Commentary

Sound decision

Swarm of vuvuzelas creates World Cup dilemma for ESPN: Buzz on, or buzz off?

Originally Published: July 8, 2010
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

In many ways, the monthly ombudsman column is about "buzz." It attempts to capture and address the topics and themes that elicit intense reactions -- sometimes in the form of enthusiasm and exhilaration, quite often anger and frustration -- among the viewers, readers and listeners of ESPN's multiple platforms.

Thanks to an otherwise innocuous piece of plastic called a vuvuzela, no topic has been more buzzworthy than the network's coverage of the 2010 World Cup.

Literally.

Broadcasting a major sporting event -- be it the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Indianapolis 500 -- is a massive challenge to the production talents and technology of any media organization. The number of cameras, microphones, replay units and other technical elements multiply over what's considered "normal" for those sports, as do announcers and analysts. The production team must quickly acclimatize to this expansion and not let more become less.

Move an event outside the United States and the complexity can increase geometrically. Further add that events transpire over extended periods of time at different venues -- think of the Olympics -- and the degree of difficulty soars even higher. Now, have the venues span an entire country, factor in a six-hour time change from the U.S. and mix in the fact you're covering the most popular sport in the world, but of secondary interest in the U.S. … and that's the World Cup.

With ESPN's coverage building toward Sunday's World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands on ABC, the contests on the pitch have been exciting, ratings are up dramatically over the 2006 Cup coverage and reception to the network's efforts has basically been complimentary. More than 300 ESPN staffers were dispatched to South Africa to generate virtually around-the-clock coverage for television, radio, the Web and mobile, feeding media platforms around the world. The U.S.-Ghana match attracted an audience of 14.9 million on ABC, the second-largest American audience for soccer (behind only the 19 million viewers who watched the U.S. women win the championship in 1999).

The ombudsman's mailbag reflected increased interest and overwhelmingly positive critical reaction: "Outstanding doesn't even begin to describe how well ESPN is doing" … "Camera coverage is superb" … "Much improved over 2006" … "Good, knowledgeable, understated commentary" … "It has been spectacular and I'm eager for more" … "Never realized how exciting soccer can be" ... "Glued to the matches and commentary" … "I was a casual observer -- now I'm a fan."

Of course, there was one notable exception -- the now infamous and persistent buzz of the vuvuzelas. Viewers simply hated it: "A never-ending torture" … "Intolerable" … "Annoying beyond belief" … "Produces headaches in minutes" … "A great way to dampen American enthusiasm for watching soccer" … "Continuous blaring makes listening painful" … "Please, please, please filter out the buzz."

The vuvuzela craze in South Africa had its inception in 1992. Originally fashioned from discarded tin cans, the homemade instrument morphed into a 2-foot-long plastic horn that, blown like a trumpet, emits an ear-splitting buzz. A brewing company in South Africa started mass producing them for commercial promotions, and it took the nation's soccer fans by storm. It has become, as a BBC journalist described it, "the recognized sound of football in South Africa."

After the country hosted soccer's Confederation Cup in 2009, there were numerous calls from broadcasters around the globe to ban the vuvuzela from the 2010 World Cup. The annoying sound was deemed an outlandish impediment to enjoying soccer telecasts. But FIFA president Sepp Blatter strongly backed their use, reiterating that position in a Twitter post in the first week of the World Cup: "I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound. I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country." He then added, "Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?"

There's no question the fans in the stands get a charge out of what otherwise sounds like a swarm of bees, and there's nothing new about noise making at soccer events. A century ago, there were wooden rattles spun by the handle that made a clacking sound. These same rattles were used in World War I to signal gas attacks. Through the years, sports fans' eardrums have been assaulted by whistles, ThunderStix, cowbells and air horns -- some now banned.

But nothing comes close to the irritation of the vuvuzela on television.

Many of you wondered why ESPN didn't simply make it stop. From the network's point of view, there were a few options, but none of the choices was a good one.

• Producers could have dialed back most of the natural sound from the stadium, but there still would have been the incessant buzz -- and any sense of the electricity and excitement in the stands would be lost.

• They could have offered an "announcers only" feed with no natural sound on an SAP channel, with the regular mix played on the main channel. But that would have been an expanded technological challenge, and the announcers would have sounded as though they were commenting in a hollow phone booth.

• The network could have killed the natural sound from the stadium and used sound effects (prerecorded crowd cheering), crossing over to the live stadium sound when a goal was scored. But, of course, that would have been phony.

A good sports production team is always trying to electronically transport the viewer to the stadium. What transpires in the arena is as much a part of the event as what happens on the field. The locations, sights and sounds are major characters in the storyline of any contest, with audio and with video.

"Our sound mix is authentic to the venue," said Jed Drake, senior vice president and executive producer of ESPN's World Cup coverage. "We have spent years growing to understand as much [about] this culture as possible, all with the specific intention of bringing that exploration to our viewers. We concluded that the vuvuzela is simply another part of South African culture.

"The sound that it makes is what you hear when you go to any football match here. It would be disingenuous of us to try to create a 'work-around' solution reducing the vuvuzela. We are guests of this host country; we are not here to alter what these games actually sound like."

Authentic or not, the vuvuzelas drowned out much of what audiences around the world enjoy about soccer. There's the dueling chorus of chants by team supporters, the fans uniting to sing supportive songs, the roars of approval and whistles of displeasure, the constant rumble of the crowd that seems to lull itself into near silence as a critical moment approaches, only to erupt into a roar or groan that signals the success or failure of a shot.

That's a considerable sacrifice in exchange for a never-ending screech. I think ESPN made the right choice for the right reason on the vuvuzelas. I'm also glad that my TV had its mute button available when the cacophony became unbearable. Fans in the stands didn't have that auditory option.

The World Cup ends this week, but the scary question remains: Will the vuvuzela craze travel? They were hot-selling items to visitors from all countries at the Cup, most of whom seemed to get a kick out of blowing the infernal instrument that drove viewers crazy. And the brewer that helped popularize the horns in South Africa is also a major supplier of beer in America.

Could a vuvuzela be coming to an event near you?

One sports organization has already taken action. The UFC has banned them from its mixed martial arts events. As UFC president Dana White said last week: "Vuvuzelas make the most horrific sound I've ever heard. I'd rather let Brock [Lesnar] punch me in the face than hear 15,000 people blow on those things."

Will the commissioners of our sports alphabet soup -- NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NCAA -- take similar stances? Was the auditory agony of the World Cup a one-off or just the opening volley from the South African buzz heard 'round the world?

Like most of you, I hate the vuvuzelas but am still mesmerized by the telecasts. The coverage is excellent. The pictures are crystal clear, and the replays appear quicker than usual -- a tribute to production's decisiveness. The announcers are enthusiastic yet restrained. The importance and ambience of the event is well documented, and there's a real emphasis on sense of place. The vuvuzelas notwithstanding, the enthusiasm of the crowd is a central part of the storytelling, as is the feel for the unique culture of the host country.

The mailbag repeatedly noted appreciation for the fact that the coverage wasn't "dumbed down." ESPN's producers chose to aim the broadcasts at aficionados and not turn them into tutorials (as they were criticized for doing in the past).

However, when the audience swelled from its 2.8 million average to almost 15 million for the U.S.-Ghana match, the announcers could have been a bit more inclusive and explanatory of the sport's intricacies for the uninitiated who wanted to be part of the big event. Also, the network could have been more aggressive in using the drop-down graphic under the on-screen scoreboard to personalize the players beyond the information dispensed by the commentators.

But those are nitpicks. The mailbag gave almost universal high marks to the announcers. Surprisingly, there were few complaints about British accents; however, one Scottish commentator got good grades for insight, but his brogue became almost indecipherable as the excitement on the pitch increased. Also, some of the U.S. analysts involved in ESPN's coverage were deemed too provincial and not as knowledgeable as their European and Latino counterparts.

Ratings exceeded the previous World Cup by 50 percent, and traffic on ESPN.com exploded. ESPN3, the network's broadband channel, broke all viewership records, with more than a half-million viewers watching daily on their computers. Was the network surprised by the popularity of its presentation?

"The ratings on television have exceeded our expectations," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content. "The usage on Internet and mobile platforms shattered our forecasts. We estimate that fully one-third of the viewership on this World Cup has been out-of-home. The World Cup has provided the most significant validation to date that our 'best screen available' philosophy [essentially, TV at home, computer at work, mobile if you're on the go] most effectively serves the contemporary sports fan."

If you start preparing three years in advance, deploy some of your most talented people, promote the event both to a wide external audience and inside your own corporate culture … well, good things can happen. The mailbag reflected that. But, as Drake added, "We can always do better." Words to live by.

Not my brother's keeper

ESPN had a successful run during the NBA playoffs, with ratings for the Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers especially impressive. The championship series, won by the Lakers in seven games, averaged more than 14 million viewers per game -- and Game 7 attracted more than 28 million.

But it was the Orlando-Boston series that caught the attention of the mailbag critics. E-mailers questioned the wisdom of ESPN tasking Jeff Van Gundy to provide analysis on games involving his brother Stan, coach of the Orlando Magic: "No fan of any team can expect anyone to be objective and unbiased if his brother is one of the coaches" … "If this doesn't strike you as ludicrous, what does?" … "A stunning lack of objectivity" … "Poorly thought out" … "Absurdly pro-Orlando" … "I don't blame Van Gundy -- I'd root for my brother, too" … "Why in the world would ESPN executives even think to expose themselves to this kind of conflict?"

We put those questions to Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production.

"We clearly understand that a segment of fans would feel that a conflict and bias might be present," Williamson said. "We took careful steps to be transparent to viewers. It was a tough decision, but we believed that keeping our team together would provide the best telecast. With four voices [including Van Gundy's], we believed that Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Doris Burke would provide balance, information and an objective mix to the telecast.

"When we took into account past performance, credibility in the sport, transparency with the audience and our overall obligation to viewers, we determined that allowing Jeff to work was the best approach. We thought this would provide the most informative and entertaining telecast."

That raises more questions. Although the other three voices could provide balance if Van Gundy strayed, what added pressure does that apply to the booth when a fellow announcer is related to a participating coach? Could this additional concern break up the normal flow in the booth, causing the announcers to overcompensate for the need to be balanced? Will they fail to be as aggressively critical because of a subconscious desire not to offend a broadcasting partner?

Commenting live for two hours is tough enough without adding to the complexity. In this case, ESPN clearly felt the reward was worth the risk.

"We wanted to have our top announce team on our most important games," said Bob Rauscher, ESPN's coordinating producer for the NBA telecasts. "Having a former player [Jackson] and a former coach [Van Gundy] in the booth allows us to provide the viewer with different, diverse perspectives and multiple points of view as they break down the intricacies of the game. They also bring distinct personalities. What's important is to remain transparent and professional -- and we had confidence in Jeff's ability to do just that."

But transparency, though important, isn't the sole criterion. Yes, you've acknowledged a conflict, but a major goal of any telecast is to provide a positive viewing experience for a broad audience. Van Gundy's presence ran counter to that -- at the very least, Celtics fans were challenged to accept that the announcing was unbiased. Watching a broadcast you perceive to be biased against "your" team can be infuriating and can cause you to question everything that's said.

The flip side is that fans can read bias into almost anything said negatively about "their" teams. The most frequent comments to the mailbag concern announcer bias. Some make valid, cogent, astute observations. Others can be chalked up to overzealous team loyalty -- no crime for a real fan.

But charges of bias can't simply be sloughed off by Bristol as the rantings of fanatics. In today's media landscape, viewers don't tune in to games for the announcers. They come for the event itself -- and the commentators either add to their pleasure … or detract from it. Over time, most fans develop favorites and whipping boys. It's difficult to change a negative impression into a positive one, but for announcers, positive reactions can go sour quickly.

Interestingly, although the Van Gundy conflict was front and center in the mailbag, there was no reference to that of Magic Johnson, who worked for ESPN as a studio analyst. His partial ownership of the Lakers was also transparently disclosed … yet not a peep of protest. Perhaps viewers accepted Johnson's bias because his entire professional basketball identity is linked to the Lakers and/or because his involvement in the broadcasts was limited to pregame/halftime/postgame appearances as part of a roundtable discussion. Van Gundy's identity, however, is that of a former coach, and his role was to provide commentary throughout an entire game. Perhaps one of the mailbag messages is that a higher bar of objectivity is required for in-game commentators.

ESPN's decision to use Van Gundy resides in that elusive gray area. The network justified it with transparency and the desire to put its best talent on the court -- solid arguments. But if the goal is to engage a wider audience, was the agita worthwhile?

Whether the telecast was actually biased is subjective, but that's immaterial. Van Gundy's mere presence created the appearance of conflict for many viewers. Fans didn't tune in to hear his comments, and they didn't tune out because of his conflict. But they came for just one reason: to watch the game. Conflicts such as these decrease the enjoyment for a not-inconsequential portion of the audience, and that is germane. Pretending it is not material is myopic.

Anatomy of an insult

Nothing is more galling for a sports fan than being engrossed in a live event only to have it hijacked in midflight. At 9:49 p.m. ET on June 25, ESPN did just that to 837,000 ardent fans watching the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. With less than two laps to go in the men's 5,000-meter run, the network cut away to live coverage of the final three outs of a no-hitter pitched by Arizona's Edwin Jackson. The track viewers were suddenly transported to the ninth inning of the Diamondbacks' eventual 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay. The excitement was palpable as Jackson induced a strikeout and a fly out, gave up a walk, then got Jason Bartlett to ground out. Pandemonium ensued as Jackson etched his name into baseball history.

ESPN's coup provided a memorable service … to baseball fans. Unfortunately, it was an insulting disservice to the track audience, and the mailbag quickly reflected that with a barrage of comments. Track viewers were livid. Some called it "unprofessional" and "arrogant" and "a slap in the face." Others: "If I wanted to watch baseball I would have watched baseball" … "It shows no respect for track fans" … "I guess the U.S. championships was just filler programming until something better came along."

The offense was compounded when, after a seven-minute baseball cut-in, the network went directly to "Baseball Tonight," forcing the track audience to wait another 39 minutes to see a 60-second recap of the 5,000 and results of the 100-meter dash. You could not choreograph a better way to alienate an audience. The ESPN decision has repercussions, creating ill will and straining loyalty.

What was the rationale behind cutting away to the no-hit bid?

"We have created a habit and a brand equity with fans knowing that ESPN will carry the ultimate moment of a breaking news story, like a no-hitter," said Len DeLuca, ESPN's senior vice president for programming and acquisitions. "'Baseball Tonight' now has competition from the MLB Network, which was updating the Jackson situation throughout the game. Fans know about developing stories from Twitter, e-mail, mobile phones and from watching The Bottom Line on ESPN.

"We wanted to be there for the final half-inning. The decision to go was the right idea, but badly executed. We did a disservice to the track and field fan. We went too early. We should have finished the 5K race, thrown to the bottom of the ninth, promising an update of the track immediately following the cut-in. We were too slow in updating the track audience, and what we gave them was too little.'"

DeLuca offered no defensiveness or excuses as to why things went so terribly wrong, saying simply that the ESPN programming team "is tasked with guiding these types of decisions in live situations. Its mission is to serve the best interests of the fan. In this particular case, we did not adequately protect the track and field fan who had invested 105 minutes in the meet. The producers on 'Baseball Tonight' thought the Jackson story was the lead and wanted to run with it. Programming did not insist strongly enough that after the cut-in we go back to the track and field live, giving the results of the 5,000 and showing the entire 100-meter race before starting 'Baseball Tonight.'"

Such decisions are made in the blink of an eye. Often, they're determined by the strength and passion of the advocates in the control room. Programming's responsibility is the orderly execution and flow of the various elements running on the network -- in contrast, a producer's perspective totally revolves around specific telecasts, whether event or studio productions (such as "Monday Night Football" or "SportsCenter"). These two groups interact smoothly hundreds of times each week, but there can be tension, and the discussions over decisions such as this can get loud and sometimes very heated.

The producers of the track event wanted to continue serving their viewers. The "Baseball Tonight" producers anticipated the excitement and audience the no-hitter could generate if carried over directly into their broadcast. Programming played Solomon, and in this case got steamrolled by the BBTN team.

Was the move worth it? From a ratings perspective, ESPN picked up 160,000 viewers during the cut-in (many of which likely came from the College World Series being shown at the same time on ESPN2). That would only be natural -- they're baseball fans. But for BBTN, the fastest-paced, cleanest show on television, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Many viewers didn't stay. Just 20 minutes into the program, its audience had dropped from 1 million to 750,000.

The debacle appropriately precipitated days of debriefing and discussion, with DeLuca saying the network looks at the situation "as a learning experience. We'll continue to take risks to serve our fans and remain competitive. For the track and field fans whom we offended, they have our pledge that this is a situation in which all parties feel chastened and we will do better in the future. Promise."

In television, as in life, doing all the things you're theoretically or technologically capable of doing isn't always the wisest course. Yes, being the first to cover a major milestone is terrific, but at what cost? Topping the MLB Network in this instance irritated far more people than it exhilarated.

The more logical place for the cut-in was ESPN2, where baseball fans already were congregated for coverage of the College World Series, but the network's contract with MLB allows this type of live update on ESPN's prime channel only. Perhaps the best place to do cut-ins is ESPNEWS, where no scheduled live events would be displaced. Securing rights for those platforms would increase value to ESPN and to the audience, and might help in expanding the network's cable footprint. Easier said than done, but money cures most evils in sports negotiations.

The simplest but least visually attractive solution would have been to split the screen and cover the no-hitter with audio/video while allowing the track audience to at least watch the conclusion of their events. Contractually, the network could have done it this way, but risked alienating, not serving, two audiences.

As the network continues to expand, conflicts like these will only multiply, which begs the question: When do you disregard an existing audience for something deemed more important?

On the major broadcast networks, scheduled programming is typically interrupted only by the worst of the worst -- assassinations, national tragedies, monumental disasters, etc. In sports, a no-hitter is a landmark event -- there have been only 224 in the past 110 years. But would ESPN have cut away to Jackson's gem during "Monday Night Football," an NBA playoff game or a World Cup match? ESPN would be contractually precluded from doing so in these high-powered sports. Should the track audience be treated any differently?

ESPN's ratings success is periodically pumped up by the large audiences that follow the major sports. But the network's viewership is also dependent on the aggregation of smaller audiences that appreciate programmatic diversity. Lower-rated programs far outnumber big events in 25,000 hours of programming. The loyal fans of these "niche sports" broaden ESPN's reach, help make the network a must-carry in cable homes, contribute to advertising rates, and ultimately feed into "SportsCenter" and other staples of a 24-hour, multiplatform Goliath.

These viewers make a commitment to watch an ESPN program, and rightfully expect to see it to conclusion. Resentment runs deep when they can't, and ESPN should reward that audience dedication by delivering on its programming promises.

Don't dis my sport

Certain wounds continuously fester in the mailbag. One common complaint is the perception that ESPN, since ending its 21-year relationship to carry live NHL games, has consistently and intentionally short-changed the sport's fans on "SportsCenter": "The network only caters to its contract partners" … "Anti-hockey bias reigns supreme" … "Troubling and disrespectful to hockey" … "ESPN should cover all sports properly on 'SportsCenter,' regardless who they're in bed with."

We asked Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor of studio production, about the drumbeat of displeasure from hockey's loyal fans.

"As we do with all stories, we make judgments on what we think the viewer is most interested in every single night," Gross said, "and hockey is part of that equation. We regularly have NHL plays as part of the top 10, and also offer NHL highlights on ESPN.com and local 'SportsCenters' on our sites for New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles."

When the ESPN contract with the NHL ended in 2005, game coverage moved to NBC and Versus -- and ESPN canceled its "NHL Tonight" program. To maintain a credible NHL presence, the network extended former coach Barry Melrose's contract and added ex-player Matthew Barnaby as an analyst. Both provide studio analysis of hockey for "SportsCenter." ESPN.com also added two dedicated writers, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun, to the NHL beat.

Gross defended the network's commitment to insightful NHL coverage, citing several examples, including the length of highlights for major hockey events. On New Year's Day, even with the college football bowl frenzy, Gross noted that the network ran a highlight from the NHL Winter Classic spanning nearly five minutes, "the second longest-treatment of any single game in the show that night." On Super Bowl Sunday, "SportsCenter" ran a two-minute hockey highlight from the Pittsburgh-Washington showdown featuring Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

"That was also our second-longest highlight in the show, behind only the Super Bowl," he said. "We increase our coverage during the most important part of the year. During the playoffs, Melrose and Barnaby join our 'SportsCenter' anchors every single day and night to make our highlights bigger, better and smarter."

Not surprisingly, the mailbag regularly registers complaints from fans of different teams and sports about a lack of presence on "SportsCenter." That's logical -- you're fans. But some limiting realities are important to consider.

Mathematics dictates that you can't show all the games. As the signature studio show for ESPN, "SportsCenter" contains roughly 45 minutes of programming inventory. On any given night, the program contains from 15 to 20 minutes of highlights that encapsulate on average 15 contests chosen from the roughly 25 to 35 games of the day. In April, when the NHL, NBA, MLB and colleges are all in season, the producers have to whittle the highlights down from 40 to 50 choices. On some Saturdays, there might be as many as 100 games from which to choose.

Editorial decisions are made based on the importance of a game, the excitement it generates, the notoriety that accompanies it, notable performance of an individual, etc. The editorial charge is not to parcel out these slots equally between leagues and teams. The producers make the decision based on their judgment of what's important, newsworthy and entertaining and what "SportsCenter's" audience most wants to see -- and heated discussions often surround that process.

There's little question that hockey got more attention on ESPN when the network carried the games and the sport had its own nightly show. Did the NHL occasionally get an undeserved preference on "SportsCenter" because of the network-league relationship? Probably, but at the same time, with a nightly NHL show, "SportsCenter" also might have considered using its slots for another sport.

The mission of "SportsCenter" is to recap the biggest stories of the day. If the show's producers do any less, they haven't fulfilled their promise to the viewer. And although that unfortunately leads to an existential truth -- you're not going to please all the people all the time -- ESPN would be wise to continuously listen to sports fans and ensure its decisions are in sync with the desires of its audience.

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.