Steve Tignor of tennis.com talked to ESPN about their Aussie Open coverage, with a focus on how the network picks the matches it will broadcast and why the commentators talk so damn much. The network exec loves Chris Fowler, which tells me everything I need to know:
If you were following my Aussie Open blogs, you know I made a few critiques of the coverage by ESPN. I usually do: The broadcasts themselves are all part of the experience, and I know tennis fans have particularly strong feelings when it comes to their commentators.
I generally thought the network did a good job of showing us as much of the tournament and getting across as much of its atmosphere as possible. You can’t say ESPN doesn’t go all out. As for criticisms, I thought they worked too hard to make the early telecasts U.S.-centric, with questions about the Super Bowl and an interview with Lance Armstrong, and that there was too much chatter in general. Tennis fans want to see matches first and foremost.
ESPN saw my remarks and tried to set me up with an interview with Jamie Reynolds, a vice president at the company who heads their Grand Slam tennis and golf coverage. Due to the time distance, I never reached him in Oz, but we connected yesterday to talk about the network’s two weeks Down Under and current broadcast philosophy.
The first thing Reynolds said was that he and the tennis unit have been trying for three years to improve their ability to hop around the event, the way it’s done at golf Slams, and get people involved in as many different matches—Reynolds, like other sports TV people, calls them “stories”—as possible.
“If you watch the network dramas,” he says, “you’ll see that they move in 90 second beats. Ninety seconds on one story, move to the next, and so on. That’s how we try to think of a Slam in the first week. We want to get people engaged in stories that we can return to.”
The Worldwide Leader has told me before that it was trying to show more sidecourt matches, and then I’ve flicked the channel on to see four hours of nothing but Americans Andy Roddick and Serena Williams. But Oz did seem different. Maybe it’s the current second-tier status of Roddick, but I was pretty happy with who I got to watch. It seemed to me that the idea was to focus on the big names of tennis, regardless of where they came from. Federer, Murray, Jankovic, Nadal, Ivanovic, Safina, even Nalbandian all got lots of airtime.
“We don’t think ratings are tied to Americans necessarily,” Reynolds says. “Federer and Nadal are guys everyone is going to tune in to see.
That doesn’t mean ESPN will start to ignore the Williams sisters any time soon, even if they’re blowing their opponents out. Serena and Venus remain a draw, to the point where the network will request that they be scheduled so they can be shown in prime time in the U.S. The daily schedule in Oz was a compromise between the needs of the tournament itself, the local Channel 7, and ESPN. The same is true at Wimbledon.
As for the overabundance of talking heads, Reynolds defends them on three fronts. One, if you’re going to cover multiple courts, you need multiple people to call the matches. Two, sticking with just three or four voices over the course of two weeks would get stale. And three, he thinks the pundits help bring casual fans closer to the sport.
“For the hardcore fans, we could probably just put a camera on the court and let it go with no commentating at all,” he says. “But we think our experts draw in the next tier of fans, who want a story about a player or something else to hang onto.”
In particular, Reynolds loves the skills that Chris Fowler brings to thisjob. “I don’t think people appreciate all the things he does. He’s a pro at moving the broadcast along and talking to people, but he’s also incredibly passionate about tennis.”
I think I can see Reynolds’ point about the number of voices he has in place. Being a very casual golf fan, I don’t find the non-stop commentary on every shot obtrusive—it’s helpful. And you can see that Reynolds has adopted a total-coverage mentality at the tennis Slams that’s reminiscent of golf. But I still think there are times when the number of personalities talking can obscure the action on the court. Everyone has their own opinion on who’ s a good commentator—I’m amazed sometimes at who people like and dislike. For me, I think I could enjoy two full weeks with just Fowler, Enberg, Gilbert, Cahill, PMac, and Shriver. You’d have your own list. Reynolds has his.
ESPN will offer more taped coverage at the French Open, ceding time to the Tennis Channel. The main focus now, of course, is the U.S. Open, which ESPN is taking from USA this year. “We’re working toward that, and trying to find out what works best by the time we get there,” he says. “The plan is to do it like we’ve been doing the other Slams, whenever possible.”
As for tennis fans, Reynolds hears the complaints, but doesn’t sound too bitter. “It can be frustrating,” he says, “when you have someone say, ‘why didn’t you show that match out on Court 15?’ People think there’s a camera and commentary booth on every court, and there just isn’t. We can’t be everywhere at once.
“The tennis audience is sophisticated, and they know what they want. When they don’t get it, they’re as tough as any sport’s audience out there. When you miscalculate and show the wrong thing, you know you’re going to hear about it.”
Here’s my list: Gilbert, Cahill, Navratilova (poached from TC) and Luke Jensen as a serious commentator and not the “goofy guy in the stands.” I’d be open to adding Cliff Drysdale because he can pull off Chris Fowler’s bit with a hell of a lot more authority. I’m on the fence about P-Mac because he’s started talking incessantly over every point. But the first three peeps are all I really need.