Networks' World Cup coverage both scores, misses
ESPN and its corporate partner, ABC, have undertaken the difficult task of covering the world's most popular sports event -- the FIFA World Cup -- in a wall-to-wall treatment rarely given to soccer in the U.S. The results, so far, have been favorable, with solid ratings despite the first-round elimination of the U.S. team.
Nevertheless, trying to please soccer fans -- among the most discerning and hard-to-please of any group -- is another story. Consider some of the complaints and questions to the ombudsman since the competition began June 9:
Tim Scanlan, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN's World Cup operation, has heard the comments and complaints, getting hundreds of e-mails and voice messages a day in Germany. He understands not all of the nearly three million viewers watching each day are happy; but he also knows many are pleased and his goal over the final 10 days of competition is to solve some of the problems and make more viewers happy.
"We've tried to convey the passion the rest of the world has for this sport to our country, as well as educate our viewers by sharing our knowledge of the game," Scanlan said in a telephone interview. Scanlan has a staff of about 100 working in Germany and a significant number of additional staffers at ESPN's Bristol headquarters. He said "the logistics of covering games in Germany, as well as from FIFA's broadcast headquarters in Munich, have at times been difficult."
ESPN has been using five two-man broadcasting teams, with three of the five teams working from stadiums in Germany and two operating from Bristol. I can't figure out which announcing teams are on site, and which are not.
"We did not want to mislead," Scanlan said.
But Scanlan can fix that situation immediately by informing viewers -- either by crawl or voice -- the locations from which the announcers are working.
The quality of the five announcing teams, led by Dave O'Brien and Marcelo Balboa, has been solid, although some soccer bars in the U.S. have chosen to use the BBC play-by-play with the ESPN telecast.
"They [BBC] know the players better," explained one tavern owner.
Scanlan takes exception to that, pointing out ESPN's commentators are experienced broadcasters and had extensive briefings before the competition. Still, more background on the players and coaches -- such as the way Joe Morgan dishes out inside baseball to viewers on Sunday nights -- would help. Shelley Smith's features, though, are good and do add to the coverage.
ESPN, Scanlan said, uses the international (HBS) feeds for its coverage, as well as adding a number of additional cameras of its own. A total of 33 cameras per game will be used beginning with the quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, ESPN's analysts have been provocative, if not always balanced. Julie Foudy and Eric Wynalda called for the dismissal of U.S. coach Bruce Arena after Ghana eliminated the United States from the tournament last Thursday. Was there no one to support Arena, whose eight years of coaching the U.S. National team has drawn mostly praise?
With ESPN committed to covering the major international men's and women's soccer events through the next 10 years, continued improvement in the coverage will occur. Answers to questions will be common, such as "What kind of training do the officials receive prior to this kind of competition?" and "Why have there been so many yellow and red cards?"
"It's a huge event that we're doing double and triple ratings over what we've ever done before with soccer," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "As this country continues to diversify, you'll continue to see the sport grow."
In the eye of the beholder
In March, "Outside the Lines" did a show that included Baltimore native and Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony appearing in a video set in Baltimore, in which several people advocated residents not cooperate (or "snitch") with police. In one scene, reported Milton Kent, a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, Anthony "was seen standing next to a man who used the phrase 'hole in the head' which has been widely interpreted to mean the man was suggesting that snitches be killed."
Kent said "the hole in the head" comment to Anthony referred to his "sense of aggravation at the 2004 Olympics" -- that he needed "criticism from the Olympics like a hole in the head."
Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news, said the OTL production reported that "Carmelo was in the video, may not have been aware how the video was going to be used, and quickly distanced himself from its meaning, which the piece detailed. We made a good faith effort in the OTL show to report Anthony meant no harm to anyone.
"As to what the man who used the term 'hole in the head' intended, it isn't clear. What is clear is the people who produced the video edited that segment to convey a violent intent."
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.