At ESPN, conflict of interest is business as usual

Updated: May 11, 2007, 3:09 PM ET
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

Imagine The New York Times owning half of the Broadway theaters whose plays it reviews. Or imagine CNN paying billions of dollars for exclusive multiyear rights to cover the War in Iraq. Imagine the temptation to recoup investment by piquing advance interest and prolonging the runs of plays and wars.

That kind of temptation, almost inconceivable for other news organizations, is a chronic circumstance of journalistic life at ESPN, and has been since the day it first paid good money to televise an event while also covering it as news.

It's no wonder the most common category of complaint I receive as ESPN ombudsman is about perceived conflicts of interest. Hockey fans complain about the diminished presence of hockey on "SportsCenter" since ESPN dropped rights to game coverage in 2005. Nonenthusiasts of motorsports complain that NASCAR suddenly has too large a presence on "SportsCenter" now that ESPN's multiyear, multibillion-dollar rights package has kicked into high gear. Even diehard football fans complain that there is too much out-of-season NFL coverage as ESPN heads toward its expensive second year of "Monday Night Football."

"When did football become a 12-month sport?" asked one viewer. And when, he might have added, did "NFL Schedule Day," announcing the lineup of games to be played five to 10 months hence, become a national holiday, stealing top billing in April from baseball season openers and the end of regular season basketball? Perhaps it should be called "National Ballhog Day."

I get a lot of viewer questions like the one quoted above, and they are all rhetorical in nature, cynical in tone. The implied answer is that ESPN's news judgment is being distorted by its rights deals. At ESPN, where business partnerships with sports leagues are essential to its existence, conflict of interest cannot be avoided. Likewise, the perception of conflict of interest cannot be avoided. It can only be managed.

So how is it being managed?

The answer depends on whom you listen to. Let's start with the most aggrieved set of fans. "Why does ESPN show no love for the game of hockey?" wrote one demoralized fan, speaking for legions of others who want, among other things, as many hockey highlights on "SportsCenter" as there were when ESPN had game rights. "It is horrible how little respect hockey gets on ESPN," wrote another. "You hardly see it on SportsCenter. It is sad."

In March, when I first relayed those complaints to a half dozen ESPN producers and executives, the almost uniform response was, "My subjective impression is that our hockey coverage on "SportsCenter" is about the same now as when we had rights." Subjective impressions don't cut it with disgruntled fans, though, so ESPN made an effort to get some hard data.

"We compared all the 1 a.m. shows during March 2007 with all the 1 a.m. shows in March 2004, the last year ESPN had hockey rights," said Craig Lazarus, vice president of studio productions, whose responsibilities include overseeing all productions of SportsCenter. "We found that in March 2004, hockey accounted for 20 percent of the Top Ten highlights. In March 2007, the percentage was 18 percent."

In all other segments of the 1 a.m. "SportsCenter," the show with the heaviest emphasis on highlights and events coverage, there were 29 fewer minutes of standard, daily NHL coverage in March 2007 than in March 2004. Those 56 seconds a day amount to a 28 percent decline in hockey's allotment of airtime, but I doubt that fully accounts for the feeling that hockey gets "no love" anymore.

"What they are missing," says Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news, "in addition to the games, is 'NHL 2Night,' the show of expanded highlights we used to run for 20-30 minutes, typically after NHL games on ESPN2. Barry Melrose was the central figure on 'NHL 2Night,' and we kept Barry on contract as a studio analyst after we gave up rights, but he was shifted to a shorter segment on 'SportsCenter.'"

Pregame and postgame shows like the former "NHL 2Night" are called "shoulder programming," and they tend to be part of a rights package. "Without rights," Doria explains, "there may be limits on the event footage we can use. With rights, we may get expanded footage usages, such as in-progress highlights for certain shows, like 'Baseball Tonight,' which we produce as part of the rights agreement. We may also get the right to air a certain amount of league file footage for features and news reports on various shows as part of the deal."

That partly explains the mushrooming presence of NASCAR and Arena Football on ESPN this year. Nearly everyone at ESPN, though, draws a clear distinction between the rationales for upgrading the coverage of those two sports. "We began increasing our coverage of NASCAR on 'SportsCenter' before rights were acquired," Lazarus says, "because we realized there was a whole untapped audience out there and we were under-delivering to those fans."

David Berson, executive vice president of program planning and development, emphasizes that the decision to go after rights represents a news judgment in and of itself.

"We were concerned about being so focused on stick-and-ball [sports] that we were not serving a large NASCAR audience," Berson says.

John Wildhack, executive vice president of programming and acquisitions, says it was difficult to serve those fans when ESPN did not have a rights package.

"When we passed on renewing NASCAR rights beyond 2000 and Fox picked it up, our access to the tracks was curtailed by NASCAR," Wildhack said. "Our reporters couldn't go inside the tracks to interview drivers and crew chiefs, which limited our ability to do news coverage."

Stick-and-ball fans may not understand its appeal, but neither can they deny the popularity of NASCAR, whose race-day ratings, despite a recent dropoff, routinely exceed those of baseball and basketball, including most NBA playoff games and those highly rated Yankee/Red Sox games that are the source of so many complaints of East Coast bias.

The same cannot be said for the AFL, which has ratings similar to those of the beleaguered NHL. Last December, when ESPN acquired minority ownership of the league and extensive rights to televise games, John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content, was widely quoted as saying, "We will help grow the league across all of our multimedia platforms."

But what does it mean to grow a sport? For one viewer, who complained about three Arena highlights appearing among the Top Ten highlights April 17, it means "force feeding viewers content they have no interest in." For another, it means seeing AFL injury reports crawl across the bottom of his screen: "Funny how intricate details of Arena Football teams suddenly become newsworthy as soon as ESPN obtained a stake in the league, isn't it?" For a listener, it means "the disruption of 'Mike and Mike's' morning radio schedule, as well as too much AFL talk" by the radio duo now that they are one of the three AFL announcing teams.

Underlying all those particular complaints is the core lament, which one viewer, a college student, expressed as, "ESPN has lost the innocence it had back in the good old days." His impassioned message ended, "Agenda setting is for losers."

"There is this notion that we drive a sport's popularity," says Lazarus. "I may be naive, but I think we reflect it."

Doria sees it somewhat differently.

"We are clearly paying more attention to Arena Football than we would have if the games were not on the air," he said. "I could lay it all off on the resources that come with rights, but when we are trying to grow a sport, it means we get a little ahead of the curve to drive the interest up, but we don't go overboard. Arena generates a lot of entertaining visuals that may show up on Top Ten plays, which is a 'WOW factor' device that doesn't represent news judgment. It doesn't show up much in straight news or analysis segments."

Why is there such a clash of perceptions between producers, who feel they may be getting "a bit ahead" of the curve, and viewers, who feel that ESPN is getting "way ahead" of the curve of their interest in a new property like Arena Football?

I suspect much of it has to do with one producer not knowing what the other producers are up to on the many-headed giant that is ESPN. When a "SportsCenter" producer in Bristol chooses a highlight for the 1 a.m. show, he doesn't know it is going to be picked up the next morning by the producer in Washington who is looking for questions to toss at the panel on "Around the Horn," who in turn doesn't know that Jim Rome's producer in L.A. has picked up on it, as well. Or that it coincides with the airing of Arena Football promotional spots or an injury report crawl or a lot of Arena Football talk on "Mike and Mike," plus perhaps a column on ESPN.com's Page 2 and a news story flagged on the site's main page.

Planned or not, such multiplatform, multishow redundancy can feel like a coordinated assault. And if it is not playing to the fan's genuine interest, the fan may assume it is playing to ESPN's vested interest.

"We are not a monolith," says Doria. "There are no marching orders."

"The programming department decides what rights to pursue," says Berson, "but nothing from the programming end dictates or even influences news decisions. We have nothing to do with individual topic selection."

"Nobody ever talks to us at all about content," says Erik Rydholm, executive producer for "Around the Horn" and "Pardon the Interruption." "I continue to be amazed by how much everyone leaves us alone."

I asked Rydholm about a question posed April 17 on PTI about whether Major League Soccer might become popular in the United States.

"Yes, I remember that," he said. "I came up with that question myself after reading a piece that morning in [SportsBusiness] Daily about the L.A. Galaxy team luring Zinedine Zidane out of retirement to join Beckham."

Had he read the piece published two weeks earlier in Sports Business Journal about ESPN launching its marketing campaign for Major League Soccer on April 7? The piece said the network also planned to promote the league by "having shows such as PTI debate whether MLS will be popular."

"No," Rydholm said. "I didn't see that." Even if he had, Rydholm added, he would not have interpreted it "as pressure or encroachment," because "nobody asks us to be good company soldiers."

Anyone who had been in on that phone conversation would be as sure as I am that Rydholm was telling the truth. Anyone not in on that conversation would think ESPN had issued soccer marching orders that extended to producers but not to the on-air talent, who debated the question and concluded that Major League Soccer had no chance of becoming popular.

A problem remains. ESPN may not be a monolith, but it often appears to be one. Especially when launching new endeavors like Arena Football or NASCAR or Major League Soccer, someone at ESPN, perhaps everyone at ESPN, should be aware of the appearance of overzealous promotion. Synergy can backfire. Wooing us with a new sport is fine, but when you flood the zone all at once on all platforms, at least some of us will feel stalked.

A final word to hockey fans, in defense of the AFL, which is often perceived as the upstart stealing the more venerable sport's airtime. The problem is not the AFL. It's the NFL. As Lazarus said, "We increased NFL across the board, because our research tells us it is the single biggest draw, and because we have competition. As a result, there's less for everybody else."

Competition from the new NFL Network threatens to exacerbate the trend toward ball hogging in sports coverage at ESPN. Minor sports aren't stealing time from hockey. The minor moments of major sports are, like "NFL Schedule Day," or the NFL combine or, dare I say it, the NFL draft.

Other thieves of "SportsCenter" time are sponsored segments, like a recent "Coors Light Cold Hard Facts: A Six-Pack of Questions" about college football. My subjective impression this week is that offseason college football is receiving as much airtime as the present reality of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If you chip five minutes off "SportsCenter" here and there for a sponsored segment, another five minutes here and there for recycled portions of shoulder programming and more minutes for teasers leading up to those segments, there often seems to be nothing left for news of sports other than those for which ESPN holds rights. Nobody needs marching orders. The formula itself is skewed toward the sports that pay their way.

This is, after all, ratings-driven commercial television. But "SportsCenter" is also supposed to be news-driven, which means the actuality of the day or week takes precedence over the maybe of next fall. On some days, hockey is bigger news than football. It would be refreshing to see it played that way, if only just once, if only to reclaim a bit of that pre-Disney innocence.

Ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. The former New York Times sports editor and author will critique decision-making, coverage and presentation of news, issues and events on ESPN television and other media. Schreiber will have a two-year tenure and succeeds George Solomon.