How much Aggie is too much Aggie?

Kimra McPherson

Reality TV is hardly known for keeping things private.

Over the past two years, millions of viewers worldwide have watched spouses tempted to infidelity, friends incited to plot against each other and ordinary people encouraged to eat inedible body parts, all for the promise of fame and fortune.

Now ESPN has jumped on the bandwagon with “Sidelines,” a 13-episode show following the Texas A&M University Aggies football team.

While the idea of a football reality show may seem like overkill — what could be more real than the live sports ESPN broadcasts every day? — the show has stepped off the field and into the lives of A&M students, alumni and fans.

But since “Sidelines” began airing four weeks ago, those fans have caused a stir at ESPN.

Some segments have stepped out of bounds, they’ve said, focusing too much on student lifestyles and not enough on the team’s struggles.

“We like to call it a soap-umentary,” said Rob Tobias, the show’s promoter. “It’s really a soap opera. We’re following characters and their personal stories.”

But segments featuring non-A&M students binge drinking and two former athletes leading an “alternative lifestyle” have alienated some viewers.

“We’re a very conservative campus in the Bible Belt down here,” said A&M Athletic Director Wally Groff . “They have to be a little careful what they show.”

And, of course, A&M has another concern — whether or not the show will appeal to potential Aggie recruits. Though the show purports to be a documentary, it gives the Aggie name airplay comparable to a 30-minute weekly commercial.

“I don’t know how many recruits watch it,” Groff said. “But any time you have exposure, that’s got to be positive.”

But some of A&M’s Big 12 Conference opponents aren’t concerned that the behind-the-scenes glamour of “Sidelines” will entice players to the school.

“Think of how many football recruits are in the state of Texas and remember that Texas A&M is just like everybody else and they can only bring in 25 each year,” said Tom Kroeschell, associate athletic director for media relations at Iowa State University. “National television exposure I don’t think really has an impact.”

And, in fact, the controversy over some “Sidelines” segments has Northwestern and other universities nationwide wondering if they would be willing to trade privacy for public exposure.

“There would be a lot of privacy issues involved,” said Mike Wolf, NU’s assistant athletic director for media services. “We’re a private institution.”

Even the Aggies may not have been prepared for the invasion of a reality television show. With two cameramen and several producers constantly in College Station to film, virtually anything that happens on campus is free reign.

“Oh, they film,” A&M Athletic Director Wally Groff said with a chuckle. “They’ve got lots and lots of film. They’ve got access to anything we have in athletics.”

Wooed to A&M by the school’s traditions, ESPN set out to capture pre-game student and player rituals on film. Aggie athletic officials gave ESPN access to all practices and meetings, allowed cameramen into houses for pre-game parties and opened up casting calls so the network could find characters to follow for the entire 2001 football season.

Tobias said ESPN never tried to reveal a seedier side of College Station. But the show’s producers knew they’d need something to compel an audience to watch a show focusing on football games that took place weeks before.

“What we set out to do was not to do a highlight reel of Texas A&M football but all the people that surround the university, on the peripheral,” Tobias said. “There’s a lot of ancillary characters around here who come into play.”

Enter the College Station crew of beautiful girls, rebellious outsiders and die-hard Aggie fans. Going beyond the impact of football on their lives, ESPN also has taken the liberty to reveal their personal struggles.

Now, those outside characters could impact A&M’s overall image — and Groff wants to ensure an accurate representation of his school. He approached ESPN after the first controversial episode aired but said the network told him the next two episodes were too far along in production to be changed.

“After they showed (episode two), they said there was probably something in three that we wouldn’t like, either,” Groff said.

And ESPN was right. Again, fans protested, leading to more discussions with ESPN officials — though Groff said the fourth episode, which aired last week, was “more representative of what we thought it was going to be.”

Yet the school has little to no control over who those characters are. Chosen through open auditions, the cast volunteered to allow ESPN to trace their stories, whether or not they cast the school in a positive light.

“(A&M understands) that they take a chance, and then we take a chance with them to actually document (them) from beginning to end,” Tobias said. “It was our position to identify what would make good television. We’re not just trying to appeal to Aggie fans across the country — this has got to be compelling television.”

And that has other schools questioning the risks of participating in future “Sidelines”-style shows.

“It’s a kind of thing where you (have to) sit there and talk with (producers) about what exactly it is you’re going to be doing,” Kroeschell said. “Obviously, you want to make sure something doesn’t go on there that someone didn’t know was going to be on.” nyou