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Bill Simmons opens up about exit from ESPN
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Bill Simmons opens up about exit from ESPN
Friday June 10th, 2016

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Let’s not bury the lead: ESPN’s ambitious and exhaustive upcoming documentary on O.J. Simpson—O.J.: Made In America—is the best 30 for 30 documentary the company has ever produced. It is thrilling and uncompromising filmmaking—clocking in at seven hours and 43 minutes—and it will make you look at the most famous murder case in United States history with fresh eyes and under a larger prism.

Watching the entire film is a laborious assignment but a worthwhile journey. Director Ezra Edelman wanted to dive deep into the dual narrative of Simpson’s rise and fall amid the racial climate in the city of Los Angeles, and he succeeded in memorable fashion. The film debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC and then switches to ESPN for the final four parts. Each episode will run two hours with commercials. (The schedule of air dates is here.) When the second episode concludes on ESPN next Tuesday, ESPN will make the entire film available on Watch ESPN and video on demand. There will also be re-airs over the next few months across multiple ESPN platforms, and it will also be available on iTunes and in DVD form. With an eye toward the Oscars, ESPN Films released the film for a theatrical run. That was not hubris; it is that brilliant.

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The principle filmmakers (Edelman and fellow producers Cristina Esteras-Ortiz, Deirdre Fenton, Nina Kristic, Kristin LeskoBetsy Reid, Tamara Rosenberg and Caroline Waterlow) conducted 72 interviews for the film, including key players from the prosecution (Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti and Bill Hodgeman), Simpson’s defense team (F. Lee Bailey, Carl Douglas and Barry Scheck), childhood friends of Simpson, jurors from the criminal trial, former LAPD detectives involved in the case (Mark Fuhrman and Tom Lange) and African-American civil rights activists, as well as those who speak for the dead: Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Edelman mailed a letter to O.J. Simpson at Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center (where he is serving a 33-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping) during the filming, but the letter was never answered. When Rosenberg called Al Cowlings, the longtime running mate of Simpson and the driver of the Ford Bronco on June 17, 1994, Cowlings immediately hung up on her. Edelman said the two people he wished appeared in the film were Simpson’s first wife, Marguerite, and former L.A. County district attorney Christopher Darden. The filmmakers were not able to contact Simpson’s first wife; Darden declined to participate.

The topic of Simpson has been on the minds of ESPN Films executives since the documentary project commenced in 2007. The division commissioned filmmaker Brett Morgan to do the excellent 30 For 30 film June 17, 1994, but that barely scratched the surface of the complicated story of Simpson and race. “If you are going to do O.J. Simpson, you are going to cover June 1994 to Oct. 1995—it is unavoidable,” said ESPN Films executive producer Connor Schell. “But if you are interested in things that came before it and after it, then it has to be longer than the traditional two-hour form.”

When he initially spoke with Edelman in February 2014, Schell told the filmmaker that he wanted to do a documentary that was five hours in length. Piqued at the process of an ambitious project, Edelman asked Schell what he had in mind. When Schell told him he wanted to do O.J. Simpson, Edelman said he was not interested. “I thought there was nothing left to say about him,” Edelman said.

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But further conversation stimulated Edelman’s interest. He realized that he did not have to fully focus on the trial or whether Simpson was innocent or guilty. “I could use that canvas to tell a deeper story about race in America, about the city of Los Angeles, the relationship between the black community and the police, and who O.J. was and his rise to celebrity,” Edelman said. “That’s the story I wanted to tell.”

Despite the five-hour goal, during the production of the film, Edelman screened it for ESPN Films executives at 7 1/2 hours and they loved it. Schell told Edelman to work within that length and he would figure out the programming end. “The way I always viewed this was we are going to give Ezra the time he needs to tell this story,” Schell said.

The process of conception to completion took 18 months—a gargantuan undertaking. In the interim, FX aired its miniseries on the Simpson case, The People v. O.J. Simpson, which whetted the appetite for Simpson material. There was also a renewed interest in true crime thanks to Serial and Making A Murderer.

“Ezra is ambitious, blunt, terrifyingly smart, and extraordinarily demanding of himself,” said Erik Rydholm, the producer of ESPN’s PTI and Highly Questionable and a close friend of Edelman. “He knew that he would be trading away any level of life balance for total immersion. Building a documentary of this scope and scale is not just about storytelling, it’s also about logistics; he had to build a company, convince everyone who was tired of talking about the case to sit for five-hour interviews, and handle the progress checks of the network. Most of all, he had to deal with the huge expectations he has for himself. I don’t think he’d put it this way because his critical eye does not spare himself, but he wants the films he works on to be great. He doesn’t want them to merely be enjoyable; he expects them to enlighten, to say something that hasn’t been said before. Otherwise, to him, what’s the point?”

Rydholm said he and Edelman spoke often during the production and Edelman was “mostly miserable” because of the weight of the project and his own exacting standards. As Rydholm pointed out, viewers should take note that the film does not have a line of narration in it or a single title card. It is carried completely by the sequencing, and such sequencing is made possible by the intellect of the interviews. The insights from Clark, Douglas and Simpson’s childhood friend Joe Bell and others are fascinating.

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On the issue of offering an opinion of Simpson’s guilt or innocence, Edelman has steadfastly stayed away from such a declaration during interviews. “That’s not the point of the film,” Edelman said. “The most important thing in making this film was to come into it without an agenda, to let people who were part of this story and who exist on all sides, to give them their say.”

The New York Times, offering the highest of praise, said if Edelman’s film were a book, “it could sit on the shelf alongside “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer and the great biographical works of Robert Caro.” The filmmaker said his goal for viewers is to walk away from the film with a full understanding of why the verdict went the way it did.

“If you understand the events of 1994 and 1995 as far as all the factors that really were at play in the trial and have a greater understanding of why that verdict went the way it went and why people responded the way they responded on both sides, then I think we have done our job,” Edelman said. “To be able to think about this story with proper prospective, that’s all I want.”

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Some notable reviews of O.J.: Made In America:

Hit Fix

New Republic

New York Times

• NPR

The Root

• Washington Post

Wired

2. The Hollywood Reporter had a cover story on Bill Simmons in advance of the debut of his HBO show.

2a. Simmons issued an apology on his Instagram account for a quote in the above piece that he believed came off far too harshly on ESPN employees, many of whom he said he respected.

2b. ESPN announced it extended the contract of Dick Vitale through the 2018–19 season. The agreement will add an additional year to his previous extension and will take Vitale, who started with the company in its first year (1979), to his 40th season on ESPN.

3. Episode No. 61 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features the acclaimed sports and news photographer Neil Leifer.

On this episode, Leifer discusses his many memorable photographs of Muhammad Ali, including his personal favorite—the aerial photograph of Ali knocking out Cleveland Williams at the Houston Astrodome in November 1966. He also discusses the famed shot of then Cassius Clay standing over Sonny Liston after retaining the heavyweight championship in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine; why Ali was such a perfect photo subject; his first posed photo shoot with Ali when Leifer was 22 years old; how he and Ali became close friends in the last 25 years of his life; how he approached shooting photos of Ali; shooting Ali for his 70th birthday; the last time he interacted with Lonnie Ali, Muhammad’s wife; and much more. Leifer’s images are currently on display at Los Angeles’s Peter Fetterman Gallery and you can also see them on Leifer’s website.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.

4. The Mexico-Uruguay Copa America match last Sunday averaged 5.1 million on Univision, making it the most-viewed soccer telecast since the Gold Cup final on any network regardless of language. Univision said the broadcast out-delivered Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on NBC & NBC Sports Network, respectively. The U.S.-Colombia matched averaged 3.9 million on Univision. Through 10 matches, Copa America Centenario is averaging 2.7 million viewers on Univision.

• STRAUS: U.S. reasserts itself in needed Copa America win over Costa Rica

4a. The United States’ win over Costa Rica Tuesday night averaged 1.6 million viewers on FS1, making it the most-watched men’s soccer match in the three-year history of that network. The match topped the 2015 CONCACAF Cup (1.561 million viewers) game between Mexico and the United States.

4b. The U.S.-Costa Rica game averaged 2.5 million viewers on UniMas.

4c. FS1 hired Landon Donovan to work as a studio and game analyst during the Copa America tournament.

4d. Two very different reviews of Fernando Fiore’s work on FS1’s Copa America Tonight from the L.A. Times and World Soccer Talk.

5. FS1’s Katie Nolan had MLB Network anchor and former ESPN host Robert Flores on for a recent podcast. Among the topics: Competitiveness among ESPN anchors and dealing with office politics in Bristol.

5a. For the first time in 18 years, the Oklahoma-Texas football game will not be broadcast on an over-the-air network. FS1 has the game on Oct. 8 because Fox will be airing the baseball postseason.

5b. Candace Parker, to the CBS Sports Network show We Need To Talk on being left off the U.S. Olympic Team: “I was definitely surprised and disappointed to be left off. I was caught off guard ...  I got the call and was surprised. If you find out any information, then maybe you can let me know.”

5c. NBC Olympics announced its on-air teams for Golf Channel’s coverage of the men’s (Aug. 11–14) and women’s (Aug. 17–20) golf competition in Rio. The men’s broadcast team includes lead analyst Johnny Miller, who will rotate lead analyst roles with Nick Faldo in the 18th tower. David Feherty will split time as a tower analyst and on-course reporter, and Peter Jacobsen will serve as a second tower analyst. Roger Maltbie and Curt Byrum will work inside the ropes as on-course reporters along with Feherty. Terry Gannon and Steve Sands will join Miller and Faldo in the broadcast booth, rotating play-by-play duties. Todd Lewis will serve as a reporter and will conduct player interviews.

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Gannon and Sands also will handle play-by-play during the women’s competition. Annika Sorenstam will rotate lead analyst duties with Judy Rankin. Byrum also will join the 18th tower as an analyst, while Tom Abbott will be positioned as a tower analyst, and Jerry Foltz and Kay Cockerill will work as on-course reporters on the grounds. Karen Stupples will also contribute as an analyst.

5d. Actor Michael Rapaport interviews former NBA guard Rod Strickland.

5e. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand profiled sports business siblings Nate Ravitz (ESPN) and Natalie Ravitz (NFL).

5f. Don Cherry is returning to Hockey Night in Canada next season, according to The Canadian Press. The 82-year-old star of Coach’s Corner agreed to a multi-year deal.

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