When U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin won Olympic gold in the 100-meter backstroke, journalists got to test their storytelling skills. ESPN the television network and ESPN.com took vastly different approaches.
Those two ESPN platforms illustrate what can sometimes be a philosophical divide between TV and digital within the Worldwide Leader in Sports, as well as their basic definitions of what is newsworthy.
Many fans wrote to the Poynter Review Project, frustrated that the Olympics didn't get more airtime on "SportsCenter," ESPN's premiere news show. Over the 17 days of the games, relatively few Olympic feats made Top 10 Plays, (including those by Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, and the U.S. women's soccer team's gold medal match.)
With so many iterations of the show, it's difficult to consume or quantify how much coverage "SportsCenter" devoted to the Olympics. We watched about half of the morning shows throughout the games, and to us, it seemed scant, in the absence of Top 10 Plays, but even more in the absence of good storytelling.
"'SportsCenter' provided appropriate coverage of the Olympics, some would say even substantial at times, based on the restrictions it had," Craig Bengtson, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for "SportsCenter," wrote in an email. "I think because the program is live 18 hours or more per day, it can be challenging for viewers to understand the level of coverage on any one story unless they watch every hour, because each 60 minutes is often different from the last."
We were watching the day after Missy Franklin's dramatic backstroke race, a mere 14 minutes after she'd finished qualifying for the 200-meter freestyle, and didn't see her in Top 10 Plays. Nor did we see any of Gabby Douglas' spectacular stunts that carried her to the gold-medal stand. Nor did we see the American women's track team's 4x100 relay, which smashed the previous world record and inspired rival Jamaican sprinter Veronica Campbell Brown to marvel, "I feel females don't get as much respect as their male counterparts. We need to get more records. ... The result was phenomenal," according to Reuters News Service.
The rights to Olympic video are restricted, more so than almost any other sporting event. Of the hours and hours of amazing video every day, NBC released only the bare-bones highlights. Much of that video was for TV only. No amount of money can change this, said Mike Leber, ESPN senior coordinating producer for news coverage. NBC had the American rights to the Olympics and dictated what video was available to other broadcasters.
NBC also dictated when the video was available and for how long. Video wasn't available until 3 a.m. or later, when NBC's Olympics programming was off the air on the West Coast, and there were no digital highlights available for the Web.
That made telling the story of the Olympics difficult, but not impossible. And that gets us back to Franklin.
The day after her win, depending on the hour, "SportsCenter" described the event, showed a still photo or a couple of seconds of voice-over video, and moved on. It was a minimalist approach to the coverage of an amazing athletic feat accomplished by a 17-year-old with a good backstory.
Meanwhile, ESPN.com took a different approach. Senior writer Wayne Drehs sidled up to Franklin's parents in the stands while their daughter got her gold medal. In the time that it takes for our national anthem to play and the American flag to rise, he gathered the yarn for this story, which (if you didn't read it all the way through the first time) has a cute kicker involving her protective dad.
These same differences in coverage surfaced repeatedly over the 17 days of the Olympics. While ESPN.com got creative, ESPN TV often turned to "counter-programming." In this case, it involved deep and extended NFL coverage, particularly from training camps of the Denver Broncos and New York Jets. Anyone who cares about Peyton Manning's return to health or whether Tim Tebow will rise from the second string got the story, and then some.
And fans noticed. In letters to the mailbag, readers complained of "Jet lag," for the overindulgence on a second-string quarterback, as well as the noted absence of Olympic moments from "SportsCenter" broadcasts, and particularly from Top 10 Plays.
"I am a huge sports fan and wonder why for the past week ESPN has been doing nothing it seems but covering the Jets. This is such a turn off," wrote Tony Carroll. "Covering a team for days that didn't make the playoffs and are only relevant because of a loud mouthed coach and a BACK-UP quarterback. With so many other good teams and stories in the NFL, why focus on them so much???"
Other ESPN fans were cynical about the motives behind the network's choices.
"To the objective observer this appears to be a case of ESPN making a business decision to downplay sports that it does not have the TV rights to. If ABC had won the right to cover the Olympics I think it is a distinct probability that the Olympics would be the lead story," wrote Alex Holtan. "This is just one example of what has seemed to me to be a distinct bias against sports not covered by ESPN and ABC." (ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney if those networks had the Olympic rights, the lead story or a lack of video highlights would not be discussions among ESPN fans).
Perhaps the most notable miscue involved Alex Morgan's last-minute overtime goal in the U.S.-Canada soccer semifinal. It had all the makings of a classic Top 10 play. Yet every Top 10 Play in the 8 a.m. "SportsCenter" broadcast on Aug. 8 was from Major League Baseball.
Bengtson disagrees with the criticism. He told us he believed "SportsCenter" lived up to its obligation to cover the Olympics.
"We look at what are the most intriguing stories and we address them," he said in an interview this week. "It's challenging, but I think our folks in London did a good job covering the story, as well as we could."
Part of the problem, Leber told us, was the delay on video rights. Top 10 Plays are edited around 1 a.m. ET. But the Olympic video was not available until 3 a.m. That meant that when Olympic moments were included in Top 10 Plays, as they were when Bolt won the 100-meter dash, the segment was re-edited later in the morning.
That should have happened every morning. And if the video was not available, "SportsCenter" could have done something special, such as mention the plays that deserve to be in the Top 10, but couldn't make the cut, because the video wasn't available.
In a way, "SportCenter's" failure to get creative parallels the broader story of new and old media that we at Poynter see in all of journalism. Traditional platforms tend to have traditional approaches covering the news. Because they have fewer established conventions, journalists working on younger platforms are naturally more creative.
Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, said of the approach on the digital platforms, "We were not going to let lack of video rights serve as a deterrent."
Instead, ESPN sent a staff of 13 people to London, including writers from espnW and Grantland, backed up by an equal number of people writing from back home, instructing them to provide as much real-time information as possible and enhance NBC's coverage with great analysis and unique storytelling.
ESPN.com led the site with Olympics coverage every day. There was also an Olympic home page, a ScoreCenter and a constantly updated schedule. Those entry points all generated strong traffic, Stiegman said. The average number of visitors to ESPN.com in any given minute was up more than 30 percent over the Beijing Games.
Because the content was unique, fans kept coming back. In fact, Olympics video coverage on the site, even without highlights, was a hit, generating 23.3 million starts during the Games. Another way to look at it: The collective video, along the lines of two talking heads analyzing women's soccer, outpaced the popular video of the photo shoots from ESPN The Magazine's body issue.
"SportsCenter" sent five people to London: two reporters, two producers and a cameraman. The show also had access to material from the staff at ABC news, ESPN International and ESPN.com. Yet, with only three to four minutes of Olympics-related content in each show, those resources were not always evident on the air.
Over on ESPN.com, new content was popping up almost hourly. Bonnie D. Ford wrote this piece deep with history when Allyson Felix won gold in the women's 200-meter dash.
Grantland's Bill Simmons got out of his comfort zone with London Chronicles, which provided a fan's viewpoint of many of the lesser-known sports (and a fair amount of basketball, too).
There was also Douglas' first-person journal, and this week, an exclusive excerpt of U.S. women's soccer player Hope Solo's controversial new book.
There was almost too much great content to consume online. By comparison, if you were just watching ESPN on TV, you might think the Olympics were not that big of a deal in the world of sports, less important, say, than the Little League World Series (which we love.)
When "SportsCenter" did tap into some of this content, it was refreshing, like this wrap-up that ran on the last day and was translated to a "SportsCenter" segment. But they didn't do enough, and the TV audience missed out.
"SportsCenter" is the 800-pound gorilla at ESPN. The flagship product, it brings in substantial revenue. On weekdays, the show airs across the various channels for a total of 18 hours. But that doesn't mean the show will be immune to the habits of consumers who increasingly seek out unique content on compelling topics.
Granted, a lack of video is a much bigger problem on television. We get that. But three to four minutes an hour is just not enough acknowledgement of all the great sporting moments that happened daily in the Olympics.
What else could the producers of "SportsCenter" have done? They could have created a special daily list of Olympic moments, explaining that the video wasn't available because the rights were restricted. They could have featured spectacular still photography. They could have done a daily feature on one untold Olympic story. They could have given hourly updates of the daytime Olympic events, especially those that NBC wasn't broadcasting live. And "SportsCenter" certainly could have tapped into ESPN.com content and contributors more often.
Sure, some people would have cried, "spoiler." But if you're on the Internet during the day, as many of us are, it's impossible to avoid seeing results. Our media consumption habits have changed with technology, and our media providers need to keep up.
Because of these changes, the audience is more understanding of the limitations media providers face. Fans would prefer that "SportsCenter" document the entire sporting world with the freshest content it can, rather than pretend that a sporting event is not significant, simply because the video is not available.
As ESPN's global audience grows, it will encounter more and more sporting events for which the video rights are restricted. It's time to follow the lead of the entrepreneurs at the network and innovate a new way to cover events fans care about.