The synergy among various components of ESPN continues to grow, much to the pleasure of most company executives and millions of viewers. But an impending business relationship between ESPN Original Entertainment and San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds seems to be pushing the envelope for what's an acceptable practice for a network that prides itself on newsgathering, reporting, commentary and analysis.
A reality series of weekly shows featuring Bonds, who needs 48 home runs to pass Henry Aaron as the all-time Major League Baseball home run king, apparently is set for this spring, with EOE teaming up with Tollin/Robbins Productions. The relationship will result in a paycheck for Bonds, who will provide access and time not available to the rest of the media.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez will cover Bonds as he did last year, not only competing against other members of the media but, in a sense, against his own company.
"It will be a challenge for us," said Vince Doria, ESPN's Senior Vice President and Director of News. "EOE and the independent production company (Tollin/Robbins) will have access no one else will."
The relationship between Bonds and EOE comes on the heels of a reality show under a similar arrangement to be aired starting next month, featuring controversial Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight and a series of preseason basketball tryouts/practices.
While Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of studio and remote production, said the network's coverage and treatment of Knight "was not and would not be altered," the idea of EOE and Knight working together is dismaying. Over the years, Knight has been one of the most newsworthy, interesting and volatile subjects in all of sports -- as has been the unpredictable Bonds.
A partnership with either of these subjects boggles the mind, however beneficial to the ratings these projects might become. Simply collaborating with such high profile newsmakers seems out of place with the covenants of the kind of broadcast journalism most ESPN staffers seek to attain.
Wondered Doria of the Bonds show, "If EOE and the production company get news in the course of [their] work, do we use this news, knowing we paid for that access?" And while many viewers "understand ESPN is not one monolithic entity," Doria added, "we want to be thought of, first and foremost, as objective journalists."
My suggestion to ESPN would have been what I'd tell NBC News if it wanted to do a reality show with Donald Rumsfeld: "Don't."
Who Was No. 1?
ESPN covered a lot of bases well leading up to the Jan. 4 BCS title game in the Rose Bowl between Southern California and Texas. The team reports were complete and well done, as was the pre-game analysis. What frustrated a number of viewers, however, was the week-long series asking the question: If USC were to defeat Texas to win a third straight national Division I-A football championship, should the Trojans be considered the greatest college football team ever?
It was a feature that not only highlighted USC's past three exceptional seasons, but also compared the with other great teams in history.
Many viewers believe ESPN made a mistake running its series before the game, as it put too much of the spotlight on USC and took away from the pre-game stories, not to mention putting Texas in a secondary role. It's a fair question, especially when the series might have worked better after the game . . . had USC won.
Williamson, however, believed the series had merit and did not detract from pre-game Rose Bowl reports, or denigrate Texas.
"What USC accomplished made the series perfectly applicable," he explained. "What USC did over a three-year period was phenomenal, dominating the landscape of college football with a run that, had it defeated Texas, would have been unmatched. The story also created a great debate that was healthy and exciting. I have a hard time buying the criticism, especially since what we did had no influence in the outcome of the game, or which team would be the champion."
Some viewers wondered if ESPN's coverage of the movie "Glory Road" was in any way connected to the fact that the film about Texas Western's run to the 1966 NCAA men's basketball championship was a Disney production. It's a reasonable question, since ESPN is part of the Disney family, and a Jan. 18 "Hot Seat" interview with the film's producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, didn't hurt the promotion.
Williamson said coverage of the film was in response to "a seminal moment that reflected the fabric of the times. I don't believe we've gone overboard, considering the success of the movie."
My take: The viewers are perceptive to question the possibility of one corporate family member helping another. I haven't seen any overkill, however, and I am told that ESPN has a policy to note the Disney connection whenever something has been done on the movie.
Some viewers not used to seeing ESPN on-air talent in different roles were surprised Kenny Mayne participated in ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Mayne, who now does mostly features and whose reporting is generally restricted to horse racing, did not see a conflict. Neither did his bosses.
"I'm not a journalist, I'm an entertainer who does parodies of stories -- a role the company has endorsed," Mayne said.
My take: Mayne -- and others who work on news shows or cover events -- would better serve the network by avoiding celebrity competitions, or doing commercials.
ESPN College basketball commentator Jay Bilas upset some viewers by suggesting Jan. 17 that Kentucky's struggling men's basketball players, after a visit from a sports psychologist, might next be taken to see the film "Brokeback Mountain" and have a good cry. The film Bilas referred to is about two cowboys who have a sexual relationship.
One viewer from San Diego wrote, "I sincerely hope that Mr. Bilas was not suggesting that a lack of toughness is somehow analogous to being homosexual. I found the remark not only tasteless, but remarkably offensive."
Said Bilas, "I made a tongue-in-cheek reference to a contemporary film that I believe to be a tear-jerker. There was no intent to offend anyone."
My take: Bilas meant no malice, but obviously did not understand the breadth and impact of the film.
Good work by Jim Gray on the Jan. 25 on-off-on-again trade that sent Ron Artest to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic. But I wonder about SportsCenter's Dan Patrick lumping Artest and Terrell Owens together, and about other commentators talking about emotional problems they believe affect both athletes.
My Take: How does the Artest deal relate to John Elway not wanting to play quarterback in Baltimore more than 20 years ago, as suggested on SportsCenter, and forcing a trade to Denver? What am I missing here?
I liked the extensive coverage of Kobe Bryant's 81-point game for the Los Angeles Lakers, how the Antonio Davis situation was reported the previous week, and the coverage of the Australian Open. However, some tennis fans do not appreciate the real-time results crawl under the taped matches. No way around that. .... Hockey fans are paranoid that their favorite sport is not getting fair treatment from ESPN on SportsCenter and ESPNEWS. I believe they are getting appropriate coverage. The network will get the same scrutiny from golf fans when the PGA Tour leaves ESPN in 2007.
Good start by the College Basketball GameDay team, although I wonder if there is a way to tone down students screaming in the background? ... Overcovered: Michelle Wie when she plays in men's events, high school football players announcing their college choices and Maurice Clarett. Undercovered: The U.S. men's soccer team preparing for this summer's World Cup, the Winter Olympic lead-in stories, and Haile Gebrselassie setting a world record in the half-marathon this month.
And, finally, one viewer from Charleston, South Carolina, e-mailed to say that he believes The Ombudsman's complaints to be worthless, because The Ombudsman is a "bitter old man."
Hey, I'm not bitter.