ESPN news magazine show manages both style and substance

Complaints about an overdose of Yankee coverage dominated the mailbox this month, but before I address matters of dynasty, I want to welcome the new kid on the block, E:60, ESPN's prime-time news magazine show, and perhaps even draw a connection between the new show and the familiar complaint.

The first four-week cycle of E:60 has come and gone, with a firm promise of return for what Robert Wallace, ESPN vice president for content development, calls another "wheel" of five shows in April and six in June. Wallace, as the executive in charge of the show's production team, emphasized that E:60 is a work-in-progress, and that all elements of the show will be up for review in the interval between now and April. With that in mind, I offer my comments in the spirit of hopeful encouragement, believing that this experiment in long-form sports reporting holds promise of a much-needed counterbalance to the current dominance of opinion in ESPN's programming.

In one of the second week's segments, E:60 reporter Michael Smith presented an interesting, balanced, draw-your-own-conclusion profile of the Cincinnati Bengal's flamboyant wide receiver, Chad Johnson. In the taped story meeting that followed the profile, Smith summed up his own impressions of Johnson: "There is a lot of flash, but there is substance there as well." Hearing that, I thought, he just summed up my impression of E:60.

In the interval between wheels, one question I hope E:60's producers will ask themselves, as it was asked of Johnson too often in recent weeks, is whether the flash subverts the substance? Several media critics took shots at the opening credits, which show color video of the show's five reporters -- Tom Farrey, Rachel Nichols, Smith, Lisa Salters and Jeremy Schaap -- moving purposefully through the streets of Manhattan, hailing cabs, emerging from subways, striding busy sidewalks, all rushing to converge on their destination: an E:60 story meeting shot in cinema verite black-and-white.

The on-the-street footage mimics cop show credits, implying heroics to follow, and some viewers thought it another instance of ESPN trying to make its on-air talent more important than the sports they cover. What seemed more problematic to me, though, was the decision to borrow techniques associated with scripted dramatic shows for journalism. The danger is that viewers will be primed by the credits to see what follows as scripted and hyped, which is exactly how some viewers saw the story conferences that are used to introduce most of E:60's reported pieces. "If this show wants to be taken seriously, it can't have reporters 'acting' or 'recreating' pitches that are obviously not real," wrote one viewer.

I had the same reaction during the debut show and asked Wallace if the story conferences were rehearsed re-enactments of earlier, real meetings.

"No," he said. "We film the first time all the correspondents sit down together and say what they have got, what stories they are working on. They are not scripted. The genesis of doing it this way was simply that we didn't want a big-foot anchor introducing the pieces."

In subsequent weeks, the story conferences did indeed come across as much more real, relaxed, rough-edged and showed their potential for enhancing the felt reality of both the stories and the reporters. I would still advise caution, though, in using any elements that might undermine the news credibility of the show and its reporters, which in this first cycle included not only the cop-show credits but the use of background music during reported segments, which can seem emotionally manipulative, and the pop-up style of presenting two-minute profiles of athletes between longer segments. More than once, these "interstitials" reminded me of American Express or Mastercard commercials.

"I think we could be sign-posting them better," Wallace said. "I think there is work to be done there."

Issues of flash-control aside, E:60 infused welcome fresh air into ESPN's lungs, chronically taxed by over-exhalation of stale opinion. The show attempts to go both deep and wide, getting beyond the sound-bite and cartoon characterization of high-profile athletes like Johnson and also venturing into sports terrain off the radar of most fans. Two of the best features were international in scope: Schaap's report on "baby bullfighters," who take advantage of a loophole in international law which allows boys as young as 11 to risk their lives in Mexican bullrings, and Farrey's report on the peddling of young, often impoverished boys from Africa to European soccer clubs, who more often than not end up discarding them penniless to the streets. Both stories did good jobs of meshing compelling individual cases with the larger context of issues they exemplified.

The story that drew most viewer feedback, though, was Salter's feature on Jason Ray, the University of North Carolina mascot who was hit and killed by a car in New Jersey last March on the eve of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The story focused not only on Ray, who was an organ donor, but on four of the organ recipients whose lives had been saved by his death, and on Ray's parents, who were filmed meeting those four rejuvenated recipients and their grateful families.

The story, a collaborative effort between E:60 and ESPN.com E-Ticket reporter Wayne Drehs, could easily have been produced as a tear-jerker, but the genuine emotions flowing through this story were neither manipulated nor exploited. Salters did an exceptional job of eliciting the story from Ray's parents and the organ recipients without being intrusive. The camera work showed equal restraint. The reality quotient was off the charts, and viewers recognized it.

So how committed is ESPN to giving E:60 a long run?

"I can guarantee you it is coming back, and my intention is to get it to a weekly show as soon as possible," said John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president of content. "We have trouble finding a consistent window year-round, but if we can refine this a little bit, I think it is a great showcase for some of our reportorial talent, and I like having another signature journalism show along with Outside the Lines. So we are completely committed to it."

What if ratings don't measure up?

"The measure of the show, certainly for a couple of years," Skipper said, "is going to be quality, not the ratings."

The narrow world of sports

When I heard the pitch for an E:60 story about a world champion logroller injured in Iraq, one of my first thoughts was, "Logrolling -- that's not a sport." Seven months into this job, and I had already been infected by a certain kind of sports media think -- the bullying kind that denies respect to anything not deemed "big boy" (meaning big market) sports. Like many people over a certain age, I grew up on ABC's Wide World of Sports -- the granddaddy of sports magazine shows, "spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports." The italics, indicating what has been lost in sports journalism, are mine.

We have gotten used to the narrow world of sports. In its news coverage, the world of sports is often shrunk to the North American big three -- baseball, football, basketball. And within those sports to a handful of dominant, usually big-market teams. And within those teams, to a few dominant positions -- pitchers, power hitters, quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs. The result is a predictable surfeit of certain stories, a force-feeding of portions so large that it makes one feel queasy, like after a big Thanksgiving meal. The disproportion also creates a dizzying lack of perspective -- so that a managerial change, if the team is the Yankees, is treated like the toppling of a nuclear power's head of state.

In the two-week period between Oct. 18, when Joe Torre turned down the New York Yankees' one-year offer for him to continue as manager, and Nov. 1, when new manager Joe Girardi was introduced at a press conference, ESPN produced five specials, totaling six-and-a-half hours, on that one managerial change. Much of the material generated by those specials was recycled or repeatedly discussed on other news and opinion programs.

I did not see all the specials, and of those that I did see, I did not have or receive complaints about their quality. It was the quantity that felt distended to the point of being surreal, with the rest of the world, not just the sports world, shrunk to those pinstripes.

Hundreds of viewers complained about the shrinkage, which began before the specials, and extended beyond ESPN to ESPN.com.

From Ohio: "As a life-long Cleveland fan, I was ecstatic after the Indians beat the Yankees in the American League Division Series. So I turned on ESPN and ... well, I think you already know what I'm going to say here. Yankees, Yankees, Yankees. It was even worse when I went to the Web site."

From North Dakota: "I don't hate the Yankees or Red Sox. I understand their place in baseball, both historical and current. I understand why the possible departure of Joe Torre is a big story. I know they're a big deal, and always will be. But I, and many other sports fans, are just so, so tired of ESPN treating them like the home teams."

In time, even Boston slipped off the map. From Massachusetts: "The Red Sox won the World Series about 13 hours ago. I have the day off of work. I turned on ESPN at 1 p.m. to watch some highlights of the game and enjoy some commentary about the World Series. However, it is now 2:30 p.m. and I have not seen a single highlight from the game. Instead, I have been inundated with YANKEES news. I do not understand this."

Narrowing the focus to teams with the largest fan bases, assuming ratings will diminish if focus veers from them, becomes self-fulfilling. We don't get to know other teams, their players, a sense of what is at stake for them or their community -- all the things that drive interest and ratings. Of the Colorado Rockies, on the brink of the World Series, several commentators boasted, "I can't name three players on the team." Tired of that dismissive crack, one viewer from Utah fired off this message: "As employees of the 'world-wide leader,' you may want to consider how un-professional and myopic your coverage of the MLB playoffs has been. I'm pretty sure that if my full-time job was as a sportswriter, I'd be able to name the starting lineups for all MLB teams."

Good and Evil

Finally, hundreds of readers asked me to deplore the excesses of Gregg Easterbrook's continued demonization of the Patriots in his "Good vs. Evil" column of Oct. 23, but I was spared that task when Easterbrook chastised himself for it in the following week's TMQ, albeit as late in his column as this is in mine:

"Last week's TMQ called the Colts the good team and the Patriots the bad team in a "Good vs. Evil" setup for next week's clash. After the column posted, I felt badly that I had not made clear I was being satirical -- that was my failing as a writer -- because, after all, none of us has the slightest idea what is in the hearts of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady."

Well said, especially the last part.