Nothing is more galling for a sports fan than being engrossed in a live event only to have it hijacked in midflight. At 9:49 p.m. ET on June 25, ESPN did just that to 837,000 ardent fans watching the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. With less than two laps to go in the men's 5,000-meter run, the network cut away to live coverage of the final three outs of a no-hitter pitched by Arizona's Edwin Jackson. The track viewers were suddenly transported to the ninth inning of the Diamondbacks' eventual 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay. The excitement was palpable as Jackson induced a strikeout and a fly out, gave up a walk, then got Jason Bartlett to ground out. Pandemonium ensued as Jackson etched his name into baseball history.To his credit, he eventually gets to the point: ESPN is contractually obligated to show the final outs of any no-hitter, and to do so on the flagship channel rather than ESPN2 or ESPN News.
ESPN's coup provided a memorable service … to baseball fans. Unfortunately, it was an insulting disservice to the track audience, and the mailbag quickly reflected that with a barrage of comments. Track viewers were livid. Some called it "unprofessional" and "arrogant" and "a slap in the face." Others: "If I wanted to watch baseball I would have watched baseball" … "It shows no respect for track fans" … "I guess the U.S. championships was just filler programming until something better came along."
The offense was compounded when, after a seven-minute baseball cut-in, the network went directly to "Baseball Tonight," forcing the track audience to wait another 39 minutes to see a 60-second recap of the 5,000 and results of the 100-meter dash. You could not choreograph a better way to alienate an audience. The ESPN decision has repercussions, creating ill will and straining loyalty.
Such decisions are made in the blink of an eye. Often, they're determined by the strength and passion of the advocates in the control room. Programming's responsibility is the orderly execution and flow of the various elements running on the network -- in contrast, a producer's perspective totally revolves around specific telecasts, whether event or studio productions (such as "Monday Night Football" or "SportsCenter"). These two groups interact smoothly hundreds of times each week, but there can be tension, and the discussions over decisions such as this can get loud and sometimes very heated.In other words, the cool kids bullied the track nerds into changing the channel. But here's the kicker:
The producers of the track event wanted to continue serving their viewers. The "Baseball Tonight" producers anticipated the excitement and audience the no-hitter could generate if carried over directly into their broadcast. Programming played Solomon, and in this case got steamrolled by the BBTN team.
Was the move worth it? From a ratings perspective, ESPN picked up 160,000 viewers during the cut-in (many of which likely came from the College World Series being shown at the same time on ESPN2). That would only be natural -- they're baseball fans. But for BBTN, the fastest-paced, cleanest show on television, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Many viewers didn't stay. Just 20 minutes into the program, its audience had dropped from 1 million to 750,000.At the top, he said the track meet was pulling 837,000 viewers. The no-hitter only got it up to 1 million which quickly dropped to 750,000 during Baseball Tonight, which programmers believe to be one of their top shows. And then ESPN got inundated with so much hate mail that their ombudsman had to respond.
Track people basically hit the programming bullies in the nose. We showed management that there are a lot of us, we are very engaged, and we follow through. You know, the kind of thing that advertisers are in love with. Rest assured, this incident has been noticed in Bristol.