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Poynter Criticism of ESPN Olympics Coverage is Misguided

Kelly McBride, as part of Poynter’s Review Project, criticized ESPN’s handling of the Olympics. She believes more time on the network should have been devoted to Olympic coverage. She feels, despite the challenges, ESPN should have been more “innovative.” This criticism is misguided.

Here is McBride:

Granted, a lack of video is a much bigger problem on television. We get that. But three to four minutes an hour is just not enough acknowledgement of all the great sporting moments that happened daily in the Olympics.

What else could the producers of “SportsCenter” have done? They could have created a special daily list of Olympic moments, explaining that the video wasn’t available because the rights were restricted. They could have featured spectacular still photography. They could have done a daily feature on one untold Olympic story. They could have given hourly updates of the daytime Olympic events, especially those that NBC wasn’t broadcasting live. And “SportsCenter” certainly could have tapped into ESPN.com content and contributors more often.

The absence of video is not “a much bigger problem” covering sports on television. It is an intractable problem. Movement attracts eyeballs. Still photography, still graphics and an anchor talking (unless you go the FOX News talking sets of legs route) do not. Tom Rinaldi could have delivered the verbal equivalent of intercourse live from London. Without video it is not compelling television. Sportscenter is ESPN’s flagship news program, but its primary purpose remains to deliver ratings and  to sell advertisements.

Extensive coverage of events NBC was not broadcasting live would have been futile. Besides upsetting NBC and being reamed out by viewers screaming “SPOILER ALERT,” there was no departure point for “next-level” analysis. What use is context when a vast majority of your audience has not seen the event?

NBC did not provide video until after 3AM ET. Most of ESPN’s audience was seeing major events around 11PM ET. The earliest ESPN could have provided effective treatment to the Olympics was the following morning. By that point Sportscenter would have been treading in 24 hours after the results were known and even after print newspapers were delivered. It would have been old news. Beyond a few ongoing stories, such as Phelps, USA Basketball or the gymnastics, ESPN had little reason to bother.

ESPN’s choice was not between covering or not covering the Olympics. It was between offering subpar coverage of the Olympics or better coverage of something else. ESPN opted for the latter. They could have done more. They could have innovated, but corporate impetus comes when it benefits your own company, not your direct competitor.

[Photo via Getty]

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