Breathing Room: ESPN must stop the suffocation of synergy

For 17 days last month, ESPN stopped being the center of the sports media universe. While NBC took over that spot, airing the most-watched Olympics in recorded history, ESPN shifted to the circumference. For the most part, ESPN accepted the swap gracefully, providing prominent if not abundant coverage to the other guys' Games, even going so far as to run a watery blue post-Olympics ad in The New York Times and USA Today acknowledging, "For eight nights, we weren't watching us either."

The ad was a salute not to NBC but to the culture hero status Michael Phelps acquired during his eight prime-time, gold-medal swims. If anyone had failed to notice it before, those eight nights made it dazzlingly clear that what secures a network's place at the center of the sports universe is event rights, the more comprehensive and exclusive the better.

Olympics aside, ESPN has more of them than anyone in the universe, and never seems to stop shopping. (At the end of August, ESPN signed a 15-year rights contract to televise Southeastern Conference sports events for a reported $2.25 billion.)

For this viewer, watching ESPN cover an event it did not have rights to, an event dominated by sports not usually on ESPN's short list of priorities, proved more refreshing, and more of an eye-opener than I anticipated. Granted, ESPN did not go all out. There was so little buildup to the Olympics on "SportsCenter" that, until the Games started, you might not have known this was an Olympic summer for anyone but NBA superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

By ESPN standards for major events, the network sent a small on-air staff (TV reporters Jeremy Schaap and George Smith) to Beijing, and it was restricted by NBC to using six minutes of event footage a day in each news show.

That was enough, though, to allow "SportsCenter," with its six new live daytime hours, to do a good job of covering the high points of the Games -- Phelps' swims, Usain Bolt's mad dashes, the USA basketball team's redemption of gold -- plus keep us updated on assorted controversies and results in a dozen other sports.

I received little mail about ESPN's Olympic coverage, so I can't validly say how other viewers were struck by it, but I found myself feeling a dizzying elation. It was as if oxygen had suddenly been pumped into an airless room, simultaneously reviving me and making me realize how close I had been to suffocation.

It took a few days for me to understand that I was feeling a powerful positive side effect of ESPN's lack of Olympics rights: The Games provided ESPN with no opportunity for cross-promotion. By my inexact calculations, for 17 days, "SportsCenter" devoted between six and 15 minutes an hour to Olympics coverage, and almost none of it guided us toward other programming on ESPN.

The cross of cross-promotion

When everything on ESPN points us toward something else on ESPN, as it so often and relentlessly does, viewers (or is it just me?) start feeling trapped in the sports equivalent of "The Truman Show," a claustrophobic bubble world that substitutes its limited contours for the whole of external reality. But for 17 days, the Olympics punched holes in the false horizon, letting us glimpse sports as if they had an existence independent of ESPN. (Seeing Phelps in his first "SportsCenter" commercial, I thought, "Oh no, swim away before you run out of oxygen.")

If my allergic response to cross-promotion were only a product of ombudsman's overdose, I would have no business raising the issue here, but there is plenty of evidence I am not the lone sufferer.

"We do carpet bomb you with information about what you can see here," said Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news. "And we've got the reputation, in part from newspaper critics, of being the big bad TV guys that want to capture your mind and tell you what to do and when to watch and where to go -- go over to dot-com now, go to radio now, go buy the magazine and then come back here, we got four networks; wait a minute, radio's on, go back there."

So why nourish that reputation by living up to it?

"Isn't it also a service to let people know where to find more about what they are interested in?" Doria asked. "We can debate where service ends and promotion starts, but most of the time, the promotion is quick, doesn't terribly interrupt your viewing and provides information that is actually useful to somebody. When viewers complain, do they make legitimate points about interrupted viewing?"

Mostly, I admit, they do not make legitimate points about interrupted viewing, the notable exception being past complaints about booth guests from ABC entertainment on "Monday Night Football." Mostly, the complaints about cross-promotion come from viewers too apoplectic with rage to make legitimate points of any kind.

Mostly, the rage seems in excess of any specific provocation -- a recent example being complaints from viewers who used the words "disgusting," "repugnant" and "shameless" to express how they felt about seeing a highlight from "Wipeout," ABC's new reality show, included as a Top Ten Play on "SportsCenter." The highlight ran only a couple of times, for 10 seconds or less, so why were they so bent out of shape?

Doria suggested that some viewers are offended by cross-promotion because "They have been told by critics that they should be offended."

A better fantrap

ESPN is indeed the object of much copycat complaining, but in this case, I have a different theory. The problem might not be cross-promotion itself, which does have its uses for viewers, but a degree of multiplatform corporate synergy that often feels so relentless and all-encompassing that ESPN's heaviest viewers go berserk from time to time. Often, what drives a viewer over the edge is some slight, gratuitous bit of corporate promotion that the viewer can't imagine being of use to anybody -- such as the "Wipeout" highlight -- but "Wipeout" rage is just a last straw reaction to a chronic condition.

The chronic condition is rights-driven programming. The endlessly swirling synergy of events programming continuously reinforced by pre- and post-event shows, by preseason and postseason shows, by news shows that cover those events and by opinion shows that derive their topics from those events is a business model both extremely effective and extremely transparent.

Call it cross-promotion or synergy or just serving the fan to surfeit, ESPN's self-reinforcing practices have the effect of implanting ESPN's business interests -- especially the recouping of rights fees -- too much at the forefront of too many viewers' minds. And that awareness can drain the fun out of sports. ESPN has been so successful at building a better fantrap that viewers who look to sports for escape now often tell me they need to escape ESPN to enjoy sports.

At the heart of most complaints I receive about cross-promotion is the lament: I am not having fun anymore. Late-stage reaction: I can't breathe.

Less synergy, please

That's my theory, arising from 18 months of reading viewer mail and from my own experience. And this is my suggestion to ESPN for an antidote: Lighten up on the synergy. Don't expend all your creativity devising new ways to drive viewers into the corrals of your biggest business partners. Viewers will flock there on their own.

Surprise us more often with something we didn't know you or we cared about, and don't rely entirely on "Outside the Lines" to deliver the surprises. Use those six new live hours of "SportsCenter" to let in some fresh air, and not just every four years.

When I asked Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating producer for those six hours, why "SportsCenter" did not follow up on a terrific "Outside the Lines" Olympic preview about Kenyan long-distance runners by providing more coverage when Kenya won gold in the men's marathon, he said, "Each show approaches stories differently, gearing toward different show audiences. We were more likely to do a sit-down interview with Kobe."

Jacobs also said, "We did a ton on [Jamaican sprinter] Bolt, and if you had said going in we were going to do a lot on a non-American track-and-field athlete, I would have found that a highly doubtful proposition. But he became the story."

If "SportsCenter" could not avoid Bolt in the second week of the Olympics, it went way beyond dutiful coverage when, two weeks after the Olympics, the 2 p.m. "SportsCenter" aired footage, live from Brussels, of Bolt winning another 100-meter race. Those 9.77 seconds from Belgium pumped more oxygen into "SportsCenter" than a dozen five-minute sit-downs with overexposed superstars.

The unpredictability alone was bracing, and though it is premature to say so, I can at least hope it is a sign of things to come from those new live "SportsCenters."

"They are a little more open than previous 'SportsCenters,'" Jacobs said. "There is a little more breathing room, and part of that is because we are live and stuff is happening on the fly. We want the shows to be fun for the viewer, and fun for the anchors to do, and I think some of that is coming through."

I received virtually no mail about the new daytime "SportsCenters," but my personal impression is that they are more relaxed shows than the evening and late-night shows, with anchor pairs who do not force humor, strain after catchphrases or inflate the importance of each tidbit of news.

The test of breathing room for me, though, will be whether ESPN uses the luxury of live airtime to let more of the sports world in.

E-ticket name change

The heady freedom from synergy I felt while watching ESPN's Olympic coverage reminded me that I have been remiss in never calling attention to what was without doubt the most reliable source of surprises on all of ESPN's platforms -- ESPN.com's E-ticket series.

Since its launch in 2005, the E-ticket format allowed writers such as Wright Thompson, Wayne Drehs, Eric Neel and Michael Weinreb to produce some of the best long-form sports journalism that could be found in print or on the Web. In 2006, two E-ticket pieces were reprinted in the "The Best American Sports Writing" annual; three pieces were selected for the 2007 edition. Several award-winning pieces on "Outside the Lines" and "E:60" have been based on E-ticket stories.

The surprise of E-ticket stories arose not just from the quality of their reporting and writing, or their length (which can run more than 8,000 words), but from the unpredictability of their topics. Jay Lovinger, editor of the series, said, "E-ticket came to be known as a long piece of writing which seldom had any relationship to the hot-button personalities of the day -- in fact, quite often they were about people almost nobody remembered or even knew of in the first place."

I used the past tense about E-ticket not because those kinds of stories have disappeared from ESPN.com but because the E-ticket name has. The assigning, editing and writing of those outside-the-bubble stories remain in the same hands, but as of July 28, the stories began running under the Outside the Lines label. It is what ESPN calls "rebranding."

As Doria explained it, "We are trying to take OTL and 'E:60' and create them as an umbrella journalism brand across all platforms."

The goal is to create better cross-promotion and synergy between OTL, "E:60" and the late E-ticket. If the result brings more readers to ESPN's best long-form journalism, I won't complain. If the result is those stories getting lost, I will holler.

In the meantime, if you plug "E-ticket" into ESPN.com's search engine or go to the E-ticket link that remains in the ESPN drop-down menu, you can find the entire archive of past E-ticket stories and a few new ones under the OTL label.