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.

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