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Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Drawing stronger line between reporting, commentary

By George Solomon
ESPN Ombudsman

During the three-plus months I've done this job, one of the most perplexing issues to viewers -- and to me -- is the line between reporting and commentary. Viewers watching "College GameDay" might recoil at Lee Corso's commentary, not understanding that's what he's expected to provide in contrast to Pedro Gomez's reporting assignment on Barry Bonds for "SportsCenter." Was John Saunders' pointed criticism of Notre Dame dismissing Tyrone Willingham done in the role of host of "Sports Reporters" or as a reporter covering the story?

ESPN clearly allows its on-air personnel far more leeway, than, say, CBS News or any of the other network news shows. If Fox News bends more to the political right and CNN goes the other way, at least most viewers know the deal when they hit their remotes. But ESPN casts its net so wide -- from news, commentary, opinionated talk shows, event coverage, original programming, classic games and reality shows to the social lives of star athletes -- many viewers need help distinguishing straight news from opinion.

If "SportsCenter," ESPN's showcase reporting vehicle, includes in its first 10 minutes a brief "big finish" to Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon's popular "Pardon The Interruption," can viewers differentiate that from a straight Rachel Nichols news report on the Miami Heat? I'm sure some can, but many do not know when the news segment ends and the commentary begins.

"We want the reporters reporting the news, not commenting on it," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news. "What we're looking for is informed perspective from our reporters. If Pedro Gomez is working the Bonds story, he should be reporting that story, not doing commentary." But Doria said that a "SportsCenter" anchor is within bounds to ask the reporter "questions" about what he has seen, providing "perspective" to the report.

To me, that adds to the viewers' confusion, as "SportsCenter" anchors often bring a point of view to the table and, in their attempts to be lively and flip, sometimes distract from what should be objective reporting. Two modest suggestions that might help: ESPN should make more use of the "commentary" designation; and overall in its "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS presentations, it should be more aggressive in presenting both sides of a story with additional reporting, including postgame coverage beyond the postseason.

'ESPN Hollywood'

The addition of this nightly entertainment show in the 6 p.m. ET slot on ESPN2 seems to have irritated some network regulars, put off by this "Access Hollywood"-type show featuring sports celebrities. Co-hosts Thea Andrews and Mario Lopez briskly move the show along, bouncing from Terrell Owens' future marriage plans to Serena Williams' fashion whims to Donovan McNabb's mother, with appearances by Woody Harrelson, Kurt Russell, Marcus Allen and Roger Clemens, plus the opening of a new restaurant in Las Vegas.

Like other shows of this ilk, "ESPN Hollywood" is fast-paced but, for the most part, lacks substance and makes no attempt to follow the traditional ESPN path of hard-nosed sports, sports conversation or sports news. So why do we have it? Do we need it? Are ads hyping Derek Jeter's jet-setting, Andy Roddick's telling all and Maria Sharapova's sizzling in South Beach a message ESPN wants to convey?

"We've tried to become an intersection between the sports world and Hollywood," said Michael Antinoro, executive producer of ESPN's original entertainment division. "We know the celebrity market is thriving, with the success of magazines like People and Us and a number of successful television shows. We chose ESPN2 because its goals generally center around entertainment and are different from ESPN and ESPNEWS, as well as some of the talk shows that are extensions of the news day.

"We still want to be newsy and have the feel of ESPNEWS," Antinoro said. "And we want to be responsible, if for no other reason than that some people expect us not to be."

The target demographic is young. The trick, of course, is to get that viewer without alienating ESPN's core audience and while maintaining the standards of a network that prides itself on trying to practice good journalism. But this could be difficult, as the stars "ESPN Hollywood" seeks to glamorize are often the focus of some hard-news stories. Also, embarrassing situations will occur, such as a fluffy feature last month on Oscar De La Hoya's promotional efforts in Las Vegas in a week during which boxer Leavander Johnson died days after a bout in the same city. Keeping up with the news should be mandatory for the show's staff, as well as the ability and willingness to react sensitively.

Please

ESPN was embarrassed on at least three occasions in the past month by commentators who need to show more responsibility and to give more thought to their words before sharing them with viewers.

In no particular order of offense, we note:

• On Oct. 1, according to the Chicago Tribune, sideline reporter Holly Rowe lauded Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack for using all three timeouts on defense despite trailing by four touchdowns late in the game. "If the coaches are giving up," Rowe added, "what does that say to the players?" Play-by-play commentator Ron Franklin responded: "Holly, it's not giving up. It's 49-21, sweetheart." Franklin's comment, and demeaning tone, in response to Rowe's legitimate observation was disrespectful to the audience and to a colleague. "It was an inappropriate comment, and we've communicated that to Ron," said Mo Davenport, senior coordinating producer for college football. "There's never a reason to say something so mean-spirited. Ron apologized. We dealt with it internally."

My take: Play-by-play commentators need to take sideline reporters -- many of whom are women -- more seriously. So does ESPN, which needs to give these reporters more airtime and more serious issues to address.

• "College GameDay" commentator Mark May, usually one of the best at what he does, committed a major error in judgment Sept. 29. In discussing the upcoming West Virginia-Virginia Tech game, May said that when he was a player at Pittsburgh, his coach told his team that West Virginia fans at home games would throw pennies at the players because they were too cheap to throw nickels. This remark offended hundreds of viewers, put off by May stereotyping West Virginians as poverty-stricken. "Mark said the remark was not made to offend but to relay what he'd been told by a former coach," Davenport said. "He now knows what he said was derogatory to a group of people and a state -- which was not his or ESPN's intent."

My take: Former athletes working in the broadcasting booth -- even the best of them -- occasionally make the mistake of relaying an incident or story from their athletic past that simply doesn't work in their current role communicating to an audience much larger than the guys in the locker room. That's my beef with Michael Irvin, whose entertaining style sometimes makes you feel as though he's still talking to teammates in the Dallas Cowboys' locker room. Still, I would have liked to have seen Irvin play for Mike Ditka.

• Finally, what was Woody Paige thinking last month when, on "Cold Pizza," he spat on a Florida State hat in a Friday college football setup before Florida State's game at Boston College? Paige's act drew complaints from hundreds of startled viewers who could not comprehend an ESPN regular doing something so disrespectful to a university on television. Paige was quick to apologize, saying, "I blew it and got into trouble."

My take: Too many of ESPN's talking heads believe they need to say something -- or, in this case, do something -- outrageous to stand out from the pack. I'm not calling for a return to the scholarly "Meet the Press" tone of the '50s, but more thoughtful consideration of ideas and words might improve the temperature of our debates. Like that's going to happen.

Surfing

• Studio analyst Trev Alberts' sudden departure from ESPN's college football studio shows over Labor Day weekend left many viewers confused. Alberts did not report for work that weekend, leaving ESPN "no choice but to terminate" him, according to Executive Vice President Norby Williamson. According to USA Today, Alberts, who has not returned several phone calls for comment, told SI.com last month that his discontent with ESPN was a result of "just not wanting to be marginalized" by other analysts he believed were featured more prominently by ESPN. "He blew off his assignments three hours before he was supposed to go to work," Williamson said. I thought Alberts did a good job but do not fault ESPN for taking action, although the network could have provided viewers a more extensive explanation about what transpired.

• I thought ESPN did a good job on the New Orleans Saints' home opener, Sept. 19 against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium. The coverage was smart and thoughtful and had a respectful tone many viewers appreciated. Commentators and production staff earned high marks for their work. I'm still interested in how high school athletes and coaches affected by the two hurricanes are coping.

• I know Stephen A. Smith usually takes the side of the players, but his criticizing NFL officials for ejecting players for fighting before the Philadelphia-Atlanta game Sept. 12 was puzzling. A brawl is not part of the pregame show, and to me, the officials handled the situation correctly. The players aren't always in the right.

• Despite the Outdoor Life Network becoming the NHL's flagship network in the United States, ESPN has done well in its coverage of the resumption of hockey this month. "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS have been solid, helped greatly by analyst Barry Melrose. Melrose, an acquired taste, knows the game and brings a truckload of enthusiasm to the set. Glad to have him back.

• The 11 p.m. ET start for the National League divisional playoff clincher between St. Louis and San Diego on Oct. 8 added to the perception of many viewers that ESPN favors East Coast teams in every sport, particularly baseball, with the Yankees and Red Sox at the top of the preferred list. Few viewers, including me, believe such an important game involving the New York Yankees would begin after 11 p.m.

• The tragic death of Arizona basketball player Shawntinice Polk, who died suddenly Sept. 26 at age 22, was not covered adequately in the eyes of some ESPN viewers who felt the death of a male player at a comparable school would have received greater coverage. "I feel comfortable we covered the news in a responsible and respectful way the day she died," Williamson said. "But we were remiss in not being more aggressive the following day."

• Viewers have been pleased with Mike Massaro's NASCAR coverage; are confused over why some college football games get placed on ESPNU (to get viewers and cable providers interested in ESPNU); want more boxing and soccer coverage (which they deserve); and don't like it when ESPN commentators bash Notre Dame.

• And, finally, ESPN recently announced it will pay Major League Baseball $2.4 billion through 2013 for the rights to cover games on television as well as via other technologies, including cell phones. This was a big sports-business story that impacts the future of the sport, as well as ESPN. But I didn't see any significant piece on ESPN, proving once again that America's premier sports network needs to improve coverage of itself.

Enough for now, until I turn on the radio for next month's column and consider the present and future of "NFL PrimeTime."