Nov. 20's The Greatest Team That Never Won. We've seen some solid CFL documentaries before, including The Extra Yard, Hail Mary and John Candy: True Double Blue, but eight diverse films with this kind of profile shown all in one season is quite something. Earlier this week, TSN vice-president (programming) Shawn Redmond took the time to talk about the series with me, and he had some interesting things to say. Before we get to that, though, check out this trailer for the series TSN posted Friday:
Redmond said one notable unifying theme of this series, which you can see throughout the trailer, is that these stories aren't purely sports ones. Some are set against a background of provincial politics, as is the case with Playing A Dangerous Game (the 1969 Grey Cup, held in Montreal during the FLQ crisis) and Western Swagger (the Eskimos' dominance in the 1970s and 1980s and how that related to the changes in Alberta during that time), while others tell personal stories of how CFL players were impacted by racial and societal issues (such as Stonethrower: The Chuck Ealey Story and The Kid From La Puente). One that really stands out along those lines is The Crash Of Flight 810, which explores the 1958 air crash that claimed the lives of five All-Stars from the perspective of Calgary Stampeders' guard Edwin Harrison, whose grandfather Calvin Jones was one of the players killed in the crash. These stories are about much more than just the games on the field, and Redmond said that was a key focus when choosing them.
"We really wanted to tell Canadian stories that have the CFL and the Grey Cup at the centre," he said. "These stories will appeal to fans of the CFL, but more broadly to sports fans and to a non-sports audience."
Redmond said this amount of focus on lengthy documentaries is considerably different from the network's usual approach.
"This is not typically what TSN does," he said.
He said two factors in particular inspired them to pursue this angle; the success of TSN's in-house storytelling features across sports (for game broadcasts and SportsCentre segments) and the tremendous response they've received from airing ESPN's popular 30 For 30 documentary series, which takes a similar approach of having renowned directors tell stories beyond the games. TSN then reached out to prominent directors and narrowed a wide pool of ideas down to these eight. Redmond said what really differentiated the selected entries was how those proposals were about so much more than just the games.
"The directors weren't necessarily focused on what was happening on the field," he said. "They found a way to tell great stories without getting focused on the on-field action."
Redmond said they didn't want to do a traditional approach of having one film per decade or one per team, but rather wanted to go with wider stories that really addressed the different aspects of the CFL in advance of the 100th Grey Cup this fall.
"The 100th Grey Cup's certainly an opportunity to reflect on what the Grey Cup and the CFL have meant to Canada," Redmond said. "We did our best to try and spread the stories around throughout the era and the country."
He said stories like that of Anthony Calvillo, whose upbringing in a rough Los Angeles neighbourhood and unusual journey to CFL stardom is profiled in The Kid From La Puente, say a lot about Canada, not just the CFL.
"He's fought through so much to be here," Redmond said.
Redmond said this is an ambitious gamble for TSN, as they've not only invested substantial funding in this series, but have also given it prominent programming slots, including some immediately after CFL games (which is usually a slot where SportsCentre dominates the ratings).
"We've made a big commitment to the series, not just from a financial perspective but from a scheduling perspective," he said.
Yet, Redmond is optimistic their investment will pay off.
"We're excited about this," he said. "We have high hopes."
Here's the complete schedule:
• Monday, Oct. 8 — THE 13TH MAN at 7:30 p.m. ET
• Friday, Oct. 12 — STONE THROWER: THE CHUCK EALEY STORY at 10:30 p.m. ET
• Thursday, Oct. 18 — THE KID FROM LA PUENTE at 9 p.m. ET
• Friday, Oct. 26 — PLAYING A DANGEROUS GAME at 8 p.m. ET
• Friday, Nov. 2 — THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 810 at 8 p.m. ET
• Friday, Nov. 9 — THE PHOTOGRAPH at 10 p.m. ET
• Friday, Nov. 16 — WESTERN SWAGGER at 10 p.m. ET
• Tuesday, Nov. 20 — THE GREATEST TEAM THAT NEVER WON at 8 p.m. ET
Repeats can also be seen on CTV, CTV2 and TSN.ca, and French-language versions will be shown on RDS as well. Further details, including information on each film, are available here.