TAMPA — Hard Knocks, HBO's award-winning series that pulls back the curtain on an NFL team with an all-access look at training camp, has selected the Tampa Bay Bucs to be the featured team for the 12th season of the show.
So what's the best way to describe Hard Knocks?
Think American Idol. Toss in some Survivor. Add a sprinkle of Real Housewives and Big Brother. Throw in 300-pound athletic freaks, some drama and humor, utter a few curse words and you have Hard Knocks, a captivating five-part, 60-minute show that averages about 3.9 million viewers per episode.
That's a lot of viewers — about as many as watch Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson on a given night. But it's way more unpredictable.
Cameras from NFL Films will follow Bucs players, coaches and staff from the practice field to the locker rooms to their homes to give viewers a rarely seen look at what it's like to be a part of the most popular league in America. For every 350 minutes of footage, one minute makes it to air.
The deftly edited show, complete with dramatic music and narration from actor Liev Schreiber, has become popular not only among football fans, but even casual viewers who can't help but get caught up in the lives of athletes and their families. It's a soap opera with shoulder pads.
"It's the stakes of the show that makes this show work," HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson said.
At stake is more than 90 players fighting for 53 jobs. While viewers get to meet and root for the underdogs, they also are given a peek at what is being said about those players in closed-door meetings where politeness gives way to brutal honesty. In what has become a staple of the show, viewers also get to see the uncomfortable — and sometimes heart-breaking — moments when players are cut from the team.
"There is an innate drama in knowing what's coming and seeing how that plays out," said the show's director, Matt Dissinger, of NFL Films. "But this is real life. This is people's livelihoods. It's not like just winning a contest at the end. What we really have tried to do is really flush these guys out as people, really get to know who they are on and off the field."
Meantime, viewers also should get an unprecedented look at the organization's most high-profile figures, such as coach Dirk Koetter, quarterback Jameis Winston and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, revealing how they interact with the each other, how they talk when they don't think the public is listening and how they go about their daily lives.
"We're a story-telling platform and the stories that come out of Hard Knocks are so rich," Nelson said. "These guys capture basically everything that there is to want to know about the team at the human level."
What's amazing about the show is that even after 11 seasons, you still never know what you're going to get.
It can be humorous, such as when former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer questioned the personal hygiene of the center who was hiking him the ball.
It can be cringe-worthy, such as when former Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie struggled to name all of his 12 children.
It can be heart-warming, such as last year when we saw the adorable relationship between Rams receiver Austin Hill and his young daughter.
And it can be heart-wrenching, such as when Rams rookie wide receiver Paul McRoberts found out that his stepbrother was murdered.
You see rookies sing, coaches swear, players vomit, fight and cry.
It can be as dramatic as Game of Thrones and as funny as Veep. It's appropriate that this show is on HBO as opposed to an all-sports channel such as ESPN or NFL Network.
"We're storytellers," Nelson said.
In fact, the stories on Hard Knocks have become so intimate that no NFL team wants to do the show. Even Koetter said Wednesday what all coaches think: "I like watching the show. I wish I wasn't on it."
Because no one volunteers, the NFL picks a team and, this year, it's the Bucs.
"It's a very charismatic roster," Dissinger said. "I think the fact that this is clearly a team on the rise, a team I would imagine would pique national interest."
While Kotter is resistant to let to let cameras spy on every aspect of his organization, he did say how much he respects those who work on the show.
"They're pros at what they do," Koetter said, "and we're going to do our best to be pros at what we do."
All of it — the drama, the humor, the soap opera — starts at 10 p.m. Aug. 8 on HBO.