This Is Not Soccer: Thoughts On ESPN’s Surprising Lack Of A Preemption Policy
ESPN programmed its broadcast of Wednesday night's USA-Mexico friendly in Philadelphia to begin on ESPN2 at 8:30 EDT leading up to a 9:13 kickoff. It did not appear on ESPN2 until 9:34:23, a preemption of more than an hour in order to accommodate a Little League World Series regional qualifying semifinal game. How, and why, these decisions are made may surprise you.
The network shifted USA-Mexico to ESPN News for the first hour of its broadcast. Quick: ask yourself what channel ESPN News is on your cable or satellite package. You probably had to look it up. Audiences tuning in to watch a match between the United States and its biggest international rival were sent scanning their program guides while kids played baseball on their televisions.
Shifting events to other channels (usually ESPN News or ESPN Classic) is a necessary reality when broadcasting any live sports programming -- and either one audience or the other is going to be pissed off. An overwhelming percentage of the time this is the audience of the incoming broadcast, which in this case was the soccer game. Why?
The oft-cited reason is the cultural legacy of the Heidi game. It's such a foundation in the broadcast culture that to cut away from a game in-progress is known as "pulling a Heidi." But the broadcast and cable landscape of 1968 is unrecognizable compared to 2011, and making programming decisions based on one bad decision made 43 years ago seems ridiculous. Given the massive corpus of ESPN corporate regulations and policies, you'd assume they had a set of rules or at least guidelines that would direct producers how to handle a high-profile event conflicting with Little League baseball, right?
According to an ESPN producer, there are no guidelines offered by the network as to shifting games in-progress to another channel on the ESPN Network, and to do so is exceptionally rare -- 90% of the time, games in-progress are kept on their current channel. This is a convenience for viewers of that game, but an inconvenience for those seeking to watch the event they were expecting on that channel. Indeed, if you take the amount of aggregate effort required to find the game you want to watch, it's far more inconvenient to start an event on another channel then bring it back to the one it was programmed for. Put simply:
* Shifting the program that's running long to another channel requires its audience to find it, though announcers can make it clear far ahead of time that if the event runs long, it will be shifted to another channel, and people can find it ahead of time. The incoming audience has to do nothing.
* Shifting the incoming program requires new viewers to wait until they learn what channel it's actually on, change to that channel, then change back once the program that ran long is finally over. For last night's event, that wait would have been up to 2 1/2 minutes.
If both audiences are of equal size, that's twice the effort. (That's also assuming channel availability is equal, which is far from true in this instance.) But what other factors ought to be considered?
The producer I spoke with explained the Little League game (which I iterate was not a Little League World Series game, but a regional qualifier) was close when the soccer match was scheduled to start. At 9:13, the game was 9-6 in favor of the visiting team with one out in the top of the sixth inning. Is this close? That's for you to decide. (The final score was 12-6.) This should be a factor as well, but again ESPN offers no guidelines as to how to make these decisions. It's possible ESPN's contracts with the leagues whose events they broadcast specifically require the events to be shown on specific channels in their entirety -- but it's doubtful Little League baseball has that kind of clout.
This producer also argued the value of the end of any game is greater than the start of another. This is true as far as the dramatic level of the competition itself goes, but sports programming is about far more than the actual game and has been for a very long time. If only the game mattered, soccer matches wouldn't have all the pomp & circumstance that precedes them. There are a surprising number of viewers of sports events who have limited interest in a game's outcome but instead get enjoyment from visual elements or spectacle in the broadcast.
The fact that ESPN offers its producers no guidelines whatsoever as to how to deal with conflicting programming is shocking and an immense oversight by the corporation. Without these guidelines, cultural norms take hold, and the legacy of Heidi stands in the way of making for a more enjoyable experience for its viewers as a whole. This is in addition to organizational culture and a moral code that reads "ESPN does not cut away from games, because cutting away from games is wrong." Even worse, personal biases by the producers who make these decisions can influence which decisions are made -- a producer who loves soccer but hates baseball may have made the opposite decision, and have been completely in his or her rights to, simply because of personal preferences.
So, here are my suggestions:
* Use the Bottom Line for program alerts only when events scheduled to be on that channel are preempted. It is inexcusable to require a viewer expecting to see an event to have to wait three minutes to find out why it isn't on their screen.
* Stop using Heidi as an example for anything. The media world has nothing in common with 1968. It is not a moral lesson, a cautionary tale, or an ethical beacon. It's a notable event in the past and nothing more.
* Use rational means to calculate decisions, meaning taking into account expected ratings & audience numbers. This may sound cold & emotionless, but that's how rational decisions are made. Does this mean upsetting audiences sometimes? Sure -- but it's not beyond the Worldwide Leader to figure out which decision will upset the fewest people. Phrases like "it's wrong to do that" reflect a morals-based rather than logic-based pattern of decision-making -- and ESPN needs to realize its viewers don't all worship at its altar or live by its gospel.
Of course ESPN has an effective monopoly on sports programming in the United States cable space, and they have little incentive to care about the thoughts or feelings of its viewers. They owe only to Disney shareholders, but it seems this is an example of a circumstance in which the rational, logic-based, profit-driven choice is the one that also inconveniences the fewest viewers -- and thus, at least in the aggregate, results in a higher level of satisfaction from those viewers. Isn't that all we can ask for?
We contacted ESPN to clarify or respond to the lack of preemption guidelines, and will update this piece when they do.
Update: ESPN spokesperson Bill Hofheimer tweeted the following:
starting US-MEX on ESPNEWS was unfortunate circumstance but this is one of the challenges of back-to-back live events. ESPN almost always sticks w/ the live event until it ends. Soccer fans would want the same if a match ran long. Fans were alerted of sched change and match was still available in HD and on ESPN3. Otherwise, hope you liked ESPN’s unprecedented commitment to this friendly.
Update #2: ESPN Spokeperson Josh Krulewitz, via email:
Obviously the uncertainty of back to back live events plays a role here. In general, ESPN almost always sticks w/ the live event until it ends. We have flexibility with multiple fully distributed outlets to service fans...if situation was reverse, soccer fans would have wanted us to stay with that game til its conclusion....In this case, fans were alerted of the schedule change and match was still available in HD on espnews and on ESPN3.
The nearly identical responses from both Hofheimer & Krulewitz reflect the above conclusions that ESPN corporate culture dictates behavior in a moral rather than logical manner. "Soccer fans would have wanted the same thing" is not a logical argument, it's an emotional one, and it's not the basis for how to make decisions that benefit the viewership as a whole.
In other words, ESPN really DOES have a policy on shifting games in-progress: a near-zero-tolerance policy codified not in by written regulation but in a corporate culture that believes it's wrong to make people change the channel of something they were already watching.
Follow Timothy Burke on Twitter at @bubbaprog.
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