Behind the scenes of HBO's Real Sports interview with Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya

0:49 | Tech & Media
Media circus: inside HBO Real Sports' interview with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov
Sunday July 16th, 2017

The U.S. Department of State is very clear on the subject: Do not travel to Chechnya or any other areas in the North Caucasus region.

You can find that warning for U.S. citizens on the State Department’s website , along with a foreboding note that the United States Government has no ability to assist U.S. citizens in the North Caucasus Region.

“Then we read stories about foreign journalists getting assaulted there,” says HBO Sports senior segment producer Jordan Kronick, who has worked on Real Sports for five years and traveled last month to Chechnya to interview Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic. “For example, there’s a story about a group of Northern European journalists getting pulled from their bus, beaten up and then getting their bus torched. It seems the threats to foreigners in the region might include: terrorist attacks, kidnappings and assaults by criminal gangs.”

On Tuesday HBO’s Real Sports (10 p.m. ET/PT) will air an interview with Kadyrov, his first with a Western journalist since 2014. Kronick was part of an eight-person crew (correspondent David Scott, two cameramen, one soundman, an HBO production associate, a journalist from Moscow who was assisting with bookings and translations, and a security person with medical training) who traveled to Chechen capital city Grozny for a story on how Kadyrov is using mixed martial arts to spread his political message overseas. The interview took place on June 30 at about 2:00 a.m. local time.

Tech & Media
Inside the launch of the new 24/7 Olympic Channel

“With Kadyrov’s agreement to do the interview, we felt we had a government invitation to be there, so we didn’t need to worry about kidnappings or assaults,” Kronick said, in an interview this week. “As for terrorist attacks, they’re apparently very infrequent in downtown Grozny these days. We contacted some journalists who had been there recently, and they painted a picture within our tolerance levels. So we decided to go. Our biggest concern was how Kadyrov would react during the portion of the interview about human rights. Definitely the high anxiety moment in all of this was during that line of questioning. I think our audience will be able to feel the intensity of that.”

Transcripts from the interview showing Kadyrov denying that gay men have been detained and tortured in the Russian republic have already been picked up globally. HBO has released a preview of the interview here.

Below, Kronick offered some additional information on one of the more remarkable interviews a sports-based program has landed in recent years.

Tech & Media
Media Circus: Karl Ravech on replacing Chris Berman as the voice of the Home Run Derby

SI.com: In as much detail as you can, how were you able to land the interview with Kadyrov?

Kronick: We worked with a Moscow journalist to book the interview. He was primarily in touch with Kadyrov’s media gatekeeper. We started the pursuit around the beginning of the year. The pitch was: we wish to do a story about Chechnya through the lens of Kadyrov’s MMA fight club. After a few months, the gatekeeper told our Moscow journalist that Kadyrov said “yes” to the interview. It was agreed that we should come during Kadyrov's MMA tournament in May. But there was no letter or email confirming this. Just a “yes” over the phone, despite our efforts to get something more concrete. Then the gay purge story broke a few weeks before our departure. Surely this raised the stakes of any story about Chechnya. But we also wondered whether they would still want to engage with Western media where there would be no restrictions on questions. In any event, we decided to proceed in hopes that the “yes” would hold.

SI.com: Why, in your opinion, did he agree to the interview?

Kronick: I’m not sure why he agreed to the interview. It took two trips there to get it. On the first trip, we waited nine days before we had to leave empty handed as our Russian visas were set to expire. During that trip, as we were waiting and climbing the hotel’s walls, we had lots of time to speculate about why the interview wasn’t happening. He has a history of making journalists wait days and days before summoning them to palace. Maybe that was it. He seems to have disdain for the West and its media. Maybe he was just messing with us. Or maybe the reason was more basic—that Ramadan was fast approaching and he was too busy. We needed to do a return trip to Russia after Ramadan to get more elements for the story. So, while we were in Moscow, we proposed to them that if they would reiterate their agreement to the interview, we would come back to Grozny for no longer than 24 hours. This time around we got summoned to the palace on our first night there. First, we were told to go to the palace’s private soccer field to watch Kadyrov play. Then we were sent to the palace stateroom to set up the interview. Then, a few hours later, he showed up at around 2:00 am to start the interview. Back to your question, why did he agree and end up doing it? Maybe our persistence in going there twice persuaded him.

Tech & Media
Fox Sports not planning to tone down the noise after Jamie Horowitz's firing

SI.com: How long was the duration of the interview?

Kronick: The interview lasted about 100 minutes. But there wasn’t contemporaneous Russian-English translation. Instead, it was question, translation, answer, translation. So it was probably about 50 minutes of content.

SI.com: What kind of interaction did the crew have with Kadyrov following the interview?

Kronick: There was virtually no interaction. Near the end of the interview, he was on a lengthy, winding answer about the alleged purge, American-Russian relations and nuclear war. Once he was done talking, at near 3:30 a.m., he pretty much just got up, shook David's hand and left the room.

THE NOISE REPORT

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

1. The talented editor behind last week’s Skip Bayless debates Skip Bayless video is William Schleichert, a freelance producer and a former senior associate producer at Fox Sports. I highly recommend the video as an example of ESPN and Fox Sports employing monorail salesmen, as well as Schleichert’s editing skills.

The video has drawn more than 200,000 views on YouTube. It also drew attention on outlets as disparate as The Daily Caller and The Washington Post.

In an interview last week, Schleichert said the video took about two weeks to finish, with most of that time spent collecting and transcribing footage of Bayless talking about one of his favorite hobby-horses: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Schleichert said he compiled 10 full-length episodes of the Bayless-led Undisputed and logged everything Bayless said.

“From there I picked the two shows with the most contradictions, and since I'm a glutton for punishment, watched them again,” Schleichert said. “After that I basically knew which bites I was going to use and the editing process went rather quickly by comparison. I'd been kicking around the idea for awhile, and was simultaneously looking for projects to help improve my amateurish editing skills. The combination of time, resources and the opportunity for self-improvement ultimately motivated me to make the video. I also figured if the video blew up it could provide future job leads.”

How surprised was Schleichert by the amount of social media traction the video received?

“While I felt it had the potential to do well, I certainly didn't expect this type of response,” Schleichert said. “I actually finished the video in June during the NBA Finals, but decided to wait until the MLB All-Star break to post. My thought was that with the lull in the sports calendar there would be less content to compete with. Not sure if that helped or not, but I am definitely surprised by the amount of traction it has received. A sincere thank you to everyone who watched, shared and/or commented on the video.”

Tech & Media
Dan Shulman to step down from 'Sunday Night Baseball' after 2017 season

2. Episode 127 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Ian Eagle, the fine play by play broadcaster for CBS Sports, Yes Network, Westwood One and Tennis Channel.

In this podcast Eagle discusses how much he is bothered by having never been the lead announcer of a major sports package the way Joe Buck and Jim Nantz are; how he prepares for his NFL, NBA and tennis work; the politics of working for a sports network; how he first landed the Nets broadcasting job in his mid-20s; working with hosts Mike Francesa and Chris Russo at New York’s WFAN Radio; growing up with his actor-father, Jack, who had the lead role in one of the most famous Super Bowl commercials in history, as well as filmed a Hertz commercial with O.J. Simpson; the greatest games he’s ever called; his favorite Bill Raftery drinking story; the legacy of Syracuse University radio station, WAER; whether he likes the Nets rebuilding plan; the worst-ever pronunciation of his name, and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

3. Fox averaged 9.28 million viewers for the All-Star Game, up from the all-time low of 8.71 million viewers last year. As Austin Karp of the Sports Business Daily noted, the 9.28 million is the second-lowest on record, and well behind the 10.9 million viewers who watched the 2015 All Star Game.

3a. Anthony Crupi of Ad Age went deep into the viewership numbers of the All-Star Game, including the median age of the viewers who watched. That number jumped to 56 years this year, up from 54.6 years in 2016.

3b. The Aaron Judge effect, Part I: ESPN’s airing of the Home Run Derby averaged 8.17 million viewers, the best Derby audience since 2009. Karp said the viewership among males 12-34 was up 22% for the Derby and ESPN also had its best Hispanic audience on record for the Derby.

3c. The Aaron Judge effect, Part II: The YES Network said average total viewership for New York Yankees game telecasts was up 57% year-over-year in the New York DMA over last year. The games are averaging 343,000 viewers versus 219,000 last year.

3d. Good review by Newsdays Neil Best on Karl Ravech’s excellent work as Derby host and the too much cheerleading from analysts Mark Teixeira and Jessica Mendoza. 

3e. Paulsen of Sports Media Watch listed the Top 50 Most Watched Sporting Events of the first half of 2017.

3f. Via Sports TV Ratings, here is the ESPYs viewership over the last three years (all 3 years on ABC):

2017: 5.3 million viewers
2016: 5.6 million viewers
2015: 7.75 million viewers (the year featuring Caitlyn Jenner as the Arthur Ashe Award Winner)

Tech & Media
ESPN finds success turning 30 for 30 into a podcast experience

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Great work from Aaron Gordon of Vice Sports: The Five-Buck Bump of Cocaine That Destroyed an Olympic Dream

New York Times writer David Waldstein had a remarkable profile of the exciting life and lonely death of former NBAer Jackson Vroman

Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty on a 9-year-old basketball prodigy and all the horrors that come with that

•SI's Tim Layden on middle-distance runner Gabriele Grunewald's fight against an awful cancer.

• Alyssa Roenigk profiled Olympic volleyball ace Kerri Walsh Jennings 

• The Ringer’s David Hill on poker player Phil Ivey

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay‏ on the the inane spectacle of the Mayweather/McGregor press tour

• SI’s Jack Dickey on the life of Brent and Miko Grimes 

Non sports pieces:

• Pro Publica’s Justin Elliott and Jesse Eisinger profile Marc Kasowitz, Donald Trump’s attorney on the Russia investigation:

• From Esquire: An oral history of Meatballs, which includes tales of booze, drugs, sinking boats, camper mutinies and Bill Murray

• Documentary filmmaker Katie Galloway, working for the Marshall Project, on a Columbus, Ohio chicken joint that hires recently incarcerated men and women 

• From April Wolfe of L.A. Weekly: Rape Choreography Makes Films Safer, But Still Takes a Toll on Cast and Crew

• From Buzfeed: How A High School Reporter Scored An Interview With The U.S. Secretary Of Defense

• Adam Ferguson of The New York Times traveled across Australia’s vast interior

• From Scientific America: How Fake News Goes Viral—Here’s the Math

• Via Rolling Stone’s Josh Eells: The Brutal Rise of El Mencho

5. Fox announced its college football announcing teams for the 2017-18 season:

Gus Johnson-Joel Klatt-Jenny Taft

Joe Davis-Brady Quinn-Bruce Feldman

Tim Brando-Spencer Tillman-Holly Sonders

The network said the team of Johnson, Klatt and Taft will call two games during the opening weekend of Fox’s college football coverage — Washington at Rutgers on Sept. 1, which is the first Big Ten home game on FS1, and Texas A&M at UCLA on Sept. 3 on Fox. Rob Stone returns as the pregame, halftime and postgame host of Fox and FS1’s college football coverage, with analysts Matt Leinart, Robert Smith and Dave Wannstedt. Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino serve as rules experts.

5a. The SEC Network has changed the announcing team for its marquee college football game. The new Saturday night group is play by play caller Tom Hart and analysts Cole Cubelic and Jordan Rodgers. The trio takes over for Brent Musburger, Jesse Palmer and Kaylee Hartung.

5b. FS1 hired former ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth to work on a variety of assignments including games. Quality hire.

5c. FS1 NFL analyst Chris Spielman filed a federal lawsuit on Friday against his alma mater Ohio State and IMG College, the popular sports marketing company that negotiates on behalf of OSU and many other colleges. Spielman contends that Ohio State and IMG College, along with co-conspirators Honda and Nike, have unlawfully conspired under federal antitrust law to deny payment to current and former Ohio Sate football players. SI’s Michael McCann says the case could set a monumental precedent.

5d. Writing for Forbes, Mark J. Burns‏ profiled Barstool Sports’ brand in 2017 

5e. NBC said the network air a total of 49.5 live hours of The Open championship from July 20-23, including 14.5 hours on Golf Channel over each of the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday (1:30 a.m.-4 p.m. ET); 10.5 live hours across Golf Channel and NBC during the third round on Saturday (4:30 a.m.-3 p.m. ET), and 10 live hours across Golf Channel and NBC during the final round on Sunday (4 a.m.-2 p.m. ET).

5f. Terrific work by Golf Channel producers Kory Kozak, Jarrod Ficklin and Cassidy Caukin and editors Chris Fernandez, Derek Kuchman and Michael Sanabria for their work on The Open championship bumpers and teases. If the voice on this link  is familiar, you are probably a Game of Thrones fan. The narration is done by actor Stephen Dillane , who played Stannis Baratheon .

5g. Ken Fang of Awful Announcing had a detailed timeline of FS1 from its August 2013 launch to today.

5h. Strong piece here from Fox Sports producer Rick Thomas on the Police Officer Michael J. Buczek Little League in New York City, a league established by the family and friends of Police Officer Michael J. Buczek, who was shot and killed in the line of duty working in Washington Heights in 1988.

5i.  Funny exchange between golf analysts Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller on an NBC Sports Golf conference call last week when a reporter asked about the proper title for The Open, which was previously known as The Open Championship and the British Open:

Faldo: The Open Championship is incorrect. It's now The Open. You see? It's gone from The British Open, The Open Championship, now it's The Open.

Miller: I have trouble with it. I screwed up one time last year, if you call it a screw-up, which is pretty good in four days. But, yeah, it was always the British Open because you had the U.S. Open and the British Open. It just made sense that you differentiated them as an American. And it's still, even when I talk to groups or corporate groups or something, I will still refer to the U.S. Open and British Open because they say The Open, a lot of Americans, casual golf fans, they don't know what you're talking about. So I don't know if the political correctness has gotten to Britain or not. But bottom line you've got to do it right we have a whole sheet of things you're supposed to say or not say. So The Open. That's right.

Faldo: In another five years it will be just called "The."

5j. Bob Wolff, one of the iconic sports broadcasters of his generation, passed away on Saturday at age 96.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.