As the third season of Esquire Network’s Friday Night Tykes ends tonight, another season begins. But this time, instead of focusing on youth football in Texas, the show shifts to Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, to the Beaver County Youth Football League.
Like its predecessor, Friday Night Tykes: Steel Country is a combination of well-produced, well-shot scenes of sometimes highly disturbing behavior. (I stopped watching the original because I didn’t want to watch kids treated so terribly.)
The first episode spends some time establishing the setting, and during that time, coach Dwan Walker—who’s also his town’s mayor—says, “Here we play for God, family, and community.”
The Esquire series’ executive producer cited that line when discussing the spin-off’s additional focus. “It has some of the elements of Texas in terms of great football and intense coaching, but it also adds another dimension, which is community. These small towns are constantly turning out NFL players. Why here? What is special about this place?”
That’s Matt Maranz, who also produced the previous three seasons of Friday Night Tykes in Texas. He says that Beaver County is “a snapshot of post-industrial life in America,” and that the spin-off is about “the role football plays in keeping the communities together.”
But although the Steel Country looks at community—the teams here are local, not all-star teams like in Texas—the overall goal of the series has been to “tell a story about parenting, ask questions about how hard is too hard.”
How Friday Night Tykes gets access to kids playing football
Crying kids, angry parents, coaches that seem to be projecting their own issues onto their teams: They’re familiar scenes in Friday Night Tykes, and they’re part of Steel Country (Esquire Network, 10 p.m.), too. In one scene, the oldest kid on one team seems gleeful after possibly cracking another kid’s rib, asking, “How many people have I hurt so far?”
One coach tells his exhausted team, “All of the panting, that’s just show. … We’re fine, gentlemen, we’re fine.” Who is he trying to convince?
Frequently, the kids look disinterested, with the passion—and aggression—coming from their parents. That said, there is some pushback from some coaches about other adults’ bad behavior, and there is even a consequence in episode one.
So how does a documentary reality series get permission to film all this? Why would anyone agree to have their bad behavior—or their kids—filmed and broadcast to an audience of millions?
When producers approached the league and teams in Texas, “they didn’t jump right at it,” Maranz said. “These are not people that are screaming to be on TV. Both in Texas and in Pennsylvania, we got the same reaction: Really, you guys think we’re interesting? We’re just doing what we do.”
Maranz told me there were a lot of questions from Pennsylvanians for producers about what would be shown on television, and as a “documentary series that doesn’t stage anything,” he said, there’s an easy answer.
For example, coaches and school boards were concerned about coaches shown cursing in Texas, and they wanted to know if they’d be shown in the same way. The answer, Maranz said, is, “I don’t know. Do they curse? We only can show what you do.”
Friday Night Tykes: Steel Country needed permission from multiple groups and multiple people to be able to film the teams for five and a half months. The only people who don’t give permission are the kids.
“That’s one of the biggest struggles, and the biggest task. We pretty much need permission from everybody,” Maranz said. After the league gives permission, individual teams have to agree, and “the league can’t make them do it.” Likewise, “even if the team says yes, they can’t make the parent do it as well. You do need buy in from everybody on the team.”
However, if there is a parent that doesn’t want their kid filmed, “we shoot around a child every now and then,” he said.
“Everyone comes with a lot of quetions and concerns, as well they should. What we do lasts forever. People should be a little dubious and ask all the questions. We believe in having very honest and upfront exchanges with everybody.”
“No individuals are paid,” he said, but “there is a fee that’s paid to the league for the access to the league.” In addition, the production gives “some compensation” to each team that’s featured, to “help them offset the cost of the field and equipment.” Maranz added “that’s not something the teams even ask for,” but since “you are spending a lot of time and tresspassing and intruding upon children,” the production wants to be “helping out the kids.”
Parents behaving badly, and their kids
What about the effects this footage could have on a kid, now or later?
“We’re very conscious about that. This is not a decision the kids make. No child has decided to be on TV or not be on TV, his parents have decided for him. We take that responsibility—that’s very, very important,” Maranz told me. “We go way out of our way to try not to embarass a child. We’re people; we need to sleep at night.”
For example, Maranz said the show will sometimes cut the name of a child who’s being yelled at, “because there’s no reason for [viewers] to know.”
That said, there are definitely times when “there are kids in situations where they get spotlighted,” he said. “It’s a difficult line that we walk every single day because we don’t want to do anything that would cause harm to a child.”
I also asked him about how the cameras might affect people’s behavior—perhaps encouraging adults to be more aggressive toward each other, for example.
“It’s obviously a concern,” Maranz said. “We try to be documentary. We want people to act exactly as they would act if we weren’t there,” he added, though he acknowledged that some people might seek more attention. “That’s the goal; I get it, human nature is there’s a camera and I want to make myself look good.” And “there’s definitely some people who try.”
During production, producers “try to weed out the people who are acting up simply because they are on camera.” If they determine someone is doing that, “we just won’t point the camera at you.” Of course, he said, they might not always be “100 percent accuracte in our estimation of what a person’s motives are,” but “if you’re doing something just to be on television, we’re not going to use it.”
What does make it on television has sparked debate, and has the potential to change people’s behavior.
“How to raise your child is a sensitive, explosive topic that not many people are sure they have the right answer,” Maranz told me. “They struggle with it. The show is joining a conversation that was already taking place.”
He cited tonight’s finale of Friday Night Tykes and said, “In Texas, there are some people they start questioning what they’re doing, and I think that’s the key. The show really is about a question: How do we want to raise our children? What’s the best way to raise our children?”