This is really interesting ---- I wonder if it is brought about in response to some of our complaints!
from TennisWeek: (I have also copied the links to the interviews down at the bottom!)
Tuning In To Tennis: ESPN Execs Explain Network's Australian Open Coverage
Photo By Cynthia Lum By Richard Pagliaro
At the Australian Open, where a retractable roof can completely shroud the sky, American viewers can always see the stars shine with a television rather than telescope providing the perfect view.
Tennis fans tuning into ESPN's nearly 80 hours of Australian Open coverage may see a sight that resembles planetarium-produced programming — the stars are always out no matter when you tune in. Though the men's and women's draws began with a combined collection of 256 players, the number of players appearing in prime-time American television are about as large as the cast of a television sitcom.
Part of ESPN's programming decisions take into account the alarming time difference between Australia and the United Sates: Melbourne is 16 hours ahead of the East Coast and 19 hours ahead of the West Coast. ESPN execs assert that repeating the matches of some players, such as top-ranked Andy Roddick, in both their live evening coverage and tape-delayed afternoon coverage is due to the network's dual obligation to provide West Coast prime-time viewers the most popular players as well as giving those on the East Coast who can't live every weekday night as if it were New Year's Eve the chance to see the players they missed in the mid-afternoon tape-delay telecast. As a result, the Oz Open may appear to offer a less varied view than ESPN's coverage of Roland Garros or Wimbledon, but part of that may be due to the fact that the window of air time for the season's first Slam is slightly smaller than the subsequent Slams, while the competition from other traditionally popular American events — the NFL playoffs, NBA season and the conclusion of the college football season and start of college basketball season — provides a tougher test to capture the interest of potential viewers.
In addition, a depleted women's draw saw such prominent players such as defending champion Serena Williams, two-time champion Jennifer Capriati, former winners Monica Seles and Mary Pierce all withdraw from the tournament before a single shot was struck leaving ESPN without the presence of some of the game's most popular players in a women's field that already lacks the depth of the men's side. For those reasons, ESPN insists part of its programming plans are based on its desire to establish the story lines fans will follow throughout this Melbourne fortnight as well as the rest of the year.
Tennis fans who attend matches are accustomed to taking a seat and watching a drama unfold where points are the plot line propelling the story to the inevitable climax that culminates with match point. One match can be an exciting episode enjoyed in its entirety. ESPN seems to approach its coverage of a match as a single show in a two-week mini-series with unseeded players sometimes relegated to the roles of character actors in the ongoing saga of the stars.
In those instances, the coverage can seem like a made-for-tennis television version of "Waiting for Godot" with Roddick playing the lead role and the network essentially directing its show while "waiting for Roddick" to take the stage. The star power of Agassi, Roddick and the Williams sisters is undeniable, but hard-core tennis fans who can tire of the feeling they are force-fed the same match menu at the expense of sampling the appealing variety inherent in a 128-player Grand Slam draw.
In that sense it seems as if ESPN is basically operating under the assumption that it can count on its core audience — those die-hard fans who will stay up past midnight to watch tennis even if the match they're watching is about as competitive as Steffi Graf's obliteration of Natasha Zvereva in the 1988 Roland Garros final — to tune in regardless of the matches it televises. Critics take the network to task for emphasizing the same cast of Americans in an attempt to cater to the casual tennis fan or the general sports fan, who is aware of Andre, Andy, Venus and Serena on a first-name basis, but may wonder if Smashnova-Pistolesi is a new brand of jackhammer or Vodka.
Some fans of foreign players feel their favorites are too often overshadowed in the ESPN star system. But can you really blame the network that has invested millions of dollars in securing rights fees to three of the four Slams — the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon — and plans to telecast 525 hours of tennis coverage this year, including the U.S. Davis Cup ties, Indian Wells, the Nasdaq-100 Open, the Tennis Masters Cup and WTA Tour Championships, for trying to grow the game's television audience?
On the other hand, repetitive telecasts of the same, name players may be good for ratings, but are they good for the growth of the game? And does ESPN really care about tennis' future anyway or is it merely trying to maximize its investment in a niche sport that sometimes seems to struggle to match the viewership of late-night infomercials?
Among ESPN's staff of about 85 people working in Melbourne include its primary announcing team — Cliff Drysdale, Mary Joe Fernandez, Patrick McEnroe, Pam Shriver, MaliVai Washington and Mary Carillo— who have all competed in Grand Slams during the course of their playing careers. That experienced crew is complemented by studio host Chris Fowler, play-by-play announcer Tim Ryan and Brad Gilbert, who will appear as an ESPN analyst when it doesn't conflict with his primary job of coaching Andy Roddick.
The network has invested both time and money to transform the way tennis is televised with its Emmy Award-winning ShotSpot technology that not only provides clear views of close calls, but is also used to help measure stroke speed.
The network's numbers — ratings — can serve as both evidence that the American stars draw viewers and support ESPN's assertion that its American player-based programming is simply a product of the network giving people precisely what they tune in to see. And the fact is many Americans undoubtedly do tune it to follow the familiar faces creating compelling story lines: Roddick's run to a potential second straight Grand Slam championship, the ageless Agassi asserting his authority over players a decade or more younger as he stretches his victory streak in Melbourne to 24 matches in seeking his fifth career Australian crown, the long-awaited return to tournament tennis of designing diva Venus Williams as she strives to sew up her first major title since the 2001 U.S. Open championship.
In the bottom-line business of television, numbers play a primary part in programming, and the ratings rise when American stars — particularly Agassi, Roddick and the Williams sisters — play. The ratings from the 2003 Roland Garros and U.S. Open women's finals, which aired on other networks, support the statement that American players produce higher ratings in this country. The all-Belgian final between Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters in both the 2003 Roland Garros and U.S. Open finals drew a significantly lower rating than the 2002 finals featuring the Williams sisters. Jennifer Capriati's consecutive conquests of Martina Hingis in the Australian Open finals in 2001 and 2002 were among the highest-rated women's tennis matches in ESPN history.
History helps shape the future of how tennis is televised in the United States.
During the tennis boon of the 1970s, a cast of compelling characters consistently contending for Grand Slam championships — Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on the men's side and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the women's game — gave tennis a constellation of charismatic competitors whose star power drew fans to the game like the sun draws fans of tans.
Ratings have declined in recent years and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe attributes this to a number of factors including the undeniable passion that made those past champions so appealing and identifiable to fans as well as the apathetic approach some young players have that makes the simple act of running after a crosscourt shot seem as daunting as swimming the English Channel.
"We could basically predict my brother, Connors and Borg would be in the semis of majors so people knew them just because of that," McEnroe said told Tennis Week.com in a past interview. "Obviously, they had unbelievable personalities and they cared about winning more than anything else. A lot of the young players I see today don't put their asses on the line every time they go out there and that disturbs me. Not just in tennis, but in every sport. In tennis, you have to earn it every week, so it shouldn't be much of a problem. I think the word is passion. These guys had a passion for the sport, for winning and for competing."
Passion has not been confined to the court.
Some viewers posting on Internet bulletin boards, including Tennis Week.com's message board, have slammed ESPN for its programming decisions and occasionally opting to forsake a live match between lesser players for a taped telecast of a higher seeds. Whether you view ESPN's coverage as redundant or revealing may well depend on where your rooting interest lies, but there's no question that in trying to track the progress of every popular player in an effort to fulfill every fan's desires, the network faces a task as arduous as an astronomer identifying every single start in the sky.
Tennis Week touched on the programming issues and production values present in ESPN's coverage of the Australian Open in an interview with two leading members of ESPN's tennis team: Dennis Deninger, ESPN Coordinating Producer, Remote Production and Len DeLuca, the network's senior vice president of programming strategy.
Both men rose early in the Australian morning to participate in this interview conducted in a conference call. In the first half of the interview, DeLuca details the factors that play a part in ESPN's programming decisions at the Australian Open. To read it, please click DeLuca Interview.
In the second half of the interview, Deninger discusses some of the production aspects present in ESPN's coverage from Melbourne. To read it, please click Deninger Interview.
For a complete listing of ESPN's Australian Open schedule, please visit the ESPN Australian Open web site page.