Rights issues chill ESPN's Olympics coverage
Two major events, the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, dominated the airwaves and sports news in February. The Super Bowl was an extension of ESPN's extensive coverage of the National Football League season, and -- with its ABC partner broadcasting the game -- the week-long event played to ESPN's strengths and synergy.
Coverage of the Olympics, meanwhile, was another story. With NBC holding the rights, ESPN had to cover the games with limitations, including how much footage it could use on SportsCenter or ESPNEWS, and when that footage could be used (after NBC's programming had ended on the West Coast).
ESPN's Olympic team consisted of three TV reporters (Lisa Salters, Jeremy Schaap, and Steve Cyphers) and four producers, with contributions from experts in a number of sports -- including USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, who specializes in figure skating.
In general, their work from Torino was solid, although some viewers, including Ryan Fickes, e-mailing from Guangzhou, China, felt the coverage was too negative. It's an assessment with which I do not agree, considering a number of the best news stories (Bode Miller's failure to win any medals or even finish three races, Sasha Cohen missing gold, and disappointing showings by the U.S. and Canadian hockey teams, etc.) simply were not positive.
ESPN had more opportunity to air highlights than from previous recent Olympics, by virtue of an agreement with NBC that also allowed Al Michaels out of his ESPN contract to work "Sunday Night Football" for NBC. Still, long-standing restrictions for non-rights holders hampered overall coverage.
"We were limited by highlights restrictions, as well as not having any camera access to the Olympic Village, venues, or most press conferences," explained Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news for ESPN. "We understand the scope of the event and would like to have done more."
ESPN smartly saw an opportunity to report results of events on its news shows as they happened, while NBC held back the results of some competition for hours for its prime-time presentation. ESPN's "real-time, get it on the air" philosophy, while irritating to some fans, is the right way to go in this age of instant information. I was stunned to hear NBC News anchor Brian Williams tease an "upcoming" event that had been over for hours.
Doria said: "We understand that some viewers would prefer to watch taped sports events without knowing the outcome. But we wouldn't be doing our job as a news organization if we didn't report the news as it happens."
The next time it covers an event from "the outside," ESPN might consider broadening its scope and generating even more of the imagination it often displays. That imagination and breadth was evident during the two weeks leading up to the Feb. 5 Super Bowl, when ESPN used all of its resources and talent to provide a wide array of news shows, pre-game and post-game presentations and specials.
A six-hour countdown to the game on Sunday seemed a bit much, but the content was there, including Kenny Mayne's entertaining interview with Martha Stewart on the preparation of nachos. During the week, NFL commentators Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Sal Paolantonio, Stuart Scott, Linda Cohn, Darren Woodson, Mark Schlereth, Sean Salisbury, Mike Ditka, Steve Young, Andrea Kremer, Michael Irvin, Chris Mortensen, Michele Tafoya and Ron Jaworski were among those who contributed to the coverage.
But by the end of the week, fresh news was becoming scarce, as shown by what I considered the overplaying of Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter's derogatory comments about Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens. Also, I wondered why the well-worn Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens feud was reborn during Super Bowl week. I also could have lived without seeing Chad Johnson again before the 2006 season.
In the aftermath of the game, everyone had their say about the controversial officiating, but I thought Jaworski's comment that the officiating "has been inconsistent all season, with need for full-time officials" was worthy of more reporting. So was Seattle coach Mike Holmgren's comment that he knew the Steelers would be tough, but "we didn't know we'd have to play the refs, too." This was stinging criticism from an important newsmaker not given to brash comments.
Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com's executive editor, explains: "Though his role on ESPN.com is constrained to predicting the NCAA tournament field -- based on his expertise and the proven success of his formula -- we have and will continue to acknowledge his ties to St. Joseph's whenever pertinent. ... He and his team of bracketologists have replicated the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) used by the NCAA to help pick at-large teams and determine seeds for the NCAA tournament."
My take: As long as Lunardi's work is based on records and strength of schedule computations, I do not see a major violation of ethics -- as long as ESPN makes it perfectly clear he works for St. Joseph's and he recuses himself in dealing with the Hawks.
"He originally said he wanted to go to Maryland before we met," Van Pelt explained. "We became friendly, as I would with other young people who want to talk with me about their future. I never once told him to go to Maryland. In the end, I was a pawn in the recruiting game. Over the years, I've been able to distinguish the difference between being a Maryland fan and commentator. Still, I am going to have to rethink my situation because of viewer perceptions. I understand what I have to do. I get it."
My take: Most journalists -- broadcast and print -- understand that, once they enter the business, they sacrifice the obvious passions of rooting for a favorite team in favor of being a professional observer. The long-standing rule -- "No cheering in the press box" -- has been in effect longer than the term "homer."
Personally, I'm eager to see where the New Jersey investigation of the alleged gambling scandal involving Rick Tocchet and others leads. More on that next month. ... Meanwhile, some viewers who subscribe to the ESPN FullCourt basketball package would like to strangle the Ombudsman because they can't figure out who gets what and when. What I do know is that March 4, everyone, including my e-mailing friend in China, will get to see the North Carolina-Duke game, on every ESPN outlet -- and maybe the NFL Network, too.
Next column: A conversation with Dick Vitale.
About ESPN's Ombudsman
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, ESPN's initial Ombudsman.