Memo to ESPN: Please show the French Open live
June 4, 2004
by Kristin Green Morse, tennis producer for SI.com
Let me start by saying I'll generally do anything to avoid an argument. Few things make me mad enough to take a stand, at least a public one anyway. Until now.
Have you been watching ESPN's coverage of the French Open? Note that I didn't ask if you have been watching the live coverage. Sure, the network has given us some live-action nuggets here and there, but we've been subjected to a lot of tape-delayed nonsense. And, based on the number of letters that SI.com's tennis writer Jon Wertheim has received, I know I'm not the only one who's worked up. (Word is even the commentators are annoyed by the program scheduling.) The coverage has been absurd.
Note to ESPN: If you wish to be the Grand Slam network, please act like it. Tennis fans want to see lots of tennis, and we want to see it live. You've dedicated five to six hours a day, five days a week to the French Open; why haven't you used that time wisely? One airing of the second-round Serena Williams-Maria Kirilenko match was enough. (Although we're sure Kirilenko scored high on the Q ratings, tennis fans would prefer to watch more matches, rather than repeats. Go figure.)
In the interest of journalistic integrity and fairness, I called to ESPN to find out how the network defends its programming. "It's an art, not a science," said spokesman Dave Nagle. "There is a little science, and that's ratings. We originally had scheduled 88 hours of coverage and increased that by 11 1/2 hours.
"The hard-core tennis aficionados have different tastes than the casual fans. And if we want to grow the sport we need to bring in as many new viewers as possible."
This may come as a shock, but Tuesday's Serena-Jennifer Capriati quarterfinal match did not actually start at 9 p.m. in France, as ESPN wanted us to believe. It actually started at 1 p.m. in Paris (7 a.m. EDT) and finished more than six hours before it aired on ESPN at 3 p.m. EDT. I'm sure there were some people who didn't know the result before the tape-delayed showing, and I'm willing to bet those people all live under one medium-sized rock in the Sahara Desert.
To make matters worse, ESPN2 then replayed that -- let's be honest, here -- mediocre JCap-Serena match the next day rather than run live coverage of Gustavo Kuerten vs. David Nalbandian, which was saved for big brother ESPN at 1 p.m. Sure, the women's match may have had more cache for an American audience, but that begs the question: Why not show it live in the first place?
"The match started before we went on air," said Nagle. "And we wanted to show it in its entirety when more people could see it."
The problem with that is, in the age of 24-hour news programs and Internet overload, you have to work really hard to keep from finding out the outcome of a sporting event. My job doesn't allow me the luxury of turning off all modes of communication, burying my head and patiently waiting for the tape-delayed coverage of a tennis match in Paris. I obviously don't work in TV, and I certainly don't claim to know the least bit about television programming, but I know I like to see big matches live.
Even as I rant, I sympathize with ESPN. The early losses of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and eight other American men must have created an Excedrin-level headache in Bristol, Conn. No doubt the semifinal between Paola Suarez and Elena Dementieva is not exactly the dream matchup the network probably envisioned when it signed on to cover the French Open. (I won't even mention the pairing of Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina in the final.)*God knows a Williams sisters semifinal showdown coulda, shoulda, woulda been great; alas, it wasn't meant to be. And I understand that the Argentine drama of David Nalbandian versus Gaston Gaudio may not play well in Peoria, but that's sports. It doesn't always pan out the way you plan it -- if it did, we would all win our NCAA basketball office pool every year. When you have two channels (ESPN and the Deuce) dedicated to French Open programming, it is ridiculous that tennis fans are subjected to tape delay and, even worse, match replays.
While I'm on a roll, another question that has perplexed me throughout the tournament: Who designed the score box in the upper left-hand corner of the screen? It is unreadable. In fact, a colleague described it as "the worst graphic in sports history." OK, that may be a bit strong, but it is definitely difficult -- if not impossible -- to decipher. It seems like it should be easy to come up with a graphic that clearly shows the score of a match. A rather vital statistic, I would argue.
Phew. Maybe this ranting stuff is healthy after all. I haven't said anything ESPN hasn't heard a thousand times before, but I felt compelled to say my piece and be the voice of the hundreds of letter writers we've heard from, including some who used descriptions like "morons" and phrases such as "ruined this tournament for me." We didn't want to take it to that extreme, we just wanted to let ESPN know there are tennis fans out there who enjoy the game -- not only when it is played by Americans and/or six-foot tall blondes. But, even more important, we like watching matches when we don't know who wins. Fancy that.