“What could possibly go wrong?”
That was my first thought when I heard cable network Showtime's new program, “60 Minutes Sports,” is planning an April 2013 segment on horse racing featuring Doug O'Neill, trainer of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another.
Then I realized “60 Minutes Sports” was an extension of the highly acclaimed, long-running “60 Minutes” news magazine on CBS – except the show will be all about sports. It is meant to be Showtime's answer to “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” on HBO. Showtime is a unit of CBS.
Here is Showtime's promotion of the new “60 Minutes Sports” program that debuts on Jan. 9 at 10 p.m. “The first name in news magazines is now the last word in sports. The award-winning team behind 60 Minutes now turns its investigative eye towards the world of sports. From in-depth reporting to the most compelling interviews…”
That makes me think of the late Mike Wallace, barging into corporate headquarters with a camera crew, armed with damning facts and figures, and demanding to speak to the company CEO. Or Leslie Stahl, asking a seemingly innocent question that effectively removes several vital organs from the interview subject.
This could be a problem, especially in light of how O'Neill was portrayed recently by a Chinese television news feature, “Death At the Racetrack,” focusing on medication in American horseracing.
Or how HBO's “Real Sports” caught Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen like a deer in the headlights during a 2007 ambush interview about his numerous medication violations.
But maybe, just maybe, this won't be so bad.
“I talked with one of the people who's going to help produce '60 Minutes Sports,'” O'Neill told the Paulick Report. “He seems like a nice enough guy, and he's supposed to be out here (Betfair Hollywood Park) on Saturday for the CashCall Futurity. I told him if there's anything I can do to get positive news out on our sport, then I'm in.”
That echoes what veteran CBS News producer Alan Weisman told me about the segment, which he is producing as a pre-Triple Crown feature that will follow O'Neill through the winter as he tries to make Kentucky Derby lightning strike two years in a row.
“Doug's got four horses that have a legitimate shot this year and we're going to be following him,” said Weisman, who has spent 40 years in television news, working as a “60 Minutes” producer, executive producer on the “Charlie Rose” show, senior producer on “CBS News Sunday Morning,” executive producer on “Sports Illustrated Television,” and a producer on the “Evening News” with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.
“But we do want to broaden it out to include the problems the sport has: the demographics, trying to get young people to go to the races; the controversies over drugs; the need some people see for some sort of national commissioner or somebody like that to standardize things.”
So will it be a “hit” piece?
“Not as such,” Weisman said. “If it were, you wouldn't be getting this phone call. We are going to touch on some things that have happened, but I wouldn't characterize it as an investigation. It's not framed that way. But the way things can lead, you never know.”
The correspondent for the horse racing feature will be CBS News' chief investigative reporter Armen Keteyian, an 11-time Emmy Award winner and former reporter on HBO's “Real Sports.”
Weisman, who previously produced a horse racing feature on Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey for “60 Minutes II,” told me of this little-known connection between horse racing and CBS News.
Jeffrey Fager, who filled the giant shoes of the late “60 Minutes” creator and executive producer Don Hewitt and is now chairman of CBS News, is the son of a Boston neurosurgeon named Charles Fager. If that name is familiar it's because the champion and Hall of Fame racehorse Dr. Fager was named in his honor after Charles Fager's brain surgery saved the life of Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud.
The last time CBS took a look at horse racing was in 2010 when correspondent Bob Simon did what amounted to a love letter on then unbeaten champion Zenyatta just before the Breeders' Cup. In light of what's been reported through 2012 in the New York Times investigative series and in the wake of several Congressional hearings on drugs in horse racing, I doubt we'll see anything that positive.
For my money, though, there is no better program on television than “60 Minutes,” so the Showtime extension, “60 Minutes Sports” is something I'm looking forward to.
As I said, what could possibly go wrong?
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