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Thursday, June 7, 2007
Viewers held hostage by 'tyranny of the storyline'

By Le Anne Schreiber
ESPN Ombudsman

If I were to do a word frequency analysis on the messages I receive about ESPN's coverage, three words at the top of the list would be "Enough," "Stop" and "Way." As in enough Yankees/Red Sox, stop with Roger Clemens, and way too much Barry Bonds, Duke basketball/lacrosse, Brady Quinn, Dice-K and Michael Vick.

In part, these are complaints about the overkill that is an inevitable side effect of 24/7 programming, whether it is CNN and Anna Nicole Smith or ESPN and Clemens. On ESPN, if a story has legs, you will encounter it repeatedly on the daily 12 hours of SportsCenter and on each of the opinion shows that dominate the late afternoon. If you want to avoid redundancy on a given day, the only antidote is to limit your viewing.

In fact, ESPN presumes that is what you do. The ESPN research department's analysis of Nielsen data indicates that the average viewer, unlike me and perhaps many of my correspondents, watches ESPN an average of 39 minutes a day. Among male viewers 18-34, average viewing time increases to 49 minutes a day.

More problematic than a given day's repetition is the day-after-day dominance of certain teams, players and issues. Whether the Yankees are in first place or last, whether you love them or hate them, you are going to get a large daily diet of New York baseball. Yankee haters, depending on their location, call it bias, East Coast or plain old. Yankee lovers, a sad lot these days, take their daily fare for granted, even when it tastes like gruel.

At the end of May, when 11 of the 29 MLB games shown on ESPN and ESPN2 involved the Yankees, supplemented by a telecast of a Clemens' minor league debut in Tampa and ballasted by heavy Yankee tonnage on SportsCenter, "Baseball Tonight" and the opinion shows, a viewer from Wichita, Kan., wrote to ask: "Now that the Yankees are a last-place team, can ESPN start covering them like they cover all the other last place teams?" The answer, of course, was no.

Here's why, according to Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news: "We think it's a compelling story. The most successful team in baseball, in the throes of a miserable slump, possibly on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, determines to pay the greatest pitcher of this era a pro-rated $28 million to pitch roughly two-thirds of a season. And in the 22 days since they signed him, they have dropped from 5 1/2 to 13 1/2 games behind the Red Sox. And this is all happening in the heavily populated Northeast corridor, which includes a large number of viewers. People who are not interested in the story may want to characterize it as a last-place team and a minor-league game. I think most reasonable people would see greater news value in the story than that characterization would imply."

He is right, of course. That's why the June 3 Yankees/RedSox game was watched in more households than any other "Sunday Night Baseball" game ever telecast by ESPN. Even among Pacific region viewers, this season's Yankees/Red Sox matchups have drawn higher average ratings (2.71) than matchups with a West Coast team playing (2.20).

Clearly, the Yankees are not just another last-place team, and Clemens is not just another pitcher. Just as Duke is not just another basketball program, Daisuke Matsuzaka (Dice-K) is not just another rookie pitcher, Brady Quinn was not just another draft prospect and Michael Vick is not just another football player (possibly on the verge of indictment). There are more than ordinary elements of history, tradition, glamour, scandal or novelty attached to most of the stories that get more than the ordinary coverage on ESPN.

But there is still such a thing as excess. At ESPN and elsewhere, there is a phenomenon I have come to think of as the tyranny of the storyline, when saturation coverage of the few results in a drought of coverage for everybody else.

Dice-K is a good story, perhaps a great pitcher, but glare from the spotlight on him during his so-so debut performance on "Wednesday Night Baseball" nearly blinded the announcing crew from noticing that 21-year-old Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez still had a no-hitter going in the seventh inning. Only after Dice-K had been relieved in the 7th and Hernandez went on to complete a nine-inning one-hitter did he begin to get his due. The post-game SportsCenter, to it credit, put a stronger light on Hernandez' win than Dice-K's loss.

We learned weeks in advance of the NFL draft that Notre Dame's Brady Quinn was a good quarterback and a marketer's dream. The pre-manufactured celebrity ensured that the cameras would stay on Quinn to document the deflation of his hopes as he waited in an excruciating spotlight to be picked not first or ninth but 22nd.

In relative shadow was LSU's JaMarcus Russell, the actual first pick, who was not only a more tested quarterback, but also a better story, as we belatedly learned the next day when "Outside The Lines" did a profile showing Russell among the remarkable, tight-knit, extended family in Mobile, Ala. who helped his single mother raise him.

One of the dangers of journalists becoming too attached to a pre-ordained storyline is that it is perceived as bias for or against a particular team or player. When ESPN recently telecast the NCAA lacrosse final between Duke and Johns Hopkins, the attention went not to the winning Johns Hopkins team but to the losing Duke team, because win or lose, they had the best storyline: Besieged innocence gets its day of glorious vindication through national championship, or not.

ESPN wasn't rooting for Duke. It was rooting for the storyline, but I doubt the players and fans of Johns Hopkins appreciated the distinction.

I was as spellbound by LeBron James' dizzying 48-point game in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals as I was by the Golden State Warriors' wild romp through the first round, but I already see the prospect of King James becoming a tyrant, not through any fault of his own, but because it seems no good story can simply be allowed to find its rightful place among other stories.

We are already hearing commentators debate the over/under on James being the king of kings, his story the best ever told. Before the first game of the NBA finals, I began receiving messages from San Antonio Spurs' fans, much like the ones I received from Detroit Pistons' fans, when the King James storyline became a "juggernaut." Why, they asked, is ESPN so biased against us? It's not bias, not personal bias. It's the storyline.

Another problem with distended storylines, especially ones that come with a long preface, is that they can become tedious. At least some of us were tired of the resurrected Clemens before he ever regained a major league mound. It's like seeing the movie after you've read all the reviews, seen the trailer several times, and watched the director pick up his Oscar. You feel like you've already seen it.

In most situations, if viewers have reached the saturation point with a storyline, they can simply tune out. They feel held hostage, though, when a tyrannous storyline creeps into event programming.

Only a few weeks into the baseball season, I learned how to predict the moment in a game when my mailbag would fill up. Now, whenever announcing strays too far from play-by-play onto issues unrelated to the game at hand, I go to my computer and find other viewers have gone to theirs to write me. Even during last Sunday's most-watched-ever Yankees/Red Sox game, my mailbag had a third-to-fifth-inning bulge when talk kept reverting to Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez's troubles on and off the field in Toronto the previous week.

"Every time I look up," wrote one viewer, "there is a shot of A-Rod ... doing nothing. Not A-Rod batting or making a play in the field, but dugout shots of A-Rod, A-Rod standing at 3B, A-Rod, A-Rod, A-Rod. No, I'm not a bitter Sox fan demanding equal time -- I'm actually a Yankee fan, which is why I would like to see, well, the game instead of shots of A-Rod. Look, I understand he's a controversial figure, I know he's in the news a lot ... but couldn't they save it for when he's up, or just for the pre/postgame, or something?"

Similar messages came from all over the country that night and the next, during the Yankees/White Sox game, when the A-Rod motif was lingered on again. They were messages from viewers who feel that the beleaguered Yankees are indeed a good story, but they wanted to see the next chapter unfold through the game itself. Maybe that's the way to get even higher ratings.

Toward the end of a long conversation I had before those games with Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president for remote production, he said, "There are limitless possibilities for things to change, moment by moment, during the course of a live telecast. That's why all of us that are involved in sports love what we do as much as we do, because everything changes constantly."

Yes. Exactly. And I think what viewers are saying to me is that they want in on the fun. They want more of the variety and unpredictability of sport. Less package, more play.

I also think the brunt of viewers' frustration with stale storylines sometimes falls disproportionately on announcers, because event programming is their last best chance to escape the clutch of the pre-ordained.