ESPN should be transparent as it experiments with remote broadcasts

The typical live sports telecast is something most of us take for granted. If you flip on a game on virtually any sports network in 2016, you can be pretty confident you’ll see multiple camera angles, instant replays, a persistent scoreboard, plenty of on-screen stats, and, in recent years, innovations such as the 1st & Ten line, K-Zone and virtual advertising.

But one thing many fans might assume to be true -- that the game announcers are physically at the event -- is no longer a given.

In recent years, ESPN has been experimenting with remote broadcasting. In basic terms, while some production staff are located at the event site, the announcers are broadcasting from the network’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, or from locations such as the ESPN facilities in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Orlando, Florida. Sometimes the producer and director are also working remotely, but, for the purpose of this column, I’m going to focus on cases in which announcers are off site.

First, a few important caveats: ESPN announcers are almost always located on site for live events. Josh Krulewitz, ESPN’s vice president of communications, says approximately 2 percent of ESPN broadcasts currently occur with announcers not on site, most of them college sports events. In other words, in 98 percent of the cases, announcers are calling live from the event location. After a test using remote broadcasters for the 2008 World Cup, all announcers were on site at the 2016 World Cup. And remote announcers have never been used for MLB, NFL or NBA game broadcasts on ESPN.

Nonetheless, the use of remote broadcasters will likely increase in the coming months, thanks to the crush of college basketball games being broadcast by ESPN. And the reason that ESPN and many of its competitors are using remote broadcasters is simple: money.

“In the rare, select instances where commentators are not on site, there are obviously less equipment and resource requirements,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s senior vice president of events and studio production. “That savings allows us to reinvest resources in our overall productions.”

When remote broadcasters are used, camera and audio feeds are sent back to the announcers to their remote location, and those feeds become their eyes and ears.

“Obviously for the vast majority of our productions, the commentators have been and will continue to be on site,” Druley said. “For the game productions that feature the remote integration of commentators, our goal is to offer a seamless, high-quality experience for fans. These productions allow for opportunities to reallocate our resources in select situations. We, along with many other networks, have produced select events this way for a few years now, and it’s been effective.”

To Druley’s point, ESPN is far from the only network testing this approach -- Fox Sports 1, Univision, the Pac-12 Network and Big Ten Network, among others, also use remote broadcasts. NBC and ESPN in Latin America also experimented with this approach during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

ESPN tennis commentator Cliff Drysdale has occasionally broadcast matches remotely, and, not surprisingly, argues that being on site has advantages that go beyond just being a firsthand witness.

“If you’re in a situation where there are multiple tennis courts in use, it’s virtually impossible to do it remotely,” he said. “Even if you just have one court and two players, there’s something about the ambiance, surrounding and audience participation that’s difficult to capture. The advantages of being on site are considerable.”

ESPN has been experimenting with remote broadcasting for years but got a bit more aggressive in 2014, when it announced its intention to remotely broadcast 45 college basketball games from Bristol (the first was Stony Brook at Vermont, on Feb. 27, 2014). The reaction from fans and other media was lukewarm -- at best. Awful Announcing captured some fan reaction from a BYU-Pepperdine game that was broadcast remotely. When ESPN announced it would broadcast six women’s NCAA basketball tournament games that way, it generated criticism from multiple sources.

ESPN carefully chooses which games in which to use remote broadcasters. Said Druley, “ESPN produces thousands of events on an annual basis. Utilizing our available facilities, we are able to isolate a small sample of events for remotely integrated productions.”

For example, Druley noted, given the volume of college basketball events on its various networks, ESPN identified 65 games out of the 1,200 to announce remotely “based on a combination of available facilities and level of national appeal.”

No one I talked to at ESPN -- neither executives nor talent -- suggested that remote broadcasting was an optimal experience. And sources within ESPN say the company has pulled back on the use of remote announcers in the past year. But because of the associated financial savings, the practice is unlikely to be discontinued.

To me, the lack of on-site announcers creates two challenges for ESPN: transparency and broadcast quality. The transparency issue hinges on two key questions: Are viewers entitled to know about the remote location of the announcers? If so, when should they be informed?

“Our goal is to produce each remotely integrated telecast in a way that is seamless to the viewer,” Druley said. “Therefore, we don’t feel it’s crucial to specify the rare examples when the commentators are not on site. If a situation was to arise that would warrant a mention because the location of the commentators would play a role in our ability to document a situation, we would certainly specify it then.”

Historically, viewers have always assumed broadcasters were on site (because they pretty much always were, and continue to be, in bulk). When there weren’t broadcasters on site, it was usually part of an experiment, such as NBC’s infamous no-announcer game between the Dolphins and Jets in 1980.

A 2015 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a remote broadcast of a West Virginia-Oklahoma college basketball game in Morgantown, West Virginia, included this passage:

A network spokesperson Wednesday said ESPN does not see a need to remind viewers of the unorthodox arrangement during the broadcasts. “We have effectively utilized our Bristol-based facilities previously for several sports and found it to be a virtually seamless experience for viewers. Therefore, we haven’t really seen the need to mention it during the telecasts.”

This echoes Druley’s sentiments. But I disagree. I certainly don’t think ESPN needs to overdo it by reminding viewers after every commercial break. After all, “You’re not looking live” or “We’re not here at Madison Square Garden” is awkward and, at some point, becomes an annoyance to the viewer. But I think saying nothing is problematic in its own way.

Reader Anthony Kahn summed up the feeling in an email to the public editor, referencing a Monmouth-Iona men’s college basketball game he attended earlier this year:

My son watched on ESPNU. It's a small gym, and while I sat directly in front of your primary cameras, I could not spot your announcers anywhere in the gym. When I asked my son about the announcers, he said they were never shown during the telecast and there were no on-site interviews. My question is whether the announcers were actually in the relevant gym or did they do the game from a studio in Bristol (or somewhere else). If they weren't in the gym, and this wasn't made clear multiple times to the viewers, I think ESPN was guilty of some serious journalistic ethics lapses.

The game Kahn references was indeed one for which the announcers were off site. I can’t go as far as Kahn and say this qualifies as a journalistic lapse, but it certainly doesn’t help build trust between ESPN and its viewers when the location of the announcers is not made clear. The constant mantra of ESPN employees is that the network’s mission is to serve sports fans. I’m not sure you’re serving fans if you’re not being transparent about game announcers potentially being farther from the action than many of the fans watching on TV.

I suggest three times in which ESPN should make that clear that announcers are not on site: (1) at the beginning of the game; (2) at the traditional halfway point of the game; (3) if news breaks on site that ESPN is unable to cover effectively because the proper staff is not on location.

At the outset of any event, it’s pretty standard practice to cut to a shot of the announcers in the booth, at a courtside table, etc. When that doesn’t occur, it’s a solid indication that the announcers might not be on site. But, on site or not, the announcers will still set up the event. That seems like the proper time to acknowledge that the announcers are broadcasting remotely. Quick and painless. The same would go for a halftime notification.

The third scenario would arise only when breaking news occurs at an event site. This happened at the Monmouth-Iona game referenced earlier, as there was a fight between the teams during the postgame handshake. The fight was later prominently featured on SportsCenter and on ESPN.com, but, with no on-camera personnel on site, ESPN was hampered in its ability to chase down coaches, players or officials for interviews. The same might apply for injury updates. Normally, when players are injured during games, team PR staffers will provide updates to the broadcast crew. That gets harder when announcers, the producer and the director aren’t on site.

ESPN has all manner of news resources it can marshal, so not being on site doesn’t automatically mean it can’t effectively report on breaking news. But when it is hampered because the announcers are not on site, it seems like something the viewer has a right to know.

The limitation on chasing breaking news is just one way broadcast quality is affected by announcers being off site. Off-site announcers cannot use their own eyes and look beyond the cameras, for example. And they can’t as naturally feed off of crowd noise emanating from many miles away.

Drysdale certainly qualifies as an authority on ESPN broadcasts: He’s been a commentator at the network longer than anyone other than Bob Ley and was part of ESPN’s first tennis broadcast in 1979. And he makes maybe the most important point about why having broadcasters on site is preferable, all things considered.

“We’re trying to promote more player access, more discussions and more interviews with players,” he said. “You can’t do that remotely. ... We’re going the opposite direction, of being on site. And I’m all for it.”