Playing favorites: Viewers question game choices

Originally Published: August 31, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

This is the time of year -- the intersection of baseball and football -- that millions of ESPN viewers savor. It's also the time viewers ask the most questions, such as, "Who decides which games will be televised and how are these decisions made?"

Juggling contracts, viewer e-mails, research data and input from other network executives, David Berson, ESPN's senior vice president for program planning and development, has the ultimate responsibility for deciding what games you'll see.

"We try to take into account viewer interest, performances of teams, past ratings and story lines when we choose our games," Berson said. "I do not see us setting an agenda; rather we try to satisfy our viewers, serve the sports fans and, in our own way, educate our audience."

While Berson's philosophy and goals are admirable, some viewers take exception to their execution. I hear many complaints that ESPN puts too much emphasis on the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox at the expense of other teams, such as the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox and this year's surprise team, the Detroit Tigers.

I hear complaints that ESPN also has its favorites in other sports (the Los Angeles Lakers, Duke basketball, Notre Dame football and USC football, to name four).

"The Yankee-Red Sox games attract a large viewership," said Berson, noting that 81 percent of ESPN's audience resides in the Eastern and Central time zones. "Some people believe we favor those teams. But they are great attractions nationally."

ESPN's power to pick which games it will televise varies from sport to sport.

"We give the NFL a list of what we want, then they dictate the schedule they give us," Berson said. "We give the NBA our preferences, too, and they're responsive. College sports offers more of a blank canvas for us; we have contracts with most major conferences and more flexibility in our selection of games."

For the most part, ESPN tries to please the majority of viewers when selecting the games it broadcasts across several networks. The same can be said for how ESPN chooses its weekly college GameDay site for Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Co. to set up shop for a day on campus.

"We try to take into consideration the mix of conferences, and whether or not we've already been to the campus during the season," explained Craig T. Lazarus, the ESPN VP for studio production in charge of that show. "But the most important factor in the decision is the question, 'Is this the best game of the day?' "

That makes sense, of course. But if ESPN wants to better serve viewer interests, what I would suggest is that on occasion company executives make themselves available to the cameras or on ESPN.com to explain to viewers why specific decisions were made.

Monday Night Football

National Football League teams need at least four games to get ready for the regular season; ESPN's "Monday Night Football" team is following the same formula.

Not that anyone needs another critique of this production, but to me, the team of Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser is off to a good start, with solid work from sideline reporters Michelle Tafoya and Suzy Kolber.

A number of viewers, however, expressed via e-mail their dislike for the scoreboard graphic used in the preseason MNF broadcasts, and disappointment that the Al Michaels-John Madden announcing duo didn't move from ABC to ESPN for Monday nights this fall. Others believe Theismann might consider talking less, and still others say Kornheiser needs to be more assertive and informative. Almost everyone seems to like Tirico.

My response to the viewers: give the new MNF crew a chance. While most critics in the media have generally offered favorable reviews, several were not. For example, the Washington Post's Paul Farhi wrote of Kornheiser, his colleague at the newspaper, "He wasn't especially witty, provocative or insightful in calling the Raiders' 16-13 win over the Vikings (Aug. 14) from the Metrodome in Minneapolis."

On the Dan Patrick radio show the next day, Kornheiser, who worked for me for 25 years (until 2004) when I was sports editor of the Washington Post, called Farhi "a two-bit weasel slug" whom Kornheiser said he "would gladly run over with a Mack truck given the opportunity." He also was surprised such a negative review would appear in his own newspaper, and also expressed unhappiness with ESPN Radio's Mike Golic, whose offense was calling Kornheiser's debut "OK."

Kornheiser's response to Farhi on Patrick's show was in bad taste and petty. Taking criticism, even from your own newspaper, goes with the territory. Nor were Kornheiser's comments about Golic necessary, even though Golic had previously questioned the selection of Kornheiser as part of the MNF team. Later in the week after the initial broadcast, Kornheiser joined fellow Post columnist Mike Wilbon on "Pardon the Interruption" -- and both referred to Farhi as a "weasel," an unacceptable editorial description that should have been edited out.

Surfing

  • ESPN needs to do a good job in coming days in alerting viewers about the numerous changes in its programming for the upcoming NFL season. That includes noting the end of the much-acclaimed Sunday night "PrimeTime" show featuring Chris Berman and Tom Jackson. The NFL's contract with NBC for Sunday night football prevents "PrimeTime" from continuing its run. But ESPN hopes to keep the spirit of "PrimeTime" alive in the late "SportsCenter" -- after NBC's Sunday night telecast -- and by featuring Berman and Jackson, among others, in its extensive Monday package around that night's game.

  • Overplayed: The downfall of former Ohio State football star Maurice Clarett -- charged this month with carrying a concealed weapon after officers found four loaded guns in his SUV after a police chase -- needed to be covered. So did the story surrounding his alleged relationship to people who supposedly lent him money in the past year. But the coverage of his arrest, in my view, was excessive. Similarly, there needs to be more restraint in the coverage of Terrell Owens, the Dallas Cowboys receiver whose injury-prone preseason has been given far too much prominence. Owens' verbal jousting with whomever happens to be his coach has become tiresome.

  • Overhyped: The Disney movie "Invincible" got too much play before and during the Steelers-Eagles preseason game on ESPN (Disney is ESPN's parent company). Someone needs to say, "Wait a minute, this doesn't look so good." Same with the pushing of Mobile ESPN phones. And shouldn't rookie running back Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints establish himself in the NFL just a little bit before ESPN nominates him for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

  • Nice work by Kenny Mayne and Co. on the Travers at Saratoga last weekend -- understated, informative and entertaining.

  • Kid stuff: Generally high marks for ESPN from viewers for its coverage of the Little League World Series, though some were uncomfortable when they heard how the event spurs bonding between "fathers and sons." Asked one viewer, "What about the mothers?" Another viewer from Texas expressed discomfort about what she said was a between-innings commercial for phone sex. An ESPN source said the commercial was inserted by the local affiliate.

  • Though I know I'm out of touch on many issues, ESPN's pitting of prep football powers Glades (Fla.) Central against Byrnes of Duncan, S.C., on national television in late August tells the world high school sports are about winning, big-time recruits and ratings -- but not education.

  • Finally, Jim Durham and Fran Fraschilla are calling FIBA World Basketball Championships games for ESPN from Bristol, and are not on site in Japan. A similar situation occurred this summer during some of the coverage of the FIFA World Cup from Germany. The solution is simple: Tell the viewers where the announcers are, and do it more than once a game.

    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.