Media Circus (cont.)
LINKS OF THE WEEK
Interesting story from the SportsBusiness Journal on how the decline in local coverage has pushed pro and college sports teams to innovate. The publication also examined a group of former newspaper sportswriters and their still-forming plans to form a racing site.
ESPN announced last week that Don Ohlmeyer, a well-known sports television executive for ABC and NBC, would be the network's third ombudsman. He will begin an 18-month term in August, replacing LeAnne Schreiber. SI.com caught up with him last week.
Ohlmeyer: Well, [ESPN executive vice president and executive editor] John Walsh kept explaining to me why I would enjoy it. It's kind of like the guy who took off all his clothes and jumped in the cactus patch. They asked him why he did and he said, "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." I have always been interested in what I thought were intellectual challenges. When I went to NBC in 1993, I had my own company, which was doing very well, but I was a little bored. That was an interesting challenge: Could you go from third to first in a declining business?
Long ago I had an intimate association with ESPN and it has always had a very special place in my heart, both from a business standpoint and also from just being a fan of it. Since I retired in 2000, I have been teaching at Pepperdine University and enjoying the challenge of trying to motivate young people who aspire to go into this business. It has allowed me to reflect on what my thoughts were about television in general and sports and the media. I thought this might be an interesting way that I could engage in trying to make something better. ESPN has grown an incredible machine that has tremendous influence and a platform that people feel passionate about. I think they do a terrific job but my whole life I've always thought: No matter how terrific something is it can always be better.
SI.com: How do you define your role?
Ohlmeyer: I think there are a lot of different roles. One of the key roles is to keep your eye out for accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste, and the integrity with which things are presented. Your main role is as an interface with the viewer, to respond to their thoughts and feelings and observations. Often times it will be to explain to them why either things are the way they are that seemed to upset them, or how things can change.
SI.com: Have you been assured by ESPN that you will have complete independence?
Ohlmeyer: Yes. I have been given those assurances and I would not do it otherwise. If that were not to be the case, I would stop doing it. I have never been one to mince words and John has given me those assurances. I have no reason not to accept them.
SI.com: How often do you plan on filing columns?
Ohlmeyer: I think the basic game plan is once a month, but I also have the latitude to write whenever I wanted to. I've spent time studying this and I've read all of LeAnne's columns. I thought she did a terrific job and she set a standard that I will aspire to in terms of being congratulatory when appropriate and challenging when appropriate. I got a kick out of her first column regarding what was a dreadful thing that had been done in trying to shut down a blog [The Big Lead.com].
SI.com: Are there specific areas at ESPN that you plan to focus on, or will the column be determined by the news cycle?
Ohlmeyer: I think it will be focused by what you call the news cycle, and I think it will also be focused on what grabs the attention of readers who communicate with the ombudsman. If I see something that is particularly terrific, or I see something that is particularly abhorrent, I will respond to that appropriately.
I went on the Internet last week to take the temperature of people who have strong feelings. I put both "I love ESPN" and "I hate ESPN" into Google.com. It was like reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It brings to the fore one of ESPN's real strengths, and that is people respond passionately to it. Much of this colors where they are coming from. If they are a fan of one sport and they don't feel it is getting enough coverage, they take that personally. It is not like most forms of information/entertainment. I learned a lesson a long time ago when I was at ABC, and I learned it from Roone Arledge. Whatever success I've I had, I think this has played a big role in it. You need to respect the audience, you need to serve the audience and you need to listen to the audience. Media companies that don't do that do that at their own peril.
SI.com: One of the things that surprised Schreiber was how much the sports blogosphere wrote about her. Will you be reading critiques about your critiques?
Ohlmeyer: Well, like I said, you always learn from what other people's reactions are. I look at the blogosphere the same as I would look at people writing letters to the ombudsman. I think that the blogosphere performs a valuable function with respect to having so much opinion generated, particularly thoughtful opinion. As I learned from my wanderings of the Internet, some of it is just vitriol but some of it that is very thoughtful.
SI.com: Your son Christopher is a freelance producer and director who has worked for ESPN in the past. Does his involvement with ESPN affect you? And if not, why not?
Ohlmeyer: It doesn't. The things that he does I would have to keep off limits in terms of what I was writing about. There can only be a conflict of interest if it's not disclosed. I would probably stay out of that area. He does some very specific things for them -- golf and he directs some basketball. One of my concerns is I don't want something I say or write about ESPN to negatively influence his career [laughs]. But I had a conversation with him and he was not troubled or concerned in the slightest about my doing this.
SI.com: The job starts in August and lasts 18 months. Is that an effective time frame for an ombudsman?
Ohlmeyer: I think so. I don't think this is something you want to do for the rest of your life. John and I have been talking about this for a year and it took a long time for him to get me over the hump. I told him I was in the Nancy Reagan program when people came to me with things they want me to do: Just say no. But I thought this was really interesting.
SI.com: Let's break down how much of ESPN platforms you are reading or watching today. How much of its television programming do you watch?
Ohlmeyer: I am a regular consumer of live event programming on ESPN. I would say I am an above-average consumer. In my normal life, I would watch SportsCenter three or four times a week.
SI.com: How much of ESPN.com do you read?
Ohlmeyer: The dot-com I have not been a big consumer of, although I have used it to seek out information.
SI.com: ESPN the Magazine?
Ohlmeyer: I would classify it as I read the articles occasionally
SI.com: ESPN Radio?
Ohlmeyer: We have it here in Los Angeles and it was one of the things I check out when I get in the car driving. It is one of three or four choices that I have set on the buttons.
SI.com: You hired Dennis Miller to do Monday Night Football in 2000. Tony Kornheiser was also a candidate for that job. Now that the Kornheiser era has ended on Monday Night Football, was that a successful experiment for ESPN?
Ohlmeyer: I think Tony is an immensely talented guy, and one of the things that doing something like that accomplishes is it gets people talking. Some people like it. Some people hate it. Three men in a booth is very difficult. When I was involved with it back in the 1970s with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, you had three distinct personalities and three distinct voices, three totally distinct points of view. You also had them in a three-channel universe. The approach at the time was very much not to appeal to the hardcore fan. The hardcore football fan was going to be there. With Dennis, one of the goals was ABC had a very substantial drop with young male viewership, and Dennis brought young males to the telecast. And young male viewership was up 10 percent the first year Dennis was on.
It's a different world today. Kids today cannot comprehend the notion of a three- or five-channel universe when they have grown up in a 500-channel universe. Not only that, they can order on demand and they have cell phones where they are constantly connected. The Web is the most transformative technological advancement since [Johannes] Gutenberg's printing press.