No subject over the last six months, at least based on my in-box, has produced more foaming-at-the-mouth venom than ESPN's broadcast of The Decision. At the time I called it a "self-aggrandizing, selling-out-our-journalistic-soul, narcissistic shamathon," but I've since calmed down.
Part of the fallout from the ill-conceived show is the belief in some quarters -- and this is not a critic's creation -- that ESPN cannot cover LeBron James objectively.
"The perception is that the network plays favorites, even in its news -- whether it's James, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger or Tiger Woods," wrote ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer in a July 21 column. "Try as ESPN might to make decisions based on sound criteria, it will always be open to criticism. That is exacerbated when the network is seen to be in business with someone it's covering."
With the Miami Heat holding its Media Day on Monday and ESPN scheduled to send an armada of staffers to cover all the happenings of Miami Thrice during training camp, I contacted Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president of production, to address some viewers' concerns about James and some other ESPN-related topics that have come up of late. His answers are below:
1. There are some viewers who believe that your network cannot objectively cover LeBron James. Why should they believe ESPN can?
Williamson: I challenge that premise. I think sports fans overall journalistically trust ESPN, so I challenge that premise. I'm sure there are some fans or some media critics that believe that, and without rehashing the reasons behind what we did with The Decision, I think our body of work speaks for itself. Whether it's on LeBron James or NFL concussions or steroids in baseball, I would say I think we have demonstrated our journalistic objectivity and balance throughout the years on topics meatier or more complicated than the color of the uniform that a basketball player is playing on. And I don't see that changing.
2. You have erected a set at the Heat training camp and have a number of analysts and other ESPN talent covering the team. There's always a charge with your network -- and sometimes an unfair one given the insatiable demand for news -- that you cover things to excess. Why is covering the Heat and James in this manner not excessive coverage?
Williamson: We do things to serve sports fans. And I know you've heard that before, but it's not a cliché. It's been a great guiding principle for us. When George Steinbrenner died or with Brett Favre, critics will say it's excessive coverage. But for whatever it is worth, people respond and people watch us and people want to know. If we did not feel like we're serving fans' interest, we would not be doing the coverage and taking it to the level that we believe we should take it to.
I'm never going to say we don't make mistakes. We make mistakes all the time and you try to learn from those. But to me it's a faulty premise. Why would we commit resources and coverage and a desk at the Media Day when we are not doing that for another team? Because there seems to be an insatiable interest level in LeBron and the Heat. How are they going to mesh? There is an intrigue about them. Ultimately, we are committing resources, reporting, a desk and a truck because we believe fans want to see the coverage. If fans did not speak back at us, either through e-mail or ratings or how we stay in touch with the people who watch our networks, we would not do it. We're not just there doing it on a whim.
3. Do you anticipate a sit-down with LeBron James in the near future and have you asked for a one-on-one with him?
Williamson: Yes, we anticipate that. I would hope before the start of the regular season.
4. Let's move away from the Heat. After the first couple of weeks of the college football season, how would you assess Jenn Brown's performance as a sideline reporter?
Williamson: When we assess people's performance -- and especially the role that she is in -- I know people like to focus on that she's a sideline reporter, but she is a really much more than that. She's been a reporter for SportsCenter, ESPNews and Mike & Mike, so she is a general assignment reporter focusing on college football and working the sideline for us on our Thursday game.I think she has done a spectacular job at handling all of it and getting to the level she has gotten to. She has done some really good sitdown interviews -- she did Steve Spurrier ahead of the South Carolina game, which was picked up and run as a mini-Sunday Conversation on SportsCenter. She is a real student of our interviewing skills. If you look at her questions, she is not asking yes or no questions. She is asking open-ended questions. With the very quick interviews, with coaches before kickoff and halftime, it's very tough sometimes to get in-depth or insight. I think she is warm on camera, personable, and she has good reporting skills.
She has done a really good job of creating chemistry with Rece Davis and our booth team and at the same time with Brian Kenny on the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. With everything we throw at people and the fact that she is doing multiple games on Thursday and Saturday, it's a heavy load. For anybody to step into that and to hit the ground running, I'm exceptionally pleased where she is right now.
5. Your network recently made major changes with ESPNews. The new format consists of Highlight Express shows and added SportsCenters. A number of readers were surprised that you would drop the NFL press conferences that you aired on Monday and Tuesday and cede this space to the NFL Network and Sirius XM Radio. Why the decision to shift away from live press conferences on ESPNews to studio-based programming?
Williamson: Here are the two aspects on this. One, it was an overall SportsCenter strategy. If you go back four years, I think we had four live hours of SportsCenter. We expanded it during the day and there were people and critics who said that no one would watch, but the ratings and audience have grown significantly between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. I think we are up 8 [percent] and 12 percent over last year, and if you go back two years ago when we were on tape, we're up over 20 percent.We built ESPNews on the 30-minute format. It was down and dirty and people got what they wanted in 30 minutes. But what we did was put the biggest brand that we have next to ESPN on the bench between 3 and 6 in the afternoon and during prime time. As a SportsCenter strategy, that was a mistake. That biggest brand should be there.
The second thing was we thought there was an opportunity to improve the numbers and the ratings, and the early returns are showing that fairly consistency. Whether that is because of the SportsCenter brand or the format, it is driving viewers to ESPNews from 3 to 6 and prime time 7 to 11. Some of the perfunctory day-after NFL coaches conferences or the press conference in college football or basketball that had become a staple of ESPNews, when you really looked at it, we didn't believe the long-form press conferences were popping and resonating with audiences. So we made the change. NFL press conferences are a big deal on Mondays between 3 and 6, and you will hear from head coaches and get press conference sound, but you will get them in a one-minute or 1:15 increment as opposed to going there for eight minutes live. While it's really early -- we have only been doing this for a month or so and who knows what the long-term growth will be -- it seems we have struck a chord and done the right thing because the audience has responded.
6. ESPN is a month into its expansion of College GameDay. One of the biggest changes was making Erin Andrews a co-host of the program during a new first hour on ESPNU. How would you assess the change and the performance of Andrews in her new role?
Williamson: I was there for Week 1 when we were in Atlanta for LSU-North Carolina and she was very nervous stepping into that thing with those guys. Right before she went up on the set, she was more nervous than I've ever seen her. I said, "Listen, now this is important, not like the Dancing With the Stars stuff you did." We had a little laugh and that calmed her down for at least 15 seconds or so. I think she has grown considerably from Week 1 to Week 4. She is much more comfortable. We had her in Bristol at the start of the season and she did some College Football Live shows. It's a tough transition going from reporting to hosting. We have done that with a number of people -- Rachel Nichols, Mark Schwarz and Jeremy Schaap, for instance.
When you are doing 30-second stand-ups with multiple takes to quarterbacking a half-hour show or segments within a show, that's a tough change. I think she's done a really good job. And talk about a visible stage. It's not like you are talking about a show that airs at 1:30 in the morning on ESPN2 where you can get your sea legs. We've expanding this thing [College GameDay] and it's one of our most recognizable brands and you have to hit the ground running. I think she has done a really good job and I think Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Fowler, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso have stepped up and helped her. We are very, very comfortable with her anchoring not only segments in the first hour, but she has also done more during the week and hosted during hours two and three.
My takeaway: Viewers will quickly learn whether ESPN's talents in South Beach are delivering the goods as far as objective coverage. The first one-on-one with James (we'll presume Jim Gray won't get the call here) will be an important interview for ESPN, and the network should opt for a tough interviewer and someone other than Michael Wilbon, who was certainly miles better than Gray but still tossed mostly softballs during The Decision. I agree with Williamson that viewers demand insatiable coverage of stars and the Heat are a huge story. I don't think you can overcover them and I favor ESPN's flooding the zone here.
I expect Williamson to publicly support his talent and am not surprised he's high on Brown since he hired her. But in the platforms I've seen her on, be it on the sideline of games or live SportsCenter hits, she seems to be in the deep end of the pool, struggling to bring something beyond the surface. I agree with Williamson that her interview with Spurrier was excellent, but I'm confident that if I hired one of my pals inside ESPN's always-helpful communication staff to conduct the same interview, that person would also get something sweet out of the not-exactly-media-shy-'Ol-Ball-Coach. Brown will get better, for sure. Whether she is the best person for such a high-profile gig, viewers will be the judge.
As for Andrews, I haven't see enough of her in her new role to make a fair assessment.
How excited is the NHL about a Hard Knocks-style series starring the Penguins and Capitals?
Pretty bleeping excited.
Last week NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg held a joint press luncheon to announce the production of a 24/7 series around the Capitals-Penguins rivalry. The network will debut the four-episode series on Dec. 15 and will air three additional episodes leading up to the annual NHL Winter Classic, which will feature the two teams playing on New Year's Day at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
"We think it will be unprecedented, behind-the-scenes stuff, particularly for hockey," Bettman said. "[The Penguins and Capitals] have developed a nice degree of animosity."
What will make this series unique from HBO's other all-access efforts is that it will take place during the regular season. Greenburg said the teams do have some editorial oversight and the right to ask HBO to turn off its cameras. HBO will show the final product to the teams before airing each episode. Regarding previous 24/7 shows and Hard Knocks series, the HBO Sports head said his network has not gotten a lot of push-back.
What made the NHL attractive to HBO? Greenburg said he was struck by last season's playoffs ratings. The clinching game of the Stanley Cup finals was the most-watched and highest-rated NHL game in 36 years and drew 8.28 million viewers, according to NBC. The Penguins and Capitals also possess built-in stars such as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
NHL COO John Collins said the league was impressed by HBO's recent documentary on the Stanley Cup-winning Flyers from the 1970s (Broad Street Bullies), and the series offers free publicity as a run-up for the NHL's second biggest showcase, the Winter Classic.
Speaking of which, despite the heavy competition from college bowl games on that day, Bettman said the NHL is pleased with the Jan. 1 date and won't be moving from it anytime soon.
"With all due respect to the college bowls -- and they are great -- we hold our own on that day in ways that people never imagined," Bettman said. "We do OK. It's a good day for us."
Collins predicted this year's Winter Classic would have "a significant uptick in the ratings" because of the HBO tie-in. Last year the ratings for the Bruins-Flyers Winter Classic (from Fenway Park) dropped to a 2.1 final Nielsen rating and 3.684 million viewers, down 19 percent from 4.401 million viewers in 2009. The game went up against Penn State-LSU in the Capitol One Bowl (6.9 rating) and Florida State-West Virginia in the Gator Bowl (4.3).
Famously, Jets coach Rex Ryan turned this summer's Hard Knocks series into a salty, curse-filled extravaganza. How does the NHL commissioner feel about his players bleeping their way through the series?
"Well, it is HBO and it's cable," Bettman said. "I don't know how much cursing we will see. I guess after the first episode, we'll have a sense of whether or not we recommend you should be watching with children under a certain age."
• "I would have suspended him [Jets receiver Braylon Edwards] for this game [against the Dolphins on Sunday] because of a pattern of behavior. He was there with Donte Stallworth drinking with him the night Stallworth ultimately ended up killing someone driving home that evening. He was there in the Cleveland nightclub [Edwards would be placed on probation last January after pleading no contest to misdemeanor aggravated disorderly conduct]. ... And now the DUI on top of it. My question would have been, When are you going to understand this? When are you going to understand that you have to take responsibility? From this football team's standpoint, they would have been better served had they gone ahead and suspended him for this one day."
• ... "Now, on top of the Hard Knocks, on top of the female reporter incident, I think this was a great time for Rex Ryan and the Jets to have taken a stand, saying, 'Listen, I know what the CBA says. Maybe we lose this case ultimately on appeal, but the New York Jets are going to take a stand and we're going to take it right here.' "-- NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, onhow he would have handled Edwards' situation after he was arrested last Tuesday on charges of driving while intoxicated.
• "Something about Braylon's routes this series seem more humble, mature. Looks like sitting that quarter really did have an impact! #Jets"-- ESPNNewYork.com reporter Jane McManus, oozing with sarcasm about the penalty (or lack thereof) imposed by the Jets, Sept. 26, 9:12 p.m.
• "My three favorite Boise things today. 1) live bait vending machine. 2) radio ad for free gun with truck purchase. 3) Llama tailgaiting."-- New York Times national college football reporter Pete Thamel, enjoying the scene in Broncos country, Sept. 25, 8:05 p.m.
• "In a matchup between [Nick] Saban and [Bobby] Petrino, can I root for the ground to swallow both teams whole?"-- Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals writer Joe Reedy, showing fondness for the coaches of Alabama and Arkansas, Sept. 25, 5:38 p.m.