ESPN ombudmen hits the mark on 'tyranny of the storyline'

Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones is going to be charged with two felonies.

How do I know this?

  • Because I clicked my way to ESPN.com, and it's the top news story.
  • Then I flipped on ESPN's "Around the Horn" as school dismissed, only to hear Woody Paige and Jay Mariotti arguing about whether Jones would play in the NFL again.
  • Then I watched Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon debate potential punishments on "Pardon The Interruption."
  • Then SportsCenter comes on. Cue the promo. "Pacman Jones faces two felony counts -- Is his NFL career over?"
  • After a brief update on the afternoon baseball results, the next two minutes of the show were dedicated to Jones, including the standard and expected overview of the story, then an opinion on Jones' playing status from John Clayton. Then we're told that later in SportsCenter we'll have more on Jones.
  • Twenty-three minutes later, Clayton is back on, repeating everything he already said about Jones' status as a player. We are told that we'll have even more on Jones later in SportsCenter.
This doesn't even mention all the coverage of the two-week-old Kobe Bryant "trade demand" story, which received only slightly less play on all of ESPN's shows, and immediately followed the Jones story each time.

It's this sort of overkill that has made ESPN virtually unwatchable at times. I tune into SportsCenter to hear the sports news of the day, not to hear 38 different (shouting) opinions on whatever the top story is. It's resulted in the amount of time I watch ESPN having been reduced dramatically over the years, practically down now to just the games the network broadcasts.

It's good to know I'm not the only one who longs for the days when highlights were the centerpiece of the show.

For all the things ESPN does that irritate me to no end, one of the things they do right is employ an ombudsman, currently Le Anne Schreiber. In her latest column, she attacks what she calls the "tyranny of the storyline," in which one supposedly compelling storyline seems to completely take over every arm of the network.
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.
The great thing about the ombudsman's role at ESPN is that it gives the network a chance to explain itself. Apparently, ESPN has research that suggests that you only tune in to watch the network occasionally throughout the day -- 49 total minutes, in fact, if you're an 18- to 34-year-old -- necessitating (in their eyes) the incessant overkill coverage of certain stories.

Such as the New York Yankees.
(A)ccording 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."
I don't disagree with all of this. But does it have to be so much? I know the point of any network is to make money, and I guess the best way to do that is to shoot for the vast majority that doesn't tune in all day long like lots of hardcore fans. But couldn't they do something as a nod to those of us who have an unquenchable thirst for sports, other than repeat the same stuff all day?

Aren't there more compelling sports stories to tell?

Of all the programming on ESPN, perhaps the show I enjoy the most is Outside the Lines. It's broadcast journalism at its finest -- or, at least as fine as sports journalism can get, given the fact that we're talking about sports -- tackling compelling issues with sound journalistic principles. No flash, no sound effects. Just good, solid investigative reporting.

Couldn't we see more of this on SportsCenter? Why does Outside the Lines need to be its own show? Couldn't it be part of the SportsCenter package?

Beyond that, why can we not get some of the other, featurey-type stories on the players themselves? There are so many great stories that are just waiting to be told; we shouldn't have to tune into the Olympics every two years on NBC to find out more -- and not in a "Stray-Rod" kind of way -- about the people we love to watch.

I'm constantly challenging my own journalism students to find better stories, to go below just the surface observations to find out what's really going on.

Shouldn't I expect the same out of a network giant such as ESPN?

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