Commentary

Soothing the irritation

The ombudsman examines common viewer annoyances, and how ESPN can fix them

Originally Published: April 20, 2010
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

In medical circles, chronic irritation is a term signifying afflictive conditions that affect the same area of the body time and time again. In media circles, the term represents afflictions that recur over and over again in the same broadcasts.

On a daily basis, the ombudsman's mailbag helps diagnose some of the most chronic irritants to the ESPN viewership. Let's take a closer examination of some for which the network might want to find a cure.

Focus on the game

One of the most frequent complaints in the mailbag relates to announcers who are incessantly sidetracked by observations, opinions and issues that viewers believe stray far afield from the game they're watching.

Some cases in point: "I was disgusted by ESPN's coverage of the NIT semifinal game between Dayton and Ole Miss. Instead of focusing on an exciting close game, they launch into an extended interview with [departing ESPN announcer] Steve Lavin, the new coach at St. John's -- ignoring what's happening on the floor" … "The coverage was disrespectful to the teams, players and fans" … "Is this what your announcers think the fans are turning in to see? Cover the game!"

Believe it or not, in the circumstance of the NIT game, Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production … agreed with you. "The announcers went way overboard," Williamson said. "The interview was much too long. The game was too close and too important. We didn't do the viewer justice. I believe we let the fact that Lavin worked for us get in the way of our objectivity and the value his presence brought to the game. "Interviewing Lavin was newsworthy. However, it should have been done at halftime, between games or on the sideline at some point in the first half. But to do it with 7 minutes left in a close game, it was intrusive."

Of course, mailbag criticism of unfocused commentary doesn't stop there. More examples:

"I wish you guys didn't have Sunday Night Baseball. Your announcers talk way too much and a lot of the time it's about everything but the game on the field."

"During a Celtic game there was a technical foul called. Three foul shots were taken, the ball was put back in play, and only after another foul was called at the other end of the court did the announcers interrupt a non-stop BS session to tell viewers who the earlier technical foul was on -- never bothering to report why it was called -- probably because they weren't paying attention."

"Why can't your announcers show as much interest in the game they're covering as they do in their own overblown opinions?"

Announcing styles live on the continuum of two extremes. One is doing radio on television, covering every movement and development as if the viewer were simply a listener. The other is ignoring the game entirely and participating in a free-for-all talk show. The former is an insult to the modern capacity of the medium. The latter is a self-absorbed insult to an audience tuned in to enjoy a game. Finding the balance that provides the most meaningful experience for the viewer requires imagination and discipline. (In an earlier column, we contrasted this in detail by comparing the two games that kicked off the 2009 "Monday Night Football" season).

There's a certain level of basic information the audience expects from an announcer. That includes, but is not limited to, identifying the competitors, giving enhanced background information, pointing out key turning points in the contest, creating and adjusting the storyline of the competition, providing the analysis of why things are happening on the field, providing proper context, and folding in informative elements that enhance the viewing experience.

Sometimes events happen on the field that justify the broadcast's expanding to a broader issue relevant to the audience. If one of the competing players is implicated in a steroid scandal, for example, that can logically lead to a wider discussion of the issue and how it affects the sport. Most viewers expect and appreciate that type of topical expansion. If steroids come up out of the blue because the announcers feel like having a barroom chat, however, the audience reaction can be "Where did that come from?" and "What does it have to do with this game?"

Over the years, enormous strides have been made in the technical aspects of covering sports on TV, and ESPN has championed many of them. For example, comparing a "Monday Night Football" game from the '70s, which was state-of-the-art at the time, to today's product is like comparing a Model T to an Aston Martin.

Many more cameras are used; they're high-definition digital instead of analog; they're more mobile and are capable of being affixed in different parts of the stadium, even on the goalposts. The skycam was science fiction then and commonplace now. The natural sound has greater impact because of imaginative technical progress in audio. And the graphics have moved from stone age to space age. The exceptional expanding capabilities of electronic graphics can provide much of the basic information necessary to follow the game because the score, time remaining, player IDs and statistics can be flashed on the screen instantaneously.

However, sports production is an art, not a science. All this technical innovation frees the announcer from having to chronicle every movement on the field, and modern technology allows sportscasters to broaden their horizons. But, it sometimes appears as if too many of them use this expanded freedom as a license for a lack of discipline that can turn portions of a telecast into self-absorbed opinionfests or, as in the example of the NIT game, a sports talk show.

Indeed, the way announcers cover events doesn't seem to have evolved as efficiently as the technology. The progenitor of today's sportscasting is radio. In that medium, the audience's only connection to the game was the announcer's voice and the occasional crack of the bat mixed with the distant murmur of a crowd (both sometimes accomplished by the use of sound effects).

Listeners relied on that friendly voice to "see" the action. It was their sensory connection to the event. Those dulcet tones kept track of the balls and strikes, the down and distance, whether the ball went through the basket or caromed out. There were fairly straightforward conventions used to guide announcers. One of them, codified by legendary Red Barber, used an egg timer as a reminder that every three minutes, listeners needed to be told the score.

Announcers call the same sport over and over again, and making it seem fresh is one of their many challenges. They can feel as if they're continually repeating themselves. The reality is that over the course of a 16-, 82- or 162-game season, they are. That's the nature of the beast. Sometimes integrating fresh topics that are in the news reinvigorates the broadcaster. It breaks the monotony of straight play-by-play, replay and analysis. But if it's not connected to what the viewers are watching, it can become frustrating and irritating.

"ESPN's goal is to clearly document an event by focusing on the competition on the field in a balanced and informed manner from a visual, graphic and commentary perspective" Williamson said. "Our announcers and production personnel are charged with trying to find the proper mix of informed commentary about the event taking place while also recognizing that there are other topics within the sport that should be covered.

"We need to have respect for the event taking place, but we cannot be afraid to discuss topics that are of news value within the sport. The commentary should never become a distraction to the event, but should serve as a complementary element to add insight, information and enjoyment to our fans who have tuned in to watch the game."

That's a well-articulated philosophy for successful broadcasting. But much of the mailbag criticism questions the consistency of its execution.

It's not sufficient for an announcer to just have a good voice, be able to add captions to pictures, spew statistics, interject prepared information -- all interspersed with off-the-cuff opinions. It takes imagination, expertise and the skill of a weaver to seamlessly synthesize all these elements and tie them to the action on the field. This separates the journeymen from the greats. The Vin Scullys and Al Michaelses of the world can regularly drop in tangential information, tell a story, launch into a far-ranging discussion or even do an interview while still staying connected to the viewer and the game. No matter how far they roam, it's always related to and integrated with the contest. They display the magical ability to juggle multiple balls and drop none.

The discipline necessary to keep the focus of commentary tied to the action on the field requires a sensitivity to the moment -- a feel for when to spotlight the game and when it's safe to stray. In part, it reflects the self-discipline of the announcers. It also comes from direction given by the production team.

In the end, it's the strength of talented producers and directors working with receptive and unselfish commentators that pulls a telecast together. The producers are the coaches, and the announcers are the players. Production's role includes delivering the necessary criticism all performers periodically need. Sometimes it comes from suggestion and friendly persuasion. But sometimes it needs to be delivered with an iron fist. This can only be done if the announcers are receptive and the producers don't feel intimidated by the talent.

ESPN's production teams do an excellent job of providing pictures, sound, and graphics that not only cover the action but also deliver a sense of place and the excitement that surrounds the games they cover. And make no mistake, ESPN has a fine stable of first-rate announcers who do excellent work on a regular basis. Most are professional, prepared, intelligent and articulate and have that sensitivity to the moment.

But too often, it seems, self-discipline wanes and what follows is the inevitable lapse into excess that causes so much agita in the mailbag. When a network broadcasts 1,100 basketball games and 300 football games a year, there will be peaks and valleys in performances. But with focus on imagination and self-discipline in the booth -- and a control truck that acts as the last line of defense -- there'll be less need for the common viewer refrains of "You're straying again" or "Let's get back to focusing on talking about the game."

Barack-etologist

Even a little is too much for the mailbag when it comes to ESPN interjecting perceived political overtones into its coverage. In 2009, President Obama filled out his NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket for ESPN. He was criticized by some for not also addressing the women's tourney, and this year he did both.

ESPN gave both the men's bracket and women's bracket handsome treatment, both on-air and online, and letters to the mailbag came flying. Some examples from viewers:

"I could not get over how frequently President Obama was pushed in my face this week."

"I was fine with the unveiling of it on SportsCenter. I was fine with it being featured on .com so that people missing it on SportsCenter could watch the video. I am NOT fine with the constant talk of his bracket throughout different SportsCenters and shows like First Take. Enough is enough. We get it. He is the President and he likes basketball."

"The obsession over President Obama's picks is getting tiresome. It appears that every single recap leads with the performance by the 'First Bracketologist.'"

"Not to have to worry about jobs, community, politics, etc. -- that is one reason we watch ESPN. But when we do and have to watch politicians on ESPN my urge is to turn if off and that is what I do."

"The fact that SportsCenter has constantly gone back to show the results and talk about it seemingly every morning, afternoon and night is overkill and downright almost political."

We asked Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor of studio production, why the network opted to have Obama make bracket selections again this year.

"We had an exclusive opportunity with the president last year, and it was extremely well received," Gross said. "We had the chance to do it again -- we produced the segment in a fun and entertaining way sports fans can relate to. The content is not political -- it's sports, it's what we do."

Some viewers perceived there was substantially more coverage devoted to the presidential bracket this year than in 2009. Were they correct?

"We actually used the same model for the coverage of the president's brackets this year as we did last year" Gross said. "Viewers did see additional brackets this year since we added the women's championship bracket to the overall mix.

"However, our execution was basically the same with our full-screen update of the 'Barack-etology' stunt. Filling out brackets has turned into a ritual for sports fans in March. Nearly 5 million brackets were filled out on ESPN.com alone. We would be alienating people who may be wondering how the president's brackets stand if we don't bring them back throughout the tournament. This is just a case of seeing the 'feature' through from beginning to end."

What does ESPN say to viewers upset about the interjection of politics into sports?

"We don't view the president filling out the brackets any differently than when we interviewed President Bush or President Clinton on sports topics when they were in the White House." Gross said. "The key thing is the content needs to be relevant to our audience."

Asked whether this would become an annual event, Gross said "There's been no decision on whether we'll try this again. We're not that far along in our planning."

The segment left us with several risk/reward questions.

• Was the "Barack-etology" good for the president? Seems so -- it presented him as a "regular guy" sports fan who loves basketball like millions of other viewers -- and he had same problem correctly picking winners. Like many of ESPN's cadre of experts, the president went with the chalk in a year in which most of the favorites stumbled. None of the president's picks made the Final Four.

• Was it good for ESPN? Seems so -- the feature received tons of exposure around the media world, and online traffic to the bracket was significant. That said, there's no real way to determine whether viewers followed ESPN's coverage more closely because of "Barack-etology."

• Was it good for the ESPN viewer? For those that liked it, it was a positive, entertaining experience. For others, it was a fleeting, perhaps interesting, feature that came and went. And for nearly all of you who wrote to the ombudsman mailbag, it was the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull. It would be nice if we lived in a society in which everyone could easily agree on what transcends politics. Like it or not, though, we seem to inhabit a highly polarized society in which nearly everything is viewed through a political prism. A recurring theme in the mailbag is that sports in general, and ESPN in particular, are deemed refuges for viewers fleeing the daily traumas of life -- and those certainly include politics.

Sports are relevant to society because they are often the Fun & Games Dept. of life. They are passionate flights of fancy that bring escape from stark realities.

They allow the audience to escape not just mundane existences but also problems and issues they are trying to ignore.

The sports world contains its own set of moral dilemmas that are part and parcel of the experience. Hypocrisy, racism, overcommercialization, bad behavior, heroes that disappoint, substance abuse, and desertion by both players and teams. Fans accept coverage of these realities even though they may not like their seamier side. They often feel those aspects are overemphasized, but they are part of the game and, so, are germane.

When it comes to society at large, the majority of comments in the mailbag deliver a very consistent message to ESPN: We like you very much, but we don't come to you for political or social messages, and we're sensitive to even the impression of proselytizing, whether it's on a social or a political issue. ESPN would be wise to heed those concerns.

The game runneth over

Another frequent complaint among viewers concerns college basketball games that "run over" into another live sporting event. This seemed to be a particular problem on Monday nights this year, and Big 12 fans bore the brunt: "We're waiting and waiting for the Kansas game coverage. Why schedule it if you're not going to show it from the beginning?" … "No.1 in the nation and still Kansas gets no respect from ESPN" … "Why doesn't ESPN start those Big East games earlier so the Big 12 game can be seen from the opening tipoff?"

ESPN's college games are regularly scheduled in 2-hour blocks, which historically has worked for the network. Said Williamson, "It just so happened the Big East [on Mondays] had a tough year in terms of game lengths, including two overtimes."

Williamson said that the average length of ESPN's 7 p.m. game was 2 hours and 12 minutes. The regular tipoff time for the second game is 9:06 p.m., but the network has the ability to slide that tip to 9:11. Williamson noted that 65 percent of this year's early games were completed in time to cover the second game tip, and 85 percent of the games were over by 9:16 p.m.

"If we're going to run into the second game, we let the audience know as early as possible," Williamson said. "We use the Bottom Line crawl and insert a countdown-to-tipoff clock. We use two boxes to show the tip of the second game alongside the action of the earlier game. We do cut-ins to update the action, have the scoreboard of the second game superimposed in the upper right corner so fans can follow the game with delayed coverage, and the game is available, in its entirety, on [broadband channel] ESPN3.com."

Williamson also told us that any attempt to change starting times beyond that 5-minute slide must be done in conjunction with conferences, schools and local radio rights-holders. He added that the network will review potential changes in the offseason, which could include "working with the conferences on ways to maintain pace of play or scheduling later tips."

Of course, having too much time between events invites the audience to go elsewhere in the 500-channel universe. On those nights in which the early game finishes and flows neatly into the tip of Game 2, the coverage works for everyone. But when there are substantial delays that deprive viewers of programming scheduled for a given time slot, it causes audience alienation.

Live sports programming is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is its inherent drama, the curse the unpredictability of its length. It's important for ESPN to address this issue, or risk having these frequent runovers break the bond of trust with the audience. Maybe if all else fails, the Big East can be persuaded to play a "faster" brand of roundball next season.

Fishing for a controversy

Sometimes a political firestorm can start in a seemingly innocuous place. On March 8, freelance writer Robert Montgomery filed a piece for ESPN's outdoors and saltwater fishing website, ESPNOutdoors.com. The piece addressed a potential governmental task force report that, Montgomery concluded, "could prohibit US citizens from fishing some of the nation's oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes and even inland waters."

The piece also warned that "fishing industry insiders were concerned that public input would not be taken into account." To Montgomery, this was a classic case of "Big Green anti-use organizations" working "in lockstep" with the government to potentially limit or outlaw recreational angling in vast portions of American waters. Such an outcome could have a substantial financial impact on the economy, as saltwater recreational fishing is an $82 billion dollar business that generates half a million jobs. The piece ended with a call to action for sport fishermen to make their voices heard in Washington before it was too late.

The column was referenced, distributed and discussed extensively on conservative talk radio, on cable news and in the blogosphere, and it became one of ESPN.com's most e-mailed stories of the week. Not surprisingly, the blowback from the opposition was torrential, including well-written, cogent letters to the mailbag from representatives of the environmental groups referenced.

Many of the mailbaggers called the piece "untrue and unfair" and said it "crosses into slander and repeats urban myths" and "doesn't say what the rules are, just what the worst possible outcome might be." Said one reader: "I found a disturbing lack of attribution and several unsubstantiated allegations," and another claimed to be "shocked by the blatant misinformation."

Steve Bowman, executive editor of ESPN Outdoors, issued a clarification to the story on March 10, saying in part, "Our series [on new fishing restrictions] has included numerous news stories on the topic, this was not one of them -- it was an opinion piece, and should have clearly been labeled 'commentary.'"

Said Patrick Stiegman, VP/executive editor and producer for ESPN.com, "The topic was completely fair game for the angler audience. But while this particular column was not inaccurate, it accentuated worst-case scenarios without properly balancing the issues, representing important context, or contrary points of view."

A week later, ESPN Outdoors posted a guest editorial from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration representative addressing the column, stating that "the Ocean Policy Task Force has not recommended a ban on recreational fishing." On March 26, ESPN Outdoors posted an extensive question-and-answer column on the subject with a NOAA fisheries administrator.

What's interesting about all this? It underscores the lightning-fast impact of today's media, particularly as it relates to issues with political overtones. A story appears on a rather obscure Web site aimed at a specific type of angler. It goes viral on the Internet, exploding to the point that it is discussed on national radio and TV. Within hours, letters condemning its contents appear in the mailbag. Wow.

ESPN's analysis of the original story was sound. There was nothing inaccurate in the piece, and that's the most important judgment -- but it clearly should have been labeled "commentary." ESPN's miscue was not identifying adequately for the reader what was a news story and, in this case, what was a column.

It corrected this mistake within 48 hours by clearly labeling the piece and took steps to invite different voices to respond. Once it did that, there was no longer any obligation to present opposing points of view and context. A commentary is an explanatory treatise, a systematic series of explanations or interpretations.

When people read columnists such as Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Bill O'Reilly or Rick Reilly, they aren't expecting an unbiased presentation but rather the writer's point of view based on the facts as the author sees them. Balance has never been the guiding light of columnists, and the Internet age has taken this to new highs -- or lows, depending on your frame of reference.

In news stories, fairness, context and accuracy are the cornerstone of the trust that ultimately determines the value of the writer and the publisher. In commentary, fairness is almost always in the eye of the beholder -- which makes the clear separation of the two imperative. ESPN quickly recognized and addressed the confusion here, but it's important that these types of editing oversights are few and far between.

Interestingly, on March 18, The New York Times posted a story on this dustup under the headline, "Obama Admin Looks to Cast a Line With Anglers." The story noted, in part, that the administration "has rolled out a series of new initiatives aimed at raising the profile of recreational fishing within the agency [NOAA] and calming some of the hostile waters between fishermen and the administration."

It appears Montgomery's "call to action" might have had some impact.

The Internet strikes again.

Too much of a good thing

You have undoubtedly heard, or felt, the following, when it comes to ESPN.

Too much Yankees-Red Sox. Too much Lakers-Celtics. Too much Brett Favre. Too much Tiger Woods. Too much … of the same thing. This is a common refrain that regularly fills the mailbag. The comments are not surprising: "Why are we constantly bombarded with the same teams over and over again? Why can't you show some respect to our Mariners?" … "Who cares if Brett Favre hasn't made up his mind whether to come back? Stop speculating and tell us when he decides." … "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger -- enough already. He's not the only athlete we care about."

ESPN's goal in programming its networks is to provide a service that caters to the broad tastes of its fans. That's why it schedules major franchise events from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA football and basketball, and NASCAR, mixed in with a healthy dose of sports that have smaller but no-less-passionate followings such as NHRA, soccer, hunting and fishing, lacrosse, college hockey, volleyball, softball, boxing, etc. It even includes a smidgen of the offbeat, such as the World Series of Poker and World's Strongest Man.

There are many ways a network can discern viewer interest. One of the main report cards is the Nielsen ratings, the yardstick by which advertising rates are set -- and, just as important, the barometer communicating viewing habits and desires. It is direct, empirical evidence that signals to programmers what the fans like, or don't.

"If viewers give you high marks for doing something, you're wise to keep doing it, and serving the fan is job one," said Mike Ryan, ESPN's VP for programming and acquisitions. "We have 30 years of rating history on ESPN that can guide us in trying to put the right game in front of the largest audience."

ESPN is a national service, and that's why it will always choose to broadcast teams that have established a national following. Take, for example, "Sunday Night Baseball." More than twice as many fans tune in to watch a Yankees-Red Sox game than watch a game without either team -- that's 4.6 million people versus 2.1 million. What programmer wouldn't want to attract 2.5 million extra sets of eyeballs by simply selecting an attractive matchup?

Some fans think those numbers reflect a Northeastern regional bias. Not true. In the Southeast, Boston-New York baseball games are six times more popular than games without either team, and in the Central region the audience is four times larger. Even if the Yankees or Red Sox aren't playing each other, the ratings for a game with either team average 2.9 million - still more than the 2 million for a game involving neither team.

In addition to New York and Boston, there are other big-draw teams, including the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. This year, ESPN will telecast 90 MLB games. The network is limited in the number of times it can show each team -- with 20 appearances this year, the Yankees will be shown the most. There is still a great deal of variety in the schedule, though, attested to by the fact that all but three of the league's teams will make at least one appearance.

The complaints ESPN receives about the lack of coverage for a given team don't revolve around the fan's inability to see them play; most games are televised in local markets. Most likely, it's based on a viewer's feeling that his team is being ignored on the national platform and essentially "dissed" by ESPN. It's much the same story with the NBA. Games featuring the Los Angeles Lakers draw 2.2 million viewers, followed by the Cleveland Cavaliers (1.9 million) and the Boston Celtics (1.7 million). Games involving other teams attract 1.4 million -- another clear signal to the programming department.

Fans vicariously live and die through the triumphs and failures of their local favorites. They view sports through the lens of provincial pride -- their town, their team. But ESPN's programming choices must reflect the interests of a national audience. The schedule isn't set based on an equitable distribution of appearances. It's driven by past and current performance on the field with an eye fixed on the Nielsen meter.

In its own way, it ends up being a fairly democratic way of making decisions.

News judgments also are affected by ratings. The mailbag constantly contains healthy criticism for focusing too much attention on superstars. But one look at the Nielsen numbers (both on-air and online) tells the producers and editors whom the audience wants covered. Favre's first game against the Green Bay Packers drew 22 million viewers to MNF -- the most-watched program in cable history. His second game against the Pack, with the Minnesota Vikings invading Lambeau Field, drew 30 million to Fox, making it the NFL's most-watched regular season game in two years.

Those outcomes were not coincidental.

Woods has a similar impact, albeit on a much smaller audience. When he competes in a PGA Tour event, the ratings can double. The focus Tiger brought to this year's Masters increased the viewing audience on ESPN's Thursday and Friday telecasts by 50 percent over 2008 and added 2 million viewers to CBS' weekend average.

But it's not just ratings that determine the attention ESPN gives to individual athletes. Rabid coverage generated by other media leads to more intensive interest on "SportsCenter" and roundup shows. If Favre, emulating Hamlet with his decision "to play or not to play," is receiving major attention around the country, ESPN's audience expects full frontal coverage. If Woods' escapades are rippling across newspaper front pages, magazines covers, TV screens and in the blogosphere, it's a big story -- and ESPN's viewers expect to get extensive coverage.

Contributors to the mailbag might complain that there's too much focus given to superstars or that the coverage shows a bias against less prominent sports and players. Or even that they're just plain sick of hearing about the same personalities over and over again.

However, for every viewer overdosing on a given topic, there are many more who are obsessed with the stories. Superstars are "superstars" precisely because an enormous number of fans are captivated by their careers, exploits, highlights and lowlights, and fans invest a good deal of time rooting for or against them.

If a network is truly trying to serve the audience, it must listen to the viewers. One method is direct contact through your letters, e-mails and calls, which provide invaluable and specific insights that affect programming decisions.

Another way is to listen to the ratings. Combine these with focus groups, past experience and gut instincts of those making tough calls on a daily basis, and you end up with a broadcast schedule or a show rundown for "SportsCenter" that's tied to the perceived interest levels of the audience. Do it right and you have a successful network. Do it wrong and, in the current media environment, you can pay a very large price.

Until next time …

Don Ohlmeyer is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. One of television's most successful innovators as a sports and entertainment producer, programmer and network president, the longtime NBC and ABC executive was honored with 16 Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Peabody Awards. He will critique decision-making, coverage and presentation of news, issues and events on ESPN's platforms. Ohlmeyer will have an 18-month tenure and succeeds ombudsmen George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber.