ESPN's Penn State Coverage Fails Miserably
Published on: November 10, 2011 | Written by: Clay Travis
Last night ESPN demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt why it desperately needs real competition. Because if you had to give a letter grade to ESPN's live coverage from State College, Pennsylvania you'd need a grade worse than F. To say that ESPN dropped the ball does injustice to the cliche. Last night ESPN was to live news television what sex with a blow-up doll is to sex, a pale imitation that is completely humiliating to anyone who considers it as an option.
But maybe I'm being unkind, if your goal was hearing non-ESPN reporters call-in from the scene of rioting last night then you were well on your way to great coverage. Nobody turns television into radio better than the worldwide leader.
How bad was it for ESPN? Gregg Doyel of CBS's live Twitter feed was more compelling content than anything ESPN could muster.
His. Twitter. Feed.
This was, perhaps, the biggest live story in college sports history and ESPN was utterly incapable of providing any semblance of decent coverage. ESPN was bad that anyone with a brain flipped over to CNN and watched a British woman with no clue about American sports completely dominate the "worldwide leader in sports." We haven't seen a sports upset like this since Chaminade took down Ralph Sampson's Virginia.
I don't hate ESPN, and I don't have a vendetta against the network. In fact, as you'll see in a Kirk Herbstreit profile piece going up later today, I like a lot of their guys and gals, but this was pathetic. Every time I come to expect more, ESPN shows me why I should actually expect much less.
For those of you thinking -- you're being too hard on ESPN, I disagree.
ESPN has a monopoly on live sports coverage right now. That means if you, like me, were a sports fan and wanted to follow the scene unfolding at Penn State you had few options. None once CNN returned to its coverage of the Republican presidential debate. Live news events like this are when viewers are won. It's great to watch sports highlights, but we can get those anywhere these days. Live news coverage of a rapidly evolving situation is when you come to value what reporters do. It's when your loyalty to a network arises.
And it's become all too common for ESPN to drop the ball in situations like this. But last night was the worst ever.
(By the way, I'm not leaving NBC, CBS, or Fox blameless here. If any of these networks want to compete with ESPN in sports they really needed to have people on the ground and be prepared for this event. Instead ESPN dropped the ball and no one was there to recover its fumble. The Big Ten Network was particularly blameworthy -- a football game replay. Really?)
Let's recount the failures:
1. ESPN can't manage to get the Board of Trustees announcement on live.
Instead it plays the audio feed from the announcement. I'm no tech guru, but that seems like a fireable offense. You're a television network. If the cameras aren't working, shouldn't you know that in advance?
That's inexcusable and this failure set's the table for a myriad of failures to come.
Paul Pabst from the Dan Patrick Show tweets that CNN has the live feed of the announcement. I rapidly switch over there and will primarily stay on CNN for the next hour.
2. ESPN had four days to get reporters five hours away from Bristol, Connecticut.
Yet, the network failed to get enough people there.
On Sunday OKTC told you that Joe Paterno should never coach another game. That's because I read the 23 page grand jury report then and knew there was no way Paterno, or anyone else who knew about this, could keep his job. The grand jury report was released at noon on Saturday. This means ESPN's executives had four complete days to read that report and put all hands on deck in Happy Valley. This was a massive story that demanded the "worldwide leader's" resources.
Especially when you consider this: There are no other stories going on right now.
What else is ESPN covering live in the middle of the week? I mean aside from the Dallas Cowboys and Tim Tebow.
I'll tell you this much, if Tony Romo had been in State College ESPN would have had fifty cameras there with him.
If CNN can get Anderson Cooper to the farthest reaches of the globe to report live with no advance knowledge, how is it that ESPN can't get reporters in a car for the five hour drive to State College? Put simply, ESPN abjectly failed its viewers by not putting enough cameras and reporters on the ground there.
3. This story was completely foreseeable.
Tuesday night there was a near riot. Even if you'd completely dropped the ball for three days, couldn't someone at ESPN have realized you need a team on the ground at Penn State after the emotional scene outside Joe Paterno's house?
This isn't rocket science.
Joe Paterno even resigned on Wednesday morning. At that point you knew, at minimum, that Paterno's final home game would be Saturday. Didn't you need everyone there at that point? Even if ESPN's coverage had failed until Wednesday morning, it still had plenty of time to get a team of reporters there once Joe Pa announced his resignation.
If I'd been making the calls, I would have said we need four camera crews and reporters minimum. One to follow Joe Paterno wherever he goes, one outside Joe Paterno's house at all times, one outside the Board of Trustees meeting, and one to keep tabs on the student reaction.
That's at a minimum.
Again, that's if I was in charge. It's really not that complicated.
One reason that ESPN is hated by many is because they overcover manufactured stories -- oh, my God, did Lebron cry in the locker room! -- and undercover stories that actually require intelligence and touch. Here, ESPN, king of overcoverage, actually undercovered one of the biggest college football stories of all-time. (I suspect that ESPN will try and make up for this undercoverage by producing way too many pre-recorded puff pieces. Cue Tom Rinaldi and the tinkling piano keys).
4. This is when you recognize, ESPN has no college football reporters anymore.
I don't mean talking head former athletes or analysts, I mean actual football reporters dedicated to the beat.
I have no idea how Joe Schad wasn't in State College. (Give Schad credit, he's never been as clueless as Tom Rinaldi was last night). But who else does ESPN have dedicated to the beat besides Schad? There isn't anyone, right?
ESPN also had no writers of any substance there. Not that I've seen filing columns, anyway. Right now ESPN has Mark Schlabach and Ivan Maisel as national college football writers. That's it with the recent losses of Pat Forde and Bruce Feldman. Schlabach is a good writer, but ESPN didn't send him there. As for Ivan Maisel? Good Lord, if ESPN had him in State College he would have ended up filing a column about the local humane society's lack of volunteers.
So, yeah, that's alarming.
But that's why you have an entire network, right?
So you aren't left with just Tom Rinaldi on the scene. And, oh boy, let's talk about Tom Rinaldi.
5. What the hell was Tom Rinaldi doing last night?
First, it takes him thirty minutes to appear live on television. Second, when he finally does appear live, he's standing in front of a large shrub. He offered nothing. I could have walked outside with my iPhone and had my wife interview me from the front of my house and provided more context.
While a riot is going on outside Tom Rinaldi is standing in front of a shrub!
To be fair, if that shrub had rioted Rinaldi would have had one hell of an exclusive.
Second, after disappearing for over two hours -- I honestly thought Rinaldi might have been kidnapped -- Rinaldi reappears at the football stadium and reports that all is quiet there and he hasn't seen anything on the campus all night.
What. The. F---?
Tom Rinaldi is ESPN's only man on the ground with a camera for one of the craziest nights in college football history and he provided absolutely no reporting.
How is this even possible?
6. Meanwhile CNN has a British chick, Isha Sesay, absolutely trouncing ESPN.
If Isha Sesay was Mike Tyson in the late 1980's then ESPN was whatever tin can opponent got knocked out in the first round. It was that bad. Comparing Isha Sesay's deft questioning with, say, Stuart Scott's, was like asking my toddler to compete against Stephen Hawking in an origins of the universe debate.
ESPN would have been better served by Scott if they'd simply shown news trucks being toppled again and again and had Scott say, "Boo-yah," when the trucks hit the ground.
Seriously, ESPN got knocked the F out.
And that's despite Isha Sesay not even knowing what American football is.
What's her background? Per CNN:
"A seasoned journalist, Sesay has covered numerous breaking news and world news events including Zimbabwe’s disputed 2008 election; the Russia-Georgia conflict; the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; the kidnapping of British toddler Margaret Hill in the Niger Delta; the death of Slobodan Milosevic; Liberia’s historic election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; the hospitalization of Ariel Sharon; the foiled transatlantic plane bomb plot; the Israeli-Hezbollah war; the arrest of John Mark Karr in connection with the death of Jon Benet Ramsey, and the Live Earth concert in Johannesburg, South Africa."
So, yeah, not a lot of Penn State games in there.
Which explains the fact that she didn't even know Penn State had a game this weekend.
And she still trounced the "worldwide leader in sports" all by herself.
7. About this time, ESPN "reporter" Erin Andrews Tweeted this photo from the Country Music Awards.
"The biggest thrill for me tonight..finally meeting the lovely Faith Hill..#everything"
I'm not trying to pick on Erin Andrews, but she's a college sports reporter, right? Would Katie Couric Tweet out a photo of herself with Taylor Swift at the exact same time that Barack Obama was resigning?
Taking a step back, couldn't someone at ESPN have foreseen this story emerging and told EA she didn't need to be presenting at the CMA's and, just maybe, sent her to the ground at State College?
Looking at this pop up on my Twitter feed I couldn't help but think it was the perfect metaphor of ESPN's sports coverage -- all flash no substance.
8. CNN cuts to a recorded interview of Anderson Cooper and Dr. Phil discussing the Penn State victims.
Oh, man, now CNN sucks too.
What options do I have?
I can't find a single news organization doing live, on the ground stories from Penn State. How is this complete incompetence possible?
9. It's the live video, stupid.
One after another ESPN trots out talking heads -- via phone -- to talk about Joe Paterno.
The story is unfolding right now at Penn State. Students are rioting. We want to see the live video, not hear what Chris Fowler thinks about Joe Paterno. There will be plenty of time to hear everything that Fowler thinks about Paterno. Now the story is unfolding.
Get us the video!
The story was clearly the reaction at Penn State.
Yet ESPN had no actual video footage of that.
How is it possible that a multi-billion dollar company can't manage to get us live video from State College? Hell, CNN can put us in the center of a Middle East revolution so that we all fear for Anderson Cooper's life. And it can do that live. But ESPN can't even get us live video from a college campus.
Hell, ESPN would have been better served putting up Doyel's Twitter feed on the screen than the coverage it had. Doyel might not have had any video, but at least he was Tweeting still photographs. That's more than ESPN could manage.
10. Give ESPN credit, they turned a 21st century HD television broadcast into 1940's radio.
Who knew the fireside chats were going to return 66 years after FDR's death?
Who knew that all the bells and whistles of HD could so rapidly be replaced with radio?
ESPN had a chance to cover one of the biggest stories in college football history with grace, precision, and aplomb. Instead, they failed, miserably.
If your kid came home with a report card like this, you'd ground him. But ESPN's still a monopoly, what can you do with it?
Just sigh...and pray for some competition.
Update: in the understatement of the century a top ESPN news exec has already acknowledged: "I think we missed the story a little bit."
Also, if you happened to miss last night's Board of Trustees press conference, you have to watch.