TSN's "Engraved On A Nation" CFL documentary series has been drawing plenty of hype since it was first announced this spring, and the first installment Monday likely gave the broadcaster the result they were looking for. The 13th Man, about the Saskatchewan Roughriders' fans and their reaction to the team's heartbreaking 2009 Grey Cup loss thanks to an extra man on the field, drew plenty of positive reviews, but perhaps most importantly for the broadcaster, it drew viewers: an average audience of 530,000 tuned in, the most-ever for a documentary on TSN. Of course, part of that's thanks to its timing (The 13th Man had an incredible lead-in, a Saskatchewan-Toronto CFL game that somehow drew 1.057 million viewers on average despite being a blowout, the league's best regular-season audience in the last two years) and part of it's thanks to the subject matter (the large amounts of Saskatchewan fans always boost content abut that team), but that's still impressive, and it reflects how the film was a compelling, well-put-together story. Now, the question is if the next entry, Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story (airing Friday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern following the conclusion of the B.C.-Hamilton game) can build on the series' strong start, both from a critical standpoint and an audience one.
From a critical standpoint, that seems very possible. This documentary's from acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer, and it's got incredible subject matter to work with, the unbelievable story of Chuck Ealey. Ealey was a legendary college quarterback for the Toledo Rockets, leading them to a 35-0 run over his last three seasons and finishing eighth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1971, but he never received a chance to play quarterback in the NFL, primarily because of his race. Instead, he came to Canada in 1972, took over as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' starter partway into the year and led them to a first-place finish and a Grey Cup, becoming the first African-American QB to win the Grey Cup in the process and paving the way for future legends like Warren Moon. As Officer pointed out in an interview with TSN's Shane McNeil, Ealey's story is remarkable, and it's one that has implications and parallels well beyond the sports world:
When NFL teams expressed reluctance to draft him as a quarterback, Ealey set his sights on becoming a star in the Canadian game.
The journey north - one that, as Officer points out, has tangible connections to the Underground Railroad that led freed slaves to Canada during the Civil War - would land Ealey with a serious chance to shine.
"There are places around this country that people can come to and not be afraid and they'll be respected to a degree more so than they've experienced," Officer says of Ealey's move to Hamilton.
"They'll be given the opportunity and they'll be given the benefit of the doubt...It's pretty telling and it's not just in sports."
We'll see Friday night how well Officer does with that great subject material, but it's certainly promising. The ratings may not be quite as strong as the first documentary, though, and that's just a function of the Riders' audience. (Also, providing compelling content for people to watch during a post-turkey-dinner recovery is probably not a bad idea.) This doesn't need to pull in quite as many viewers to be a success, though. If a substantial amount of people stick around after the CFL game and some others tune in, this could still do very well for TSN, boosting the profile of the rest of the series in the process and encouraging TV networks to invest further in telling compelling CFL stories.