Saturday, January 31, 2009

ESPN Ombudsman Departs Without NASCAR Comments

It was October of 2007 and ESPN was in the middle of that network's first season of NASCAR TV coverage in a very long time. Although it was almost a decade prior, many fans still had fond memories of Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett and Dr. Jerry Punch.

These iconic characters seemed to somehow present this exciting and dangerous sport with humility and good humor.

The 2007 version of NASCAR on ESPN had absolutely no humility and rarely any humor. In addition to the well-documented struggles of the on-air team in October NASCAR had arrived at the huge roadblock in the brand new TV contract with ESPN for the first time.

The words painted on the big detour sign simply said "college football."

"ESPN Pushes NASCAR To The Back Burner" was the TDP column of October 28th on that subject. Click on the title to read the entire post.

Here is an excerpt:

Very slowly, the network has pushed NASCAR to the back burner on the ESPN/ABC stove. Race fans know exactly what I am talking about. Now, with empty stands at Busch races, TV ratings for NEXTEL Cup down and a continued disdain for NASCAR on SportsCenter and other ESPN shows, one thing is very clear. The NASCAR pot on the ESPN back burner is cold and no one seems to care.

The stick-and-ball world of ESPN will never come to NASCAR. This season, the sport has lost its practice and qualifying both on the Busch and Cup sides. It has been pre-empted for news about sports, even though ESPN has its own ESPN News Network.

Races have been shifted between ESPN's cable channels like no other sport. Crucial races on ABC have been pushed off broadcast network TV to protect the ABC News. Races have been ended with no interviews, no follow-up of events, and have even left crashed cars on the track with absolutely no explanation. It has been insane.

Then, to add insult to injury, no live post-race coverage from the track is offered on ESPN News because they are caught-up in the very same college and NFL football coverage.

It was the 2007 Nationwide Series race in Memphis, TN that brought the issue to a boil that season. During the invocation by a local minister, ESPN left the race to begin a college football pre-game show. A live NASCAR race had been dumped and was no longer on any of the ESPN networks. Priorities had been very clearly established.

With the prospect of several more years of this situation, I forwarded my column to Le Anne Schreiber, the new ESPN Ombudsman who is pictured above. She was charged with offering to ESPN an independent perspective on situations and practices that were perceived as being off-base or in need of change. Somewhat surprisingly, she responded quickly.

In her email she mentioned her appreciation for motorsports. In fact, she had edited former driver Janet Guthrie's memoir for an upcoming book project. "I have a particular interest in the exceptional physical and mental qualities demanded by motorsports," said Schreiber. "I do not at all share the 'it's not a sport' mentality of many stick 'n ball bigots." Things were apparently looking up where NASCAR on ESPN was concerned.

Unfortunately, Schreiber's true mission was derailed by the "cult of celebrity" at ESPN where the on-air personalities become the story. Now, everything revolves around the teller of the tale and not the story being told. As we like to say here at TDP, ESPN is an outstanding example of the tail wagging the dog.

Schreiber recently granted an interview to one of the top sports news blogs on the Internet, The Big Lead. Her time at ESPN is about to expire and her thoughts on several TV and media subjects are quite interesting.

Here is an excerpt:

The problems I saw right away in ESPN’s programming were similar to those that drive me crazy in other kinds of 24/7 cable news — hype, saturation-coverage of underwhelming stories, dominance of opinion over information, abuse of the word ‘analysis’. I thought if I could make a dent in any of those practices, or at least give voice to viewers’ discontent with those practices, whether it was about coverage of sports or anything else, well, that would be a good thing to do for a couple years.

In a nutshell, what ESPN wanted of me was to stand way back and look at the big picture. Several people there talked about how they had grown so large so fast, were so busy filling the proliferating channels and platforms, that no one had the luxury of standing back and taking stock.

When I started my intensive ESPN-watching and noticed someone or something that seemed off-base to me, I would plug a few key words into Google and up came the sports blogs. The way bloggers expressed themselves was worlds apart from me, but I was often in sync with the gist of what they were saying.

I think that (my) column made ESPN more self-conscious about the shouting, but it’s hard for me to say if the volume has been toned down, because over-exposure to the noise induced a degree of immunity in me and perhaps hearing loss.

ESPN has made some changes that I like – getting rid of booth guests in MNF, handling breaking news in digestible chunks though live SportsCenter segments instead of through those gaseous SportsCenter Specials I complained about so much – but I would be foolish to draw a direct cause and effect link from my columns to those changes. I think I helped make the case for some changes that viewers wanted and that certain people within ESPN were already supporting. I may have added to the momentum. I hope I did.

Click here to read the entire article and thanks to Jason and David of The Big Lead.

Scheiber was never able to paddle through the ESPN celebrities and get herself out of the newsroom and away from her favorite issue, which is journalism. ESPN is much more than just Ed Werder, Colin Cowherd and Dick Vitale. Erin Andrews and Hannah Storm are not strategic to ESPN's direction in terms of producing major sports.

NASCAR continues on ESPN this season as Schreiber moves back to her private life of teaching and writing. The 2008 season raised the walls between the sleazy side of ESPN and the NASCAR community like never before.

By the end of the year, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were openly mocking and laughing at ESPN in interviews on SPEED, radio and the Internet. Sometimes, they even did it while on ESPN.

Hopefully, the new ESPN Ombudsman will get out of the newsroom and look at the content of the long-form programming and live events produced by ESPN as a whole.

The issues of hype, celebrity worship and lousy TV are not contained to NASCAR. Phil Mushnick of the NY Post describes Monday Night Football on ESPN as "the most insufferable, big ticket live game series in National TV history."

ESPN is expected to name a new journalist or media veteran to the Ombudsman post shortly. Click here to review the Ombudsman columns authored by Schreiber during her time in the job. Best of luck to Ms. Schreiber as she returns to private life.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.


Anonymous said...

It seems clear to me that you have an axe to grind with ESPN. Anything they do draws your contempt and criticism. It is really starting to sound like a broken record.

Hey, I am not the biggest fan of ESPN on the planet. They do a lot of thins well and some things poorly, just like any other network.

But you seem to be looking for an excuse - any excuse (as this is pretty tangential to NASCAR) - to bash ESPN.

It just doesn't seem fair. Why do you have such an axe to grind with them? What did they possibly do to you to enrage you this way?

Daly Planet Editor said...

You are certainly entitled to your opinion. However, you do not sound like a NASCAR fan. Nothing in your answer speaks to the sport or the issues of the last two years which is the single reason this blog was created.

ESPN, SPEED, Fox Sports, TNT and ABC are the NASCAR TV partners in the new contract.

Every single telecast, every single race and every single news report directly shapes the sport of NASCAR like no other media presence.

There are no home teams in NASCAR. If fans are lucky, they can get to two races near their home per season. It is television that plays a key role in building or breaking down this sport.

Perhaps, you can share your opinions about what you think of Ms. Schreiber's comments on ESPN's strategic direction and future?



Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 12:36PM,

Just so we are do understand that the NASCAR TV contract is a multi-billion dollar deal and one of the most comprehensive sports TV deals that ESPN has ever done?

If 2009 brings a disaster to NASCAR, there will be a lot of issues to review. One of them will be the approach of ESPN to this sport.


Anonymous said...

I did some research on the internet this week and stumbled upon several websites about ESPN and NASCAR. Most of them said "NASCAR ON ESPN SUCKS", but for a different reason that is never mentioned here. Many ESPN viewers feel that NASCAR is shown too much on the network already. I am a NASCAR fan and I see where they are coming from. Do NASCAR programs start late because of other sports (ie. college football)? Yes it does and we have seen so. But the same can be said for NASCAR. NASCAR Races and programs on ESPN have pushed other sports off the network. Many people here don't realize or care about it because it is never discussed here.

What im trying to get at is JD you expect ESPN to be some NASCAR god network. This is an all sports network, not a NASCAR only network. Not everything ESPN does is going to revolve around NASCAR. You keep talking about the old ESPN days back in the 90s. There was less NASCAE programming on the network then than there is now.

Big deal. So the ombudsmen didnt mention NASCAR. Its nothing to put against her or ESPN. I gotta agree with ana 12:36. You seem to be beating a dead horse here. Its clear you and your readers don't like ESPN. You do look for every possible excuse and story that somehow relates to NASCAR to bash ESPN. I dont really see how this ombudsmen story has anything to do with NASCAR.

I think as a NASCAR fan it is great what you have done with this blog. But you have to realize NASCAR is not the only sport in the world. In fact, its not the most popular sport in the world. Some people dont consider it a sport. Im sure this all will go in one ear and out the other but im just giving you my opinion.

Take Care!

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 1:34PM,

The wheel of TV networks apparently I don't like rotates whenever a story that is not all roses and lipstick is published.

I just spent the last week getting my head handed to my by the gang at SPEED and Fox, so now that it is the weekend I must hate ESPN. It's kind of like a shift change.

The only reason we reference the older ESPN crew is because they had a clue and a direction. Those two things have been lacking over the past two seasons and the network has been making changes every year to get things right.

There is no such thing as too much NASCAR TV, only bad content presented poorly. NASCAR clearly deserves a full-time TV network parked on your cable dial right next to the NFL, MLB and NBA channels. Those three would probably be near the Golf and Tennis channels.

Monday brings NASCAR Now on ESPN2 and the start of ten months of continuous coverage of this top professional sport.

Be fun to see how ESPN approaches this news season. Thanks for the comments.


tom in dayton said...

Mr. D:
A heck of a column!

After reading her columns in the link you provided, I was especially interested in her columns of July 13, 2008 and January 12 of this year. Reading both, it came to my mind of the cheapshoting of Ron Hornaday by Shaun Assael in 2008. The ombudsman's comments indicate how loose top-down guidance can be at that organization.
I believe her columns and observations center on ESPN as a whole, and one can simply plug in their particular sport(NASCAR, NFL,NBA etc)and find meaning as to why ESPN does what it does badly.
Hope her replacement builds on the progress she made during her tenure.
Just my opinion...

Vince said...

It would sure be nice if ESPN actually broadcast real sports on their various channels. Since when is World Series of Poker a sport??? And I think four hours of Mike and Mike in the Morning is way too much! Then we have the endless replays of Sports Center. And a two hour ESPN First Take followed by another two hours of the same. And a Best of Mike and Mike. Geez! If they would cut some of these shows they might actually have time for some real sports.

Just this viewers opinion.

Hey JD, why don't you apply for the Ombudsman position at ESPN??!!!

Dot said...

Dang it Vince, you wrote what I was going to say.

Who is the next Ombudsman? I agree with you Vince, JD should apply.

Daly Planet Editor said...

It seems that this position can be a very useful tool in terms of bringing issues to the forefront in a business that is essentially a 24-hour endless operations.

Sometimes, issues get lost in the volume of product.


Anonymous said...

anon at 1:34 wrote
What im trying to get at is JD you expect ESPN to be some NASCAR god network. This is an all sports network, not a NASCAR only network. Not everything ESPN does is going to revolve around NASCAR. You keep talking about the old ESPN days back in the 90s. There was less NASCAE programming on the network then than there is now.

Well, you are wrong on tis point, Sparky! In the good old days, ESPN varried almost the entire season of Cup and Busch qualifyfing and racing. They had nice pre and post race shows and a weekly show that was great called SPeedWeek.
No big egos. No need for self congratulation. just solid coverage form a gang who obviously knew and loved the sport

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Wow, I express a different opinion, and now the owner of this blog declares that I am not a NASCAR fan.

Sorry, dude, but I haven't missed a night race at Bristol in 12 years and I will add TMS and Homstead to my list of tracks attended this year if my plans play out.

But I don't bash ESPN so I guess I am not a NASCAR fan. Geez.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Never said you were not a fan, just that you did sound like a fan because you did not not express anything about NASCAR in your response. Two very different things.

Bashing ESPN is your term, if you made it up...congrats.

We have been discussing (like adults) the pros and cons of the new NASCAR TV contract, including all of the television networks, for two years now.

Welcome to the party.


Anonymous said...

I am a sports fan and I have watched, and valued, EESPN since the days of Australian Rules Football, which is much more a sport than poker.

I have a beef with EESPN because it keeps getting worse, less creditible, and much more arrogant. It has become closer to Entertainment Tonight than a sports and sports news network. It just so happens than my favorite sport, auto racing, gets the shorter end of the stick than stick and ball sports.

When a high-profile EESPN Radio announcer, Call-in Cowherd, promotes and defends insider trading as just a macho undertaking, there is something very wrong with the perspective of the organization.

News and credibility are becoming lost arts at EESPN, and not just for racing. Watching the decline at EESPN is like watching an old friend become senile. I watch some of SportsCenter everyday and I do not recall any NASCAR news since the Cup banquet - nothing - and I pay higher cable fees so I can watch EESPN.

I really hope that the ombudsman position is not one that Gorge Bodenheimer is eliminating for cost savings.

Anonymous said...

I am so surprised that some of the challenging comments were not deleted. It seems that this site more than any other NASCAR related blog does not put up with divergent opinions from JD.

There have been times when I read a blog that challenges your position, and the next time I log on, that blog has been deleted.

So, JD, congrats for now allowing bloggers to give reasoned arguements of why they do not agree with one or more of your positions. I think it's a plus for you. It brings more credibility than if there is 100% agreement with you with a bunch of deleted entries.

Keep it up!!

Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 9:01AM,

Thanks, we always try to debate here but someone hijacking the comments section by using an Anon nick is still a pain.

Easier to settle things off-topic with just an email or two.