Behind the scenes of Showtime's Notre Dame football series
No, there are no plans for a Jerry Tillery reality show spinoff, at least not technically, and not yet.
“I’ve gotten that question a few times,” offered Jason Sciavicco, one of the executive producers of the Showtime weekly documentary series, “A Season With Notre Dame Football.”
Showtime did, however, follow the ND freshman defensive lineman and scene stealer to Ireland this past week as he spent his fall break abroad. They also dispatched crews to California, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and Toledo, Ohio, among other places for Tuesday night’s Episode 8 (10 p.m. EDT on Showtime).
Yes, there will be a bye week version of the show as 11th-ranked Notre Dame (6-1) takes a break before prepping for a showdown in Philadelphia on Halloween night with 22nd-ranked Temple, the latter rallying past East Carolina Thursday night, 24-14, for its first win as a ranked team since 1941.
Somehow, Tillery figures to be a central figure in the show, if not the game itself as well.
So far the 6-foot-7, 305-pounder from Shreveport, La., has on camera acquiesced to bringing his helmet into the practice field port-a-potty for a bathroom break at the insistence of his teammates, has stated his intentions to be a doctor and the President of the United States — perhaps simultaneously — and has been part of an actual romance and a more intense bro-mance with senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day.
“I think that’s one of the things that, hopefully, you’re seeing from our shows, “ Sciavicco said, “that’s it’s not just practicing and getting better on the football field.
“It’s becoming men, and these guys all have older guys on the team that they look up to. And we were able to capture that relationship between Sheldon and Jerry.”
The Showtime crews actually capture way more than they actually use. Per Sciavicco, they shoot an average of 20 to 30 hours of footage a day on the six days leading up to a game and another 45 on game day itself.
That’s in team meetings, position meetings, in the classroom, in dorms, in press conferences, even on the putt-putt course.
Roughly 180 hours of footage is boiled down to 30 minutes.
All of it is first shipped to an editing crew in California. The turnaround, especially after a night game on the road (as Clemson was Oct. 3), is daunting.
“Our guys are editing 24 hours a day, seven days a week kind of thing and especially over the weekend,” Sciavicco said.” We have a full staff that basically starts on Friday and doesn’t leave until the show’s delivered around lunchtime on Tuesday.”
Roughly 60 to 70 people are involved in the show each day, about 30 to 35 of whom are in South Bend.
The preponderance of cameras actually serves two functions: providing a rich smorgasbord of material from which to choose, and actually reducing the chances of players and coaches either playing up to the cameras or shying away from them.
“In doing a lot of these different kinds of shows that are fairly similar, they’re all the same in the sense of after your first two to three weeks, the reaction to having cameras around really stops,” Sciavicco said. “In the first few weeks, you may get a few people that are a little reserved and others who are a little more talkative because the cameras are there.
“But coach (Brian) Kelly will tell you this, we are embedded in the program. We’re everywhere. We want to be everywhere, so it’s just normal. They walk into a meeting, they expect a camera to be there.
“At this point, we’ve been there so long, if a camera’s not there, they’re going to think about it more than if a camera is there. So I think that’s part of the process of doing these shows a lot, is you kind of learn the things to help everybody feel comfortable, and a big part of that is consistency.
“The last thing you want to do, especially with a major college football program, is being a distraction. And I think we’ve done a very good job of not becoming one.”
That was one of coach Brian Kelly’s big concerns, of many, when the two sides sat down this summer to discuss the possibilities.
But this project was actually years in the making, long before Notre Dame was even an option. Scott Stone, another one of the executive producers on the project, came up with the concept for the show several years ago.
Two years ago, he pitched it and sold it to Showtime. That’s the point Sciavicco became involved.
“We were still trying to lock in a school,” Sciavicco said. “The process is obviously not a short process. To get with a program at the level of which we wanted — a team that would contend for a national title — you have to go and meet with all these different schools and make sure they were really willing to open the doors.
“We didn’t want the show to seem like we had inside access. We actually had to have the full inside access. That was something that was very important to all of us — Scott (Stone), myself and the other partners, Tom Cappello and Steve Mayer.”
Sciavicco characterized the summertime meeting with Kelly as long but productive.
“We wanted to be very up front about what are expectations are, and coach wanted to ask questions,” he said.” But at the end of the conversation, we all felt Notre Dame was going to be a great choice for us for the first year of the show.”
Sciavicco said the reception for the show has been “impressive.” The actual ratings don’t align well with comparisons of shows on ESPN for example, because Showtime is in less than a third of the homes (28.1 million penetration, 24.6 percent of available TV households vs. 97.7 million and 86 percent).
Viewership for the first six episodes has fluctuated, reportedly between 39,000 to 136,00 viewers. Showtime is offering viewers without access to the show a chance to view episodes 6 and 7 for free (Ep. 6: http://s.sho.com/ND106 and Ep 7: http://s.sho.com/ND107).
“This is the first time a show like this has ever been done at this level,” Sciavicco said. “Hard Knocks, which a lot of people want to relate it to, is different. That’s just in the preseason. Nobody’s followed a team at this level for an entire season. It just hasn’t been done before. And Showtime is very happy with the way it’s going so far.”
Sciavicco said Showtime has the final say on what actually gets on the air, but the producers do collaborate with Notre Dame to get the right context and to make sure there’s a comfort level between the parties.
"It’s a partnership,” Sciavicco said. “But there’s not a meeting, to this point, that we’ve been kicked out of. There’s not a meeting that has been closed doors to us. We’ve been given complete and full access, and we tell the stories that we feel like are the best stories to tell.
“We’re not there to embarrass any kids. We’re not there to embarrass the program. We’re not there to investigate anything. We’re there to tell the stories of a major college football team competing for a national championship.”
The only real hiccup so far was a trailer early in the season of offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley vaguely explaining why he wouldn’t be a team captain. Kelly had not previously shared that with the media who follow the team on a daily basis.
Stanley said later the issue revolved around unresolved parking issues on campus. The snippet in the trailer, however, never made it to the show.
“We never want to put a nugget out there and then not tell the story,” Sciavicco said. “If we can’t give the story the right amount of time, we shouldn’t promote it or put it in a trailer. And I think that’s where that disappointment came from. We didn’t’ have time.”
What Showtime has the least control over is how Notre Dame’s season goes. A spate of early-season injuries threatened to push the Irish off a playoff trajectory.
“I don’t know that we would have adjusted our vision if that had happened,” Sciavicco said. “This series is about the lives of these players and coaches, and whether they’re 10-0 or 5-5, there are still the stories to tell of their lives.
“If they were 3-4, it would be disappointing, but we’d have different stories to tell — how they keep their drive alive and keep pushing, how do they stay motivated to push themselves further.”
And somewhere Jerry Tillery would have likely figured out how to avoid the cutting-room floor.
“He’s a great young man, has his priorities in order, it seems like,” Sciavicco said. “He likes to have fun. His personality, I think, just brings it to the forefront. He’s a very talented football player, has a great sense of humor. It’s been a great story to be able to tell.”