Finale: ESPN's size, power demand scrutiny

With this column, the Poynter Review Project’s work comes to an end.

After nearly 40 columns reviewing ESPN content across all platforms, we’ll close with lessons learned over 18 months of observing the network’s various media outlets, examining their successes and failures, and investigating how ESPN works (and sometimes doesn’t).

We offer these observations not just as a starting point for the networks’ next ombudsman but also because it’s increasingly ESPN’s own viewers and readers who serve in that role, sharing their links, thoughts and criticism in real time. This is a relatively new phenomenon for ESPN and other media companies, and ESPNers are of two minds about the torrent of discussion, simultaneously appreciating being the center of so much conversation and worrying about a discourse they can’t control.

We hope what we’ve learned will help readers and viewers understand ESPN better, so they can make more informed judgments -- whatever those judgments may be -- about the network’s decisions.

ESPN isn’t a monolith: ESPN’s television presence includes multiple channels -- ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes and ESPNU stand alongside the likes of the Longhorn Network, the broadband channel ESPN3 and the many flavors of ESPN International. The same could be said for ESPN’s digital operations: ESPN.com gets most of the attention, but there’s also espnW, Grantland, the quintet of powerful local city sites, and overseas, sport-specific outposts such as ESPNFC.com. And we haven’t even mentioned ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, the company’s 30 for 30 documentaries or the unrelenting waves of information ESPN pushes out to mobile subscribers.

Why should readers and viewers keep this startling breadth in mind? Because we all fall into the trap of thinking about ESPN as a monolithic organization with a single point of view, mission and set of values. That’s a reflection of ESPN’s brand power, not the day-to-day reality of what sometimes happens there. To think there is a single ESPN can leave you baffled by ESPN’s decisions, making it tempting to ascribe motive and agency to what sometimes are the mixed messages, mistakes and messy realities of a very big organization pursuing different agendas.

Yes, the ESPN brand is amazingly strong: As its networks and media properties proliferated and diversified, “ESPN” should have become an increasingly meaningless umbrella brand -- but that hasn’t happened. Instead, those four letters have proven more powerful than the divergent missions they encompass.

But the strength of that brand can blind us to the fact that ESPN is a news organization, an entertainment company, a broadcast partner for sports leagues and a business in its own right -- and each of those portions has massive power and reach. On top of that, ESPN is constantly acquiring and shedding other media operations and services, such as those that rank high school recruits or create events like the X Games.

It’s a big family, with different priorities and cultures, and most of the time ESPN maintains an uneasy balance between those competing entities. But sometimes they wind up working at cross-purposes or get eclipsed by each other. And some of ESPN’s worst moments have come when things fall out of balance, as we would argue they did with Tebowmania and most famously with the debacle that was “The Decision.”

Repetition is method as well as madness: If you watch large blocks of ESPN, you sometimes feel like you’re being cudgeled, subjected to the same stories and narratives over and over again with only the name of the show and the identities of the hosts changing. But here’s the thing: Most ESPN viewers don’t watch this way. They’re more likely to watch a show or two, not an entire afternoon’s worth of programming, and ESPN’s programming strategies are tailored for them.

Wall-to-wall ESPN watchers are outliers, with a very different experience from that of mainstream viewers. But they’re also the people most likely to tweet and blog about the company. This means vocal megafans (not to mention media critics and ombudsmen) have a big social-media footprint that considerably outweighs their value to ESPN as viewers.

That’s important to keep in mind when criticizing ESPN for putting a story in heavy rotation; the network’s strategy is designed to catch viewers who tune in for a single show or game, or drop in and out even within individual shows. Churn is ESPN’s challenge; its producers must figure out how to hold the attention of ever-shifting amalgamations of viewers, so they think of this fickle, ephemeral audience almost as if it's made up of on-demand viewers, viewers who don’t want to wait long to hear about the big story in sports.

This is not to excuse ESPN’s excesses (again, we’re looking at you, Tebowmania). And it highlights the fact that ESPN’s reach gives it a critical responsibility as a news organization. Even in today’s universe of websites and blogs, lack of attention from ESPN can starve a story, and repetition by ESPN can amplify one until other stories feel crowded out.

ESPN deserves criticism for its excesses, and it must remain aware of its power in creating and shaping the dominant narratives in sports news. But if you’re one of those wall-to-wall viewers, understanding the network’s perspective on programming and audiences makes it clearer why certain stories and subjects are repeated until they can feel inescapable.

We get the ESPN we deserve: With a few exceptions, during our tenure, we shied away from media criticism except where ESPN’s own standards and practices came into question. Media criticism wasn’t our job, and there’s no shortage of thoughtful critics keeping an eye on ESPN.

But we still got an earful of such criticism from readers who emailed us. And some of what they consistently decried came down to questions of taste -- which, ultimately, are questions about ratings.

For example, take comments from “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith at the recent Blogs With Balls conference. We once called “Numbers Never Lie” a bait and switch -- a show that purports to be about advanced stats but is really just another venue for arguments about heart, momentum and other sports generalities.

Smith’s comments at the conference fell along similar lines: He said that “Numbers Never Lie” began with different goals but “now is a debate show, like most other shows on ESPN. ... I hate to say it’s not about analytics, but it’s not about analytics.”

Unfortunate, but why did that happen? Because, Smith said, ESPN’s research found most viewers didn’t want to watch a show with statistics that had to be explained to them. We’ve heard similar things from other ESPNers; they like smart, dispassionate shows such as “Outside the Lines” as much as we do, but those shows don’t consistently pull in the ratings of, say, “First Take.”

A steady diet of debate shows rather than programs such as “Outside the Lines” might strike some viewers and critics as an unfortunate choice; we said as much, in fact. But such choices don’t amount to violations of ESPN’s standards. Yes, ESPN “plays the hits,” to use the expression we heard a number of times. But television is a hits-driven business. The real question might not be why we get so few shows such as OTL – it’s why we get such shows at all. If readers want such fare -- say, more “30 for 30” and less “Around the Horn” -- they need to vote with their remotes.

The Bristol bubble: There really is a Bristol bubble – the central Connecticut town that houses ESPN’s ever-expanding campus is a nice place but not particularly exciting, offering little to do except eat, sleep and breathe ESPN. This setting -- and the sheer unlikeliness of what ESPN’s founders imagined -- has shaped the network, and continues to do so.

It was a bubble we ourselves found difficult to penetrate. Quite simply, from our perspective, there’s a wariness of outsiders -- including, at times, the Poynter Review Project -- that runs deep through ESPN, and we think it’s amplified by setting.

In ESPN’s early days, the forced insularity of Bristol life fostered a scrappy us-against-them attitude that was a big asset for ESPN, as well as creating a certain boys-will-be-boys cabin fever that the network came to regard as a problem. Those wild days are largely gone, and it’s been a very long time since ESPN could be called scrappy. But some prominent ESPNers date back to that era, and both those times and Bristol continue to shape how they see the world.

We don’t want to overdo the psychoanalysis on this point, but it’s a mindset we think is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess ESPN’s decisions, particularly how it reacts to outside criticism.

The numbers game: In a given year, more than 1,000 content contributors -- anchors, reporters, columnists and analysts – provide coverage across ESPN properties. If you count guests who call in or contribute via satellite on breaking news stories, the number tops 5,000. Most of its entities are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. ESPN.com says it posts more than 800 new content items a day.

With numbers that large, the standards for quality of writing, reporting, editing, production as well as for fairness and accuracy, evolve with the platform. There’s a lower bar for information that makes it onto Rumor Central on ESPN.com, for example, than for what appears on “SportsCenter” -- and that’s as it should be. But because the ESPN brand is so powerful, when someone makes a mistake in the middle of the night on a relatively obscure blog (such as a notorious "KKK-Rod" lead-in that lived online long enough for someone to get a screen grab), critics react as if the error had happened on “SportsCenter” during prime time.

Yes, ESPN makes mistakes every day, mistakes of commission and of omission. But given the amount of content ESPN produces, daily mistakes are neither surprising nor necessarily alarming. The question isn’t whether ESPN makes mistakes; it’s what kind of mistake, and what ESPN does about them. Is there a pattern of young editors using racially charged language carelessly in the middle of the night? (There have been two such cases this year, a number we’d classify as in the gray area between “isolated incidents” and “troublesome pattern.”) Are slips of the tongue treated differently when anchors relatively low on the totem pole make them, compared with what happens to high-profile personalities? Are there types of stories in which ESPN is slow to recognize the broader significance of the issues involved?

It’s hard to judge because ESPN rarely reveals the internal changes it makes in response to external criticism. Often we heard privately that policies were being revised and training was being implemented. But even then, we were often told those changes had been under review before any external scrutiny.

Early in the tenure of the Poynter Review Project, ESPN issued a revised Standards and Practices manual, which addressed many of the contemporary issues, including social media protocols and endorsement guidelines. So it’s clear the network is listening and adjusting, when necessary. The leadership just seemed reluctant to publicly connect the dots between cause and effect.

Maybe that’s the competitive nature of the sports culture or the fact that there is a financial advantage to keeping some internal conversations private. Or perhaps that’s the Bristol bubble at work. Whatever the case, ESPN can be secretive about its internal operations, often to a fault, when your stated goal is transparency. That doesn’t help its image -- or its brand -- in a supersaturated media world in which both critics and consumers increasingly expect openness and responsiveness.

The big picture: ESPN’s critics seize on every mistake, which can make the company’s editors, producers and PR folks defensive at times. That’s understandable; it’s not easy waking up each morning knowing you’re a big target.

But to put it simply ... tough. ESPN’s sheer size and power demand such scrutiny. Media analyst SNL Kagan estimates ESPN will make $8.2 billion in revenue this year. It controls the rights to a huge range of live sports, using that content as fuel for its sports-information engine. ESPN’s fulfillment of its ambitions in recent years has been nothing sort of breathtaking. It understands the primacy of live sports rights in broadcasting today, has the financial muscle, in theory, to buy whatever rights it sees as necessary and has the ambition to think on an amazing scale.

As a result, ESPN has come very close to being synonymous with sports in the United States, with its business deals reshaping the very landscape of college sports conferences, to name just one high-profile example of its power and influence.

This places considerable strain on its journalists. ESPN draws lines between its news division and its business and production arms, and we never heard of an executive storming across that line and telling ESPN journalists what to do or what not to do. At its best, ESPN’s reporting is thorough and uncompromising about matters of great concern to its business partners: Take its recent series on football concussions, or the throw-the-script-away “SportsCenter” that followed the debacle of an NFL replacement ref’s blown call that cost Green Bay a victory in Seattle. Both storylines served fans and undermined the business interests of the NFL.

But although ESPN has sought to separate its divisions and so preserve its journalists’ integrity, there is a massive and inherent conflict of interest here, so the arrangement demands constant monitoring. ESPN is so big that it occupies a position in sports not unlike that of Microsoft in the ecosystem for computer hardware and software in the late 1990s, or Apple’s place at the intersection of hardware, apps and downloads today.

ESPN can’t be an observer or bystander because its mere presence changes things. This is true not just in business but also in journalism: As noted earlier, if ESPN covers a story, it becomes big news; if it ignores it, often it withers. But occasionally, as happened in the wake of the grand jury indictment against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the rest of the world overrules ESPN’s judgment and the network must reverse course and pursue a story it originally treated lightly.

Much of the time, ESPN’s journalism is thorough, professional and of high quality: Able to pick and choose from the world’s best sportswriters, analysts and investigative reporters, it has hired and developed a substantial news operation. That’s sorely needed. Sports might be entertainment, but they’re multibillion-dollar forms of entertainment, and although we want sports to be escapes from our troubles and issues, the truth is that they reflect -- sometimes even magnify -- the world and all its flaws.

Sports are a window into public health; labor relations; institutional power and abuses; government regulation; children and education; and matters of race, class and gender. We need storytellers and watchdogs to explore these issues and questions in sports as badly as we need them to do so elsewhere.

Whether the story is child sexual abuse, head injuries, the proper role of college athletics, performance-enhancing drugs, public funding of stadiums or the advancement of women, we need journalists such as ESPN’s -- and they, in turn, need standards and practices that are clearly and wisely defined, and faithfully followed.

That will allow fans to benefit from ESPN’s enormous resources while insulating them from the network’s considerable conflicts.

And that will help us better see the world through sports.