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ESPN President John Skipper gave a full-throated defense of the quality of ESPN’s journalism, saying the company does more to cover sports than any other entity. He specifically highlighted ESPN as the only sports media company that uses an ombudsman and has published social media policies for its reporters and on-air talent. “We have standards of journalism that are at the highest order,” Skipper told THE DAILY during an extensive interview in his N.Y. office. “There’s a separate question, which is, ‘Are we adhering to them?’ But at least our intention and what we publish is that we are going to adhere to high standards. We don’t discourage the scrutiny, we welcome it. Generally, we react to it.” As evidence, Skipper brought up the Ben Roethlisberger story from '09, when the Steelers QB was named in a civil suit that accused him of rape. ESPN was criticized for not reporting on the story initially. But Skipper said the newsroom made the correct decision to not report the problem at the time because ESPN had a policy in place not to report on civil suits. The company has since changed that policy. “We changed our policy and set specific guidelines. We said that we can no longer ignore it; if it becomes widespread and the AP goes with it, we will go with it, too. We’re willing to change to adapt to changing times. ... We decided to be quicker. We started Front Row so we could be a little more transparent. I don’t think anybody responds more or has higher standards. So I reject the overall criticism that we’re not doing this stuff.” Skipper made his comments as ESPN’s journalism has been criticized for improper sourcing and debate-style programming that seems to value opinion over facts. The sports blog Deadspin organized a panel of influential national media reporters to discuss plagiarism accusations against one ESPN writer.
TO SERVE AND PROTECT? One of the most persistent criticisms has dealt with the potential conflict between ESPN’s news gathering journalists and its business execs, who invest billions of dollars into the leagues those journalists cover. Such a conflict does not exist, Skipper said. “The thing that makes me angriest is that ESPN has a conflict. Give me three examples where we pulled up. I think that we did a comprehensive story on stadium and arena food standards and found about one quarter of the stadiums to be deficient in terms of their health standards. I don’t recall anyone else doing that or being in that much conflict with all of their partners. I think I remember a whole week of stories about the concussions in the NFL. But people still write it as a matter of fact, ‘Of course, ESPN’s not leading the way in writing about concussions.’ Other than the N.Y. Times, we’ve clearly been the most aggressive on that. Talk to David Stern about whether he thinks we pull up on stories.” When league execs like Stern call to complain, Skipper listens and may call an editor. However, he says he has never killed a story or even asked for one to be changed. “What I will do is say, ‘Guys, are you sure of your sources here? Be sure of your sources.’ You will not find -- because it hasn’t happened and I’ve challenged people over and over -- find me somebody. We have a lot of ex-employees. We’ve got a lot of people who don’t like us, who are gunning for us. Nobody can find anybody who says, ‘When I was there, Skipper told me to change something. He told me not to do that because our league partners will be unhappy.’ It doesn’t exist.”
THE GREAT DEBATE: Another persistent criticism deals with the popularity of debate programming on shows like “First Take.” But Skipper says critics are mistakingly applying journalistic standards to a show that is not steeped in journalism. “It’s just another show. It’s not journalism. Nobody goes, ‘Gee, look how awful it is that CBS does these awful reality shows. Doesn’t that taint their great news organization?’ We have seven networks. There’s 8,760 hours per year. We’re programming 50-60,000 hours per year. ... But people say, ‘Gee, that awful debate that you’re doing, how can the great 'SportsCenter' coexist with the debate of 'First Take.’ I don’t know, how do infomercials coexist with the great journalism they’re doing someplace else? We’re not a micromanaged place. Jamie Horowitz is the producer of 'First Take.' He’s gone in a direction that’s working. Ratings are up.”
ESPN BRAND NOT DAMAGED: Skipper says he takes complaints seriously. So far, the complaints have not resonated outside of sports media, and all research suggests the ESPN brand has not been damaged by any criticisms -- at least not yet. “The brand’s never been stronger. We care most about our brand with fans. We have no choice but to worry about our brand with our friends in the media and with advertisers and with business people. ... If you do the old concentric circle thing, of course the stuff that happens inside the figurative Beltway, happens first then it moves outward. We never want to wait until it gets to the edge. It hasn’t gotten to the edge. Am I concerned it’s getting there? No. But am I concerned enough to try and react and do things differently? Yes.”
ESPN earned a 10.0 overnight Nielsen rating for the Patriots' 42-14 win over the Texans on "MNF" last night, up 43% from a 7.0 overnight for Rams-Seahawks in Week 14 last year, and up 15% from an 8.7 for Ravens-Texans in '10. Last night's game peaked at an 11.8 rating in both the 9:15-9:30pm ET and 9:45-10:00pm quarter-hours. In Houston, the game earned a 12.9 local rating on ESPN and a 21.7 rating on KHOU-CBS. In Boston, the game earned a 13.5 local rating on ESPN and a 25.6 rating on WCVB-ABC (THE DAILY).
LOOKING AHEAD: Next week's "MNF" game features Jets-Titans, and in N.Y., Bob Raissman writes despite both teams sporting losing records, ESPN execs should "not be concerned about being stuck" with the matchup. By the end of the week, some "new and unusual storyline will materialize" around the Jets, giving "all interested parties something to dig into." That has become "business as usual for the Jets." There always is "another week to rant about how the Jets won’t make the playoffs, which provides a segue to [Owner] Woody Johnson’s hit list." It will "only get better when ESPN starts throwing its promotional weight behind the game." Raissman: "As bad as Monday’s game looks going in, it will be talked about, ad nauseam. The Jets have enough built-in controversy to make that happen" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 12/11).
FSN “appears set to hit a new high mark for sports programming rights" by paying $6-7B for a 25-year deal to air Dodgers games on its L.A.-area RSN, and that “could be the final straw that forces a fundamental change in TV distributors’ overall programming-cost structure,” according to a cover story by Mike Farrell of MULTICHANNEL NEWS. Cox Senior VP/Content Acquisition Bob Wilson “wasn’t convinced that the Dodger deal will be the breaking point for distributors.” But Wilson said that “escalating sports costs are a growing concern.” Farrell reports rising sports costs have been a “complaint of distributors for more than a decade.” In recent weeks, the “hue and cry for some kind of reform has been louder than ever.” Time Warner Cable President, Chair & CEO Glenn Britt last week at the UBS Global Media & Communications conference in N.Y. “argued that rising costs may force distributors to drop networks that have low ratings.” Britt said, “We’re going to take a hard look at each service and those services that cost too much relative to the viewership, we’re going to drop them.” DirecTV Exec VP/Programming & Chief Content Officer Dan York said that the satellite company is “taking a long hard look at sports costs.” York: “We would love to make all of these channels available to our customers, but the sports programmers are making it impossible with their unreasonable, unsustainable prices.” Wilson said that sports channels “obviously have strong ratings and a loyal viewership, both valuable traits to a cable system.” But Farrell notes the “perceived value and the actual value of the channel is what appears to be out of whack.” American Cable Association President & CEO Matt Polka said that concerns over "rising programming costs could spur Congress to continue to hold hearings on the issue in 2013 and beyond.” Polka added that both the U.S. House and Senate have held several hearings this year “on the need to reform current rules and regulations, including retransmission consent.” Polka: “Congress will respond in times of crisis. If consumers complain more to their congressmen and senators about the rising costs of programming, then you’ll definitely see more action” (MULTICHANNEL NEWS, 12/10 issue).
BIG CITY SURCHARGE: In L.A., Joe Flint reported DirecTV has “quietly taken a step toward selling some sports channels separately from the rest of programming it offers on several of its most popular programming packages.” New DirecTV subscribers who “live in areas where there are more than one regional sports network ... and want those channels are being asked to pay a monthly surcharge of $3.” A company spokesperson said that “only about 20% of the markets around the country have more than one regional sports network -- although that number is on the rise as Comcast, News Corp. and Time Warner Cable increasingly turn to sports to develop new channels.” The move is “significant because even though it is only for new DirecTV subscribers and only used in areas where there are multiple local sports channels, it is being seen as a first step toward selling sports channels separately.” DirecTV's shift “will likely be met with a backlash” by companies with RSNs, including Fox Sports, TWC and Comcast (LATIMES.com, 12/10).
Sporting News President & Publisher Jeff Price and Editor-in-Chief Garry Howard today formally announced the magazine “will officially become a digital brand as of January 1” after 126 years of "printing ink on paper with weekly, biweekly or monthly frequency." Sporting News will “continue to print six highly popular, sport-specific yearbook previews in 2013 -- Baseball, NFL, College Football and College Basketball plus Fantasy Football and Fantasy Baseball -- that will be available at newsstands across the country.” Neither the “subscriber base nor the current advertising market for print would allow” the publication “to operate a profitable print business going forward.” Mobile or tablet apps on Apple iOS or Android can be downloaded, with the majority of content “presented free” (SPORTINGNEWS.com, 12/11). Media writer Ed Sherman writes it has "been a while since many people thought of The Sporting News as a magazine, which is why that vehicle is fading away." Sporting News "follows the lead of Newsweek, which also is ceasing its print publication." The magazine was "huge when I was coming of sports age in the 70s." Unlike the "glossy Sports Illustrated, with its long articles, The Sporting News felt and read like a newspaper." The magazine "featured columnists from other towns" including Furman Bisher and Art Spander. It also had Jack Craig, the "first sports media columnist for the Boston Globe." Sherman: "For those of us who grew up waiting for the magazine to land in the mail box, we owe a debt of gratitude to The Sporting News. A truly great institution" (SHERMANREPORT.com, 12/11). Sporting News is owned by American City Business Journals, parent company of THE DAILY and SportsBusiness Journal.
In Detroit, Tony Paul reported Tigers TV analyst Craig Monroe "will return for a second season" with FS Detroit. Monroe, who joined the on-air team prior to last season, "was green at first, struggling to find the right camera and occasionally stumbling over words." But "by season's end, he was more smooth -- even if he seemed uneasy criticizing the team, which still consists of some of his former teammates" (DETROIT NEWS, 12/8).
INTERNET TRAFFIC: The AP's Jenna Fryer noted Lucas Oil President & CEO Forrest Lucas in June "plans to launch Lucas Oil Network, an Internet television network that will offer a heavy dose of race programming." Lucas Oil spokesperson Stuart Rowlands said, "In a time when motorsports are a little down, we are going forward just full bore." He added that the network would "immediately increase the company's reach." Lucas "expects MAVTV to remain successful, but he's preparing for the day that television becomes less prominent" (AP, 12/7).
RADIO FLYERS: TOM TAYLOR NOW reports Houston-based Gow Broadcasting has acquired "sports update service Sports Flash." Sports Flash Founder Mike Sinnott will become Yahoo Sports Radio VP, "specializing in the 'sports updates business.'" Gow said that its network "is thriving." Gow: "Since we announced our partnership with Yahoo Sports on August 1, 2011, the company has more than doubled its affiliate base, from 170 to over 360" (TOM TAYLOR NOW, 12/11 issue).
GIRLS' NIGHT OUT: The '13 WNBA Draft on April 15 will be held live in primetime for the first time in the league's 17-year history. ESPN2 will provide coverage of the first round starting at 8:00pm ET, with ESPNU televising the second and third rounds starting at 9:00pm (WNBA).