BTN’s Returning Documentary Series The Journey Is a ‘Labor of Love’

On the court, chemistry is crucial to a team’s success. In the Big Ten Conference, though, one of the most cohesive units in college basketball isn’t on the floor; it’s behind the camera.

Big Ten Network’s critically acclaimed reality sports documentary series The Journey: Big Ten Basketball 2012 returns for its fifth season on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. The show, which airs a new half hour-long episode weekly, gives fans a behind-the-scenes look at the conference’s 10-week trek to the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

Those involved in the show’s production will be the first to admit that a close-knit core of producers, camera operators, and editors has been critical to the success of the series and has them excited for the season to come.

“[It’s] great for us to have been able to keep the team together on the production side,” says Bill Friedman, senior producer of original programming at BTN. “There’s really a familiarity, especially in the producer-editor relationship and the producer-cameraman relationship. You just don’t have to worry about if it’s going to look the way we want or tell the story that we want. It just happens because we’ve done it and we’ve had a lot of reps. I think that’s been a big key.”

The series, which began following an individual team before switching to the entire conference two years ago, reached new heights last spring when it was nominated for a Sports Emmy in the category of Outstanding Edited Sports Series/Anthology. It was joined by ESPN2’s E:60, CBS’s Championships of the NCAA, HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, and Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the New York Jets (which ended up taking the award). It marked the second Emmy nomination in Big Ten Network history, dating back to its launch in August 2007.

Under the Hood
A typical shoot for The Journey features just two cameras: a Panasonic VeriCam HDX900 and either a Canon 7D DSLR or a Panasonic AG-AF100.

“With [those cameras], we get a mix of different formats, different looks; we will shoot different frame rates,” says Friedman. “As you can tell from watching our show, we like to mix the live and the slow-motion shots to connote emotion and drama. We use a lot of dollies. We like a lot of tracking shots.”

To obtain the critical audio components needed to make a behind-the-scenes show captivating, the crew uses little more than some boom mics. If a player or coach agrees to be wired up during a practice or game, the crew takes advantage of that opportunity. But, for the most part, securing the best audio relies heavily on being in the right place at the right time and obtaining permission from the programs.

“We use our judgment,” says Friedman. “We are certainly sensitive to the team’s concerns. When they are giving us access, the access is on their terms, and we abide by that. That being said, I think, over the [years], we’ve developed really strong relationships with all of the schools and there’s a comfort level there.”

A Sneak Peek
All great television programs rely on developing an attachment between its main characters and the audience. That can be a tremendous challenge in the world of college basketball, where the constantly revolving door of players — and even sometimes coaches — makes the landscape of the sport an ever-changing team photo.

The Journey: Big Ten Basketball 2012 offers a behind-the-scenes look at the conference’s 10-week season.

“The greatest thing about college sports is that it evolves,” says Julian Darnell, a producer on the show. “People graduate, and than other characters emerge.”

The most prominent new storyline in Episode 1 of the new season is the emergence of the Indiana Hoosiers, who have stormed out of the gates to a 14-1 start, including wins against No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 10 and No. 2 Ohio State on New Year’s Eve.

“The last two years that we’ve done the show, Indiana has really struggled and hasn’t been a big storyline,” says Friedman. “That’s changed this year, and we’re excited about that storyline.”

Although a Journey crew wasn’t on hand to shoot Indiana’s dramatic victory over the top-ranked Wildcats, that didn’t stop its producers from offering a unique look at perhaps Indiana’s most exciting win since Keith Smart hit his historic shot in the final seconds of the 1987 NCAA championship game.

“I had [freshman forward] Cody [Zeller] out on the court, and how can you not talk about the Kentucky game?” says Darnell. “It was such a signature win for our conference. Cody made the screen that freed up [senior guard] Verdell Jones in the backcourt, so we went through the play with Cody on the court. He runs his screen, and we show it twice; than he breaks to the basket, and he’s right under the basket when [Christian Watford’s] shot goes through.

“It was pretty cool,” Darnell continues, “just what that shot represented to him as far as the mass of humanity on the court and what that represented for a program that had taken its lumps over the years. It’s a step forward.”

Quick Turnaround
As with other sports reality docs of its ilk (HBO’s 24/7 and Hard Knocks, Showtime’s The Franchise), the true challenge lies in the logistics of churning out a high-level production in a very limited time.

“Given the level of production and editing that we want to put into our material,” says Friedman, “really the last day we can shoot and make it look like the way we want is Thursday.”

That puts the crew on a Sunday-to-Thursday shooting schedule, working around a Big Ten Conference slate that features games every night of the week except Monday and Friday.

It pays to be a one-man band on The Journey crew. Some members of the team produce, shoot, and also edit. It’s not a large team: five producers oversee the program, two of them editing as well along with another pair of editors.

Despite the harsh deadlines and relentless production rundown, Friedman calls it all a “labor of love” for the tight-knit bunch, one he expects to lead to another outstanding season for one of sports television’s emerging works.

The Journey: Big Ten Basketball 2012 premieres Sunday Jan. 8 at 8 p.m. ET on BTN and will air a new episode each Sunday through the Big Ten Tournament in March. For more on the show, follow its Twitter handle @BTNJourney.