Can Smith, new show live up to their hype?

Updated: August 10, 2005, 7:32 PM ET
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

Rarely since Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" has an impending television show gotten the buildup ESPN's Stephen A. Smith received for his "Quite Frankly" debut on ESPN2 last Monday night (Aug. 1). In-depth profiles of Smith ran in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, as well as other publications, followed by significant advertisements in a number of major newspapers around the country.

I wondered if the hype might be too much for the outspoken 37-year-old, whose leap from Temple University beat writer for the Philadephia Inquirer to sports columnist to a player on ESPN's NBA shows and "SportsCenter" to ESPN star was accomplished in about 10 years. Such a meteoric rise has left many who have known Smith for years in wonderment, while some others jealously questioned the rise to fame of someone outside the mold of a typical television phenom.

Make no mistake: Stephen A. Smith has arrived.

"We did not seek the stories in Sports Illustrated and The New York Times -- they were interested and intrigued with him," said Mark Shapiro, the executive vice president of programming and production at ESPN. I asked if the buildup of "Quite Frankly" might have put too much pressure on Smith, and Shapiro responded: "The publicity comes with the territory. When you launch a new show, it's the name of the game. You've got to get out there and hopefully the exposure will increase his identity."

If anyone was worried about Stephen A. Smith's identity, rest easy. Most viewers can identify him.

While I'm not going to consider ratings here, I can report that Smith's first week of shows generated many e-mails -- some positive, some not so positive. He's an African-American with attitude, and some of his recent comments to Sports Illustrated don't sit well with some viewers who e-mailed me with their feelings -- comments such as: "I am going to come across not just as being a columnist but as being a black columnist, and the reason for that is the paucity of black columnists in the country. The fact is there haven't been many blacks in a position to give their opinion."

In his first week of shows, Smith demonstrated an ability to draw out interesting comments from guests (Allen Iverson was so emotional in discussing his former coach, Larry Brown, he cried) and offered viewers a wide variety of subjects. Still, I saw more attitude from Smith than opinion, and I sensed Iverson and Pittsburgh's holdout wide receiver, Hines Ward, were getting a friendly forum in which to air their views. Smith has the ability to elicit revealing comments from guests, but to be taken seriously, he has to stop telling guests how much he "loves" them, as he did with Iverson. For example, Smith's byplay with Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb worked well precisely because McNabb chose to needle Smith rather than seek his love.

Smith became more combative when taking questions from the audience during the week and seemed to jab at a would-be agent who offered a pro-management slant on some issues. I would suggest to Stephen A. that if you're going to be tough, be tough on the big stars as well as the little guys. Also, more shows like the one last Friday about Chicago's fascination with the Cubs aren't likely to hold viewers for a full hour.

Clearly, the show is a work in a progress, but one worth watching.

East Coast bias?

In my first month on this job, the biggest complaint from readers through their e-mails had to do with ESPN's perceived East Coast bias. They point to the network being headquartered in Bristol, Conn., under the direction of too many guys with East Coast roots who are not willing to look beyond the Mississippi. Some viewers even point to the hiring of an ombudsman who has worked in Washington, D.C. , the past 36 years as another example of the network not being more inclusive to the entire country. This bias, some viewers note, has resulted over the years in an overabundance of televised games between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. It's a valid complaint, too, unless you are enamored with those teams or simply enjoy a good rivalry.

"The Yankees and Red Sox are national teams that our ratings show draw large numbers of viewers comparable to what the Dallas Cowboys were to the National Football League in the '80s," said Len DeLuca, ESPN's senior vice president for programming. "Our research shows the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Braves have strong followings beyond their home fans. The Cubs and Braves have that following because of their own superstations.

"But I understand how that sense of bias germinates," DeLuca said. "And on 'SportsCenter' and 'Baseball Tonight,' we have to be cognizant of not being the network of the Red Sox and Yankees, aware we're going to feature the best six or seven games not all 13. If 'Manny being Manny' is the best story of the night, we'll go with it, still doing the best we can with regards to judging the news fairly."

Still, ESPN's decision makers should be more sensitive to the fact that every Yankee-Red Sox game is not the resumption of Bucky Dent stepping back into the batter's box at Fenway or a rematch of the '04 American League playoffs and "Manny being Manny" and "Sheffield being Sheffield" might not play as well in Phoenix as they do in the New York tabloids. ESPN is a national network and could show more awareness of that fact when selecting games to broadcast.

50 in 50

Which brings us to the summerlong "SportsCenter" feature "50 States in 50 Days," which should please viewers who feel ESPN doesn't sufficiently cover their world (see above paragraph). In this case, ESPN went looking to touch as many people as it could and feature the best and most interesting sports angles each of the 50 states had to offer -- starting in Boston's Fenway Park, followed by a stop in New Hampshire to see the Fisher Cats minor-league club. Also included: a look at Idaho's Snake River Stampede, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, paddlers in Hawaii (nice assignment), dreaming in Kevin Costner's Iowa fields and ballooning in Wyoming. The project worked best in small-town U.S.A., highlighting rodeos, minor-league baseball, county fairs, cardboard boat racing and the like. Even I knew Fenway Park was in Boston, so maybe more on the Cape Cod League would have worked better. It also was very smart to send the network's big hitters into the field for this series.

What didn't work so well was excluding the District of Columbia -- my local constituency -- in the initial planning, except for a brief shot of a national landmark in the introduction. Clearly, to ESPN planners, "50 in 50" had a better ring than "50 in 50, plus the District of Columbia."

The decision upset a number of D.C. boosters, some already defensive, what with no D.C. voting member of Congress despite full taxation, and until 2005, the 34-year absence of Major League Baseball, to go along with a paranoid feeling that the rest of the country dislikes, looks down at and generally disrespects Washington.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams wrote a letter to ESPN last month in hopes the network eventually would include the District in the series. I also received about a hundred e-mails complaining about the situation and calling me a traitor for getting involved with ESPN.

But last week, Norby Williamson, senior vice president/managing editor for ESPN and "SportsCenter," said the 50-in-50 series would add Washington, D.C. -- bringing down the curtain on the series there on Labor Day.

"We'll go to Washington, D.C. and cap off our tour in our nation's capital," Williamson said. "It's the right thing to do. We never meant any disrespect."

Williamson calls the 50-in-50-plus-D.C. experience "totally positive" adding, "If anything, the viewers want more."

News maker on camera

Last month, the University of South Carolina admitted to 10 NCAA violations under the watch of former football coach Lou Holtz, who will be a college football analyst for ESPN this fall. According to a July 14 story by Associated Press, five of the 10 violations were classified as major in a report prepared by the NCAA enforcement staff and the university, and sent to the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. The report stated violations occurred "when prospective student-athletes were given impermissible tutoring sessions" and participated in offseason workouts from 1999-2002. The school was also found to have a lack of institutional control.

Holtz, who resigned after the 2004 season and was replaced by Steve Spurrier, was interviewed for "SportsCenter" on Aug. 2. "Any time you violate an NCAA rule, unwillingly or willingly, you should feel bad about it, which we certainly do," he said. "There were 10 violations, five of them self-reported. There wasn't any money given to any athlete. ... It was an isolated case here and an isolated case there."

"Lou Holtz is a valuable voice in college football," ESPN's Williamson said. "He can bring a contemporary view of college football, as well as a historic prospective."

Williamson said the "SportsCenter" interview with Holtz "fulfilled a journalistic obligation" as the network begins preparations for the upcoming college football season.

I'm all for giving second chances, and anyone who has ever heard Holtz speak or picked his brain for football knowledge knows he'll be a valuable addition to ESPN's college football broadcasting team. But considering when the story broke -- and developments likely to occur over the next few months -- don't for a moment believe the network and Holtz will not come under additional scrutiny and criticism for this relationship.

Holtz's interview, which lasted 1 minute, 16 seconds, will not suffice. Both he and the network need to do more, and in the coming months to be open to amplifying events at South Carolina when journalistically relevant.

Surfing

Al Michaels rejecting NBC for the ESPN booth on Monday Night Football and pairing with Joe Theismann, was front-page sports news in many newspapers around the country. I thought ESPN underplayed the story and should have had Mark Shapiro -- or one of his deputies -- on camera giving the network's view of the story. "I don't like to play that role," Shapiro said. "Had I gone on, it would have been personally self-serving."

I don't agree; it was big news and someone of authority from ESPN should have been interviewed, as well as NBC's Dick Ebersol, who lost out trying to sign Michaels. Also, Michelle Tafoya and Suzy Kolber will be fine sideline reporters for the MNF team. But one of these days, in one of the decades, a woman will get an opportunity to sit in the big booth at the big game.

Has the Home Run Derby ended yet?

Hard news has finally worked its way into the X Games, with the Pro Riders Organization seeking recognition. Watching some of these "action sports" athletes has me believing they should have a union and deserve whatever they can get from ESPN, organizers of X Games 11. They also better have good medical insurance. The X Games audience continues to grow, though not from my demographic.

"SportsCenter" reports positive response from "Pardon the Interruption" concluding its 5:30 p.m. show 4 minutes into the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter," hopefully bringing viewers, Williamson said. Several e-mailers expressed confusion over the change.

E-mail gripes

• Some cynics wonder if ESPN has given short shrift to the National Hockey League since it currently has no working relationship with the league. "That doesn't factor into how we cover the news," Williamson said. "We've been very aggressive in our coverage since the new agreement -- and in covering the news leading up to its signing." Still, the perception exists among some viewers that if ESPN does not have broadcast rights to a league, that league won't get its due. At least, ESPN knows this perception exists and understands its responsibility.

• Poker fans don't like to see results of taped competition on crawls prior to the showing of the event.

• Soccer fans are still cranky over lack of Gold Cup coverage.

• The Ultimate Frisbee lobby is cranky over everything.

• The lacrosse lobby is cranky over the Ultimate Frisbee lobby.

• And Ohio State football fans know how to e-mail.

Also, to e-mailers of the ombudsman, the volume of e-mails prevents me from responding to you personally, but your comments and suggestions are much appreciated.

My gripes

• What was Jim Rome thinking last month when, while reporting the possible comeback of former NBA star Shawn Kemp, he suggested the story would be of interest to women who might want to have his child?

• Didn't the crack reporting/producer team of Greg Garber and Martin Khodabakhshian think their profile of agent Drew Rosenhaus was just a little soft? If he wants to, Rosenhaus can use the piece as a marketing tool.

• Why did ESPY host Matthew Perry drop his pants?

• Did Jeffrey Jordan -- son of Michael Jordan -- deserve his own feature? Maybe not.

•  Had enough of the Larry Brown and Terrell Owens stories? Well, not so fast, especially after Eagles coach Andy Reid asked Owens to leave camp Wednesday. That left the media covering the Eagles, including ESPN, to go to full battle stations, with interviews of Owens leaving camp, shots of his shooting baskets at home and instant analysis by Sal Paolantonio. Those of us who have grown weary of Owens face a long month.

My compliments

• To Peter Gammons, ESPN baseball guru and former Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated writer, for winning the J.G. Taylor Spink award for contributions to baseball writing. Great acceptance speech from a real pro.

• Wonderful coverage of the Tour de France by the entire ESPN team -- led by Jeremy Schaap and producer Greg Amante.

• Solid coverage of Ricky Williams' return to Dolphins training camp.

• Good work on the day of terror in London by Mike Greenberg and Trey Wingo, bringing a sense of perspective to the moment.

• Generally solid coverage of Rafael Palmeiro's suspension, although over the course of several days some players who have never been charged with anything were thrown under the large steroid umbrella by talking heads who might have done more reporting.

• I thought I heard Keith Olbermann on ESPN Radio, but that's enough for now.

Ombudsman George Solomon is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's programming. The longtime Washington Post sports editor will critique ESPN's decision-making, coverage and presentation.