Can you hear me now?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose. That even includes ombudsmen, as this is the final column of my term in that role for ESPN.

It’s been a fascinating 18 months for me, a period in which your e-mails have punctuated the highs and lows of ESPN’s coverage on television, on the radio, in print and on the Internet. Representing your voices has been a challenge at times. The mailbag often reflected thoughtful concerns about those cases in which the network succeeded — or failed — in delivering upon its brand promise: “ESPN is sports with authority and personality. We take sports seriously, but not ourselves.”

Does ESPN attempt to listen to and learn from the complaints and compliments of its audience? What issues have earned frequent-flier status in the mailbag? What are the lingering implications? And what challenges for ESPN might those letters portend?

We’ll take one final look at those answers, but first, I want to apologize for the spotty presence of this column the past six months. I’ve been dealing with some health issues that have prevented me from meeting some of my deadlines in that time. I appreciate your patience and ongoing correspondence, and want to thank ESPN management for its understanding.

Now, let the games begin.

ESPN is a mammoth operation to monitor. It has more than 6,000 employees and annually schedules 70,000 hours of programming (more than 25,000 of those live) over eight networks, and ESPN Radio programs some 10,000 hours nationally with stations in more than 450 markets. produces more than 600 original pieces of sports news, opinion, feature, video and blog content each day. The company traffics in sports news, events, information and entertainment, extending its reach to whichever new delivery system technological advances supply. Handling one of the “complaint departments” at such a diverse operation has been interesting, to say the least.

Listening to the audience

To appeal to sports aficionados of disparate tastes, ESPN first needs to know its audience’s preferences. That’s why the importance of listening to the audience has been a constant refrain in this column. And be assured, there is plenty of noise. Last year, the mailbag received more than 25,000 messages. Additionally, the network was bombarded with 53,000 audience communications, via e-mail, letter and phone. Although that’s actually a decrease of nearly 40 percent from the previous year, about half of those could be classified as complaints.

However, the findings gleaned from such responses are micro in nature, not macro. They represent isolated anecdotal opinions, not necessarily a cross-section of the audience. Studies have shown that people who take the time to write are generally driven by the desire to complain (as opposed to praise).

So ESPN can’t be satisfied just passively reading the mail. That’s why the network’s research group exhaustively probes audience opinion. It has a multimillion-dollar budget that allows it to scientifically examine audience behavior, preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes on a daily basis.

“ESPN is fanatical about listening to the audience,” says Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president for research & analytics. “We also know our role in sports is critical in that millions of fans rely on us on a daily basis to satisfy their insatiable passion and their need to know what’s going on in sports at any time. Sports is one of the leading drivers of social currency in this country, and ESPN is a major driver of that dialogue. We have an obligation to take that seriously.”

Bulgrin noted that sports fans tend to be technologically savvy, and, as a result, also tend to consume the most media. With rapid digital media proliferation and advanced television sets (HD, 3-D), he says, knowing what’s next and how to deliver sports best on these new platforms is vital.

“Listening helps us do that,” Bulgrin said. “This is more essential today as we know we will have more competition in the digital space. We have to work harder. There is little room for error, and so we have a saying: ‘Why guess when we can know?’ Listening gives us that knowledge.”

The ESPN research team includes 50 people in five offices, including in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in London, and processes and analyzes media data ranging from TV and radio ratings to online and mobile traffic to magazine readership. Bulgrin says much of the “listening” occurs in the consumer insights area, with a focus on understanding sports fans and tracking ESPN’s brand “health.”

“The ESPN brand is fan-insight driven,” he said. “With fan feedback, both compliments and complaints, helping to shape our daily content. We place a greater emphasis on the negative because we’d rather identify an issue earlier during the research process rather than suffer for it in the marketplace.”

To accomplish that goal, ESPN uses qualitative and quantitative techniques. Examples of the former: The researchers spoke in person to 315 respondents in 15 cities in six waves over the past two years. They hold “conflict groups” between ESPN fans and detractors, actively listening to the various points of view. They conduct deprivation studies in which they take away all ESPN products from consumers for two weeks, monitoring their reactions. They’ll take fans to major and minor league baseball games to discuss the sport in context. They’ve even hosted barbecues to probe fathers’ and sons’ reactions to ESPN in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.

On the quantitative side, they conduct 1,600 survey interviews every quarter. Every night of the year, they’re interviewing fans about ESPN. They conduct several national brand studies and do a monthly study that tracks fan interest, monitoring viewer’s ratings of ESPN’s performance.

ESPN also takes the research into the laboratory.

“Two years ago, we opened a media and advertising lab led by a team of Ph.D.s in various areas of research,” Bulgrin said of the facility in Austin, Texas. “The objective of the lab is to create a controlled environment where we can take a scientific approach to understanding how fans interact with our content. The lab gives us a more precise measure of how the audience is engaged with our content and allows us to test new executions, graphics and websites before they go on air or online.”

During the 2010 World Cup, for example, ESPN used the lab to research the positive and negative effects of watching live events in 3-D, with Bulgrin noting, “We learned so much we shared results with some of the TV manufacturers.”

The network swims the research waters, in search of findings big and small. After seeing softening ratings — not to mention a proliferation of complaints in the ombudsman mailbag — on “Monday Night Football” three years ago, ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson challenged the research group to “blow up the show” with an eye toward getting it back on track with the viewers.

Bulgrin’s group presided over endless hours of video sessions, poring over game tapes with viewers, listening to and chronicling feedback. Recommendations included: improve the chemistry of the talent, focus on the X’s and O’s and advance the technology available to present the telecast. ESPN brought Jon Gruden into the booth in 2009, along with Ron Jaworski and Mike Tirico, and tailored the broadcasts to favor in-depth analysis of the game’s complexities.

In the early years of MNF, with only three channels competing for audience attention, reaching out to the “casual fan” was central to the success of the program. In today’s 500-channel universe, however, casual fans have too many other choices fighting for their attention. ESPN research concluded that the price of attracting such fans today was a watered-down telecast that risked alienating hard-core viewers. That realization led to a tighter, more focused broadcast in 2010, not to mention an increase in ratings … and a decrease in mailbag complaints.

Fans watching the 2010 World Cup also benefited from ESPN research. Although the ratings for the 2006 presentation were fine, there was considerable criticism of the telecasts in the media and the mailbag. The research group employed a half dozen techniques, including screening tapes with viewers and conducting interviews in soccer bars and on soccer fields. Research again recommended focusing on “authentic” broadcasts featuring “appropriate” talent. In turn, ESPN featured mostly foreign broadcasters whose careers were devoted to soccer coverage — not domestically known announcers who’d done a crash course in “futbol.”

Research also provided a list of 11 elements (complete with snappy catchphrases) to be kept in mind when covering and promoting the World Cup. A few examples:

• Evangelist power shift: “Understand that soccer/futbol is like religion to some fans. Respect and inspire those who take it seriously. In the past, we were too focused on the novice fans and the avids were disappointed in our coverage.”

• Strike the heart, not the head: “Enable the fans to feel the intensity and all the emotions around a World Cup match. Make them feel like they’re in the stadium, and include the crowd in the broadcast.”

• Tourney of underdogs: “Find the inspiring stories of underdogs and share them, whether it be a team, a player, a coach, or even fans who traveled 4,000 miles to see their team.”

• Re-engineer Team USA: “Take team USA off the pedestal and demonstrate how Team USA represents the best, not the worst of American values — like inventiveness, drive, diversity and desire.”

The results? Save for the constant drone of the outrageously irritating vuvuzelas, ESPN enjoyed record ratings and an avalanche of accolades in the mailbag and elsewhere. Listening to the audience pays off.

News issues

A common mailbag theme has been ESPN being either too quick or too slow to report a story (often relating to the off-the-field peccadilloes of athletes or announcers living out their own versions of “Men Behaving Badly.”) There is constant tension for journalists between getting it first and getting it right. The audience assumes it is getting both, but that’s not always the case.

Although having no direct relationship to sports, the recent events in Arizona provide a cautionary tale about a journalistic dilemma that, in the sports sphere, ESPN faces more and more.

National Public Radio erroneously reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died from a gunshot wound to the head. In a matter of minutes, dozens of reputable news organizations — NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and The New York Times among them — followed, some attributing it to NPR, some reporting their own confirmation. Giffords, of course, survived the shooting. The news organizations revised their stories, but only in some cases did they apologize for the erroneous reports.

“For people trained in the journalistic process, the quest to be first with a story is in our DNA,” said Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. “Breaking news is a singular achievement for a reporter, the one accomplishment that clearly separates the individual and his or her news organization from the competition. But in the current environment, a fair case can be made that being first is not what it used to be. The Internet, and its social networking evolution, has created the reality that, regardless of who reports a story, everyone has it in a matter of minutes.”

Doria noted that the Arizona case is an “extreme example” in which “the rush to be first led to some cutting of corners, a mistake was made, and much of the world followed. As any of us who have been there can tell you, the embarrassment of being wrong far outweighs the glory of being first. But once people determine that competing to be first on a story no longer matters, there will inevitably be less reporting and less valuable information uncovered.”

As with most news organizations, ESPN has a vetting process involving news editors from both the television and digital media teams. As Doria points out, however, in a world of social networking in which many information gatherers have no vetting process, being first with a story has become much more difficult. As noted in reports from NPR’s ombudsman and the public editor of The New York Times, there were clearly shortcuts taken in the process of reporting the Arizona story — the type of shortcuts ESPN has sometimes been guilty of taking.

“I don’t expect that things are going to get any easier in the digital age,” Doria said. “In an information process that moves as fast as it does, in a 24/7 demand for news, mistakes are going to be made more frequently, and we may simply have to accept them, apologize when they happen, and move on.

“That’s not a world that will ever make us comfortable. Better, I think, to operate by the highest of journalistic standards, try mightily to adapt to the evolving landscape, be first as often as you can, and understand that it may not happen as often as it did in the pre-Internet age.”

Getting it first means nothing if it’s not right. Better that ESPN’s reputation be built on being the most accurate source for sports, news and information than as the place where instant information is presented first and responsibly vetted later. Leave that to the blogs and tweets of the world and play as much as possible only in the ballpark of confirmed facts. Rumors will always be at the root of many sports stories, but ESPN should report them as such and give them the appropriate weight.

ESPN should also be concerned about complaints in the mailbag relating to the “TMZ-ification” of sports. Coverage of tawdry scandals has crept into “SportsCenter” and other news and information programs on ESPN, especially as more Internet services see the vulgar as their bread and butter.

A good portion of the audience expects everything — the good, the bad and the ugly — involving sports figures to be grist for ESPN’s mill. These fans complain when it’s not presented front and center and question ESPN’s motives, even its integrity, if the coverage isn’t intensive enough. There’s another portion of the audience that finds these stories squalid and beneath the network. This constituency sees sports primarily as an escape from the realities of life.

ESPN has clear criteria for the reporting of such stories, including the on-field impact of such off-the-field events on a player, team or league. “SportsCenter,” and programs that support other platforms have an obligation to report these stories carefully and correctly, and to judiciously select the salient as opposed to prurient elements. ESPN should avoid wallowing in the voyeuristic mud, letting others toil there. All the dirt is going to be available somewhere, but it doesn’t need to be a staple on ESPN. Acting as a responsible purveyor is preferable to being the leader of the pack when it comes to the more salacious remnants of sports journalism.

The company has also been criticized for overhyping certain stories while downplaying others. The retirements and revivals of Brett Favre, LeBron James’ “Decision” and all-Tiger-Woods-all-the-time fit into the overdone category. It’s difficult for ESPN to resist “flooding the zone” with a story the audience and other media find irresistible. Moreover, a limited ESPN viewer might think the coverage just right while heavy viewers can feel as if they’re overdosing on a given storyline.

On other occasions, the mailbag has chastened ESPN for not covering a story enough. That’s particularly true when it involves what is seen as a “protected” superstar or one of the network’s own talent. The justification has been “it didn’t meet our criteria” or “we’re not good at covering stories that involve us or our people.” Many in the audience don’t buy that, and others never actually hear the explanation because ESPN largely responds only to the queries of other media.

One of the solutions this column proffered was more direct communication between ESPN and its audience. Starting this month, ESPN editorial executives will hold a regularly scheduled series of radio interviews and online chats, directly addressing questions from the ESPN audience. This is a positive step toward transparency. Beyond that, ESPN should also consider explaining in “SportsCenter,” as appropriate, the rationale behind coverage heavily criticized by the audience.

“Transparency is an important element of ESPN’s editorial credibility and integrity,” said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and executive editor of online content for ESPN digital media. “We will measure it in a number of ways, including responsiveness to viewer and user comments and criticism, willingness to explain editorial decisions, willingness to openly correct mistakes and openness about ownership and conflicts of interest. The regular interaction between fans and our editorial decision-makers will help us shed light on our processes, underscore our commitment to openness and maintain user trust.”

The increased efforts toward transparency will be accompanied by the long-awaited issuance of ESPN’s Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices. After nearly two decades of policy discussions, drafts and memos, this tome is about to be distributed to editorial staffers.

“The purpose for these guidelines is the protection of ESPN’s journalistic credibility across all platforms,” Stiegman said. “The focus is on guidelines that, if violated, could alter the perception of our objectivity among readers, viewers and listeners. These guidelines will be most useful if framed as aspirational. This is a starting point. The guidelines will evolve and will be reviewed and revised, as warranted, on a regular basis. And the guidance should not be the exclusive province of those who are journalists by title or degree — the utility is tied to the act of journalism.”

The unfortunate nature of aspirational guidelines is that, to outsiders, they can become commandments written in stone. Still, ESPN should be congratulated for taking a step that helps codify complex criteria employees can use as a road map when confronting ethical and journalistic issues that — in the 21st-century media landscape — aren’t black and white any longer. The true test will be how stringently the standards and practices are enforced.

Talking too much

The general perception among those in the mailbag is that ESPN’s production quality is first-rate. The camera work is solid, the natural sound crisp and the graphics state-of-the-art effective. The most common complaint, however, is simply this: announcers who “talk too much.”

A recent Wall Street Journal piece referenced the amount of chatter in the booths for network NFL telecasts. It measured the number of words per minute announcers expended. ESPN’s MNF trio ranked in about the middle of the pack, which isn’t bad, particularly for a three-man booth. But it was interesting that the announcing team the article referred to as “the preeminent pairing,” NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, had the fewest words per minute and the most restraint.

“Viewers today expect more information regarding players, coaches, strategy and background than they did 10 years ago,” Williamson said. “It’s the responsibility of production to balance providing that information without there being wall-to-wall chatter. Telecasts need a chance to breathe.”

Although ESPN’s production team offers little disagreement, conceptually, on this topic, the issue is in the execution. In my term, I’ve seen few signs of major improvement in the talk-too-much phenomenon at ESPN, with the exception of World Cup soccer. For that event, nearly all the game announcers were foreign broadcasters (and were aware they weren’t being paid by the word).

Another valid complaint about announcers revolves around the predisposition for wandering away from the action on the field to pursue tangential topics.

“It’s never our intent to have commentary that isn’t in some way connected to the event,” Williamson said.

Intentional or not, it still seems to happen too often. Announcers ramble on, never bothering to relate their tangential subject to what the viewer is seeing. This form of self-absorbed commentary can give the broadcast the feeling of a meandering sports radio talkfest. Sports broadcasters can, with a little effort, connect almost anything tangential in a sport to something happening in the game. It just requires some imagination, some patience (waiting for the right moment) and some added preparation. Like letting the telecast breathe, it requires more disciplined guidance from the production trailer.

Having watched an inordinate amount of ESPN product during my term, I’d offer one more suggestion for improving announcing: Spend some time working on the seemingly lost art of storytelling. I’m referring not to relating anecdotes but to seeing the sum of the parts as a whole.

A great sports telecast is a unified story that begins with an explanation of the expected plot, then traces the twists and turns of unexpected changes as the contest unfolds. Each game is a saga with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are heroes and villains who affect the ebb and flow of conflicting conditions and emotions the audience easily recognizes — success, failure, selfishness, unselfishness, honor, dishonor, courage, cowardice, etc. Too often, announcers focus on each play as an isolated event and on each fact or statistic as if it occurs in a vacuum, divorced from the human drama that takes athletic competition to another level.

One last observation reflects comments in the mailbag concerning sideline reporters. Some are quite good, but many seem to focus on tidbits rummaged from the media guide or anecdotal information gleaned from cursory interviews. The most effective use of a field reporter is to inform the audience of what’s happening on the sideline — things the announcer and analyst are precluded from knowing and seeing from the booth. The field reporter’s ability to do interviews with coaches and others on the sideline is a plus turned into a minus if the questions are innocuous or about subject matter to which no self-respecting coach would respond candidly.

Not-so-mixed messages

The mailbag has a magical way of delivering subtle and thematic underlying messages.

In my term as ombudsman, none was delivered with more clarity than the host of viewer complaints spawned by ESPN’s coverage of James’ plans to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. “The Decision” was an enormous ratings success, peaking at more than 13 million viewers and giving ESPN one of its highest ratings of the year.

Athletes and their handlers have become increasingly adept at manipulating the media, and the 21st-century fourth estate can easily become complicit in that dance. ESPN needs to constantly have its antenna tuned to recognize the costs inherent in heeding the siren’s song of an offer that appears to be attractive financially but in reality has immense reputational costs.

When spiked an innocuous but somewhat unflattering story on James not long after “The Decision,” the cry in the mailbag was a full-throated one of “cover-up.” Even though the rationale for removing the story was reasonable, the cloud from “The Decision” hung over the network, calling into question the company’s journalistic integrity. Wounded trust can take a long time to heal.

ESPN prides itself on having close relationships with — and the accompanying access to — the superstars of sport. This is a plus for its audience, allowing entrée to the inner sanctums of the most sought-after luminaries. But that comes at a price: the perception that ESPN gets too cozy with superstars and that the network might pull its punches when reporting on them. When those same athletes need to be covered as hard news subjects involved in controversial events, the audience can rightly question whether ESPN is tempted to protect a favored position.

And this event brings into sharp focus the notion that, when it comes to hype, ESPN is in a class by itself. To devote six consecutive hours of programming to an announcement that required 15 seconds seemed beyond the pale.

Although “The Decision” was rife with learnings ESPN has hopefully absorbed into its institutional memory, another incident was an excellent example of when good intentions go bad. ESPN’s telecast of the 2010 Alamo Bowl attempted to cover the complex news story concerning Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s firing after disciplining the son of an ESPN analyst, while trying at the same time to cover an exciting football game. The mailbag railed at what contributors felt ended up being a one-sided, unfair indictment of Leach. Lesson: It’s practically impossible to clearly present a controversial news story while doing running play-by-play and analysis of a sporting event.

Then there’s the mailbag message that regularly bubbled up regarding the mixing of sports and political messages, whether it’s a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Night on MNF or a basketball game replete with environmental drop-ins that will help save the planet from global warming. Even the extensive coverage of President Barack Obama’s picks for the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament was deemed intrusive. The e-mailers were quite clear: “Don’t surprise us, and don’t take us for granted as a captive audience.”

Not all the mailbag reactions sent negative signals. For example, 30 for 30, ESPN’s series of sports documentaries celebrating its 30th anniversary, gained almost universal acclaim. It’s been a great storytelling engine, generated by some of the country’s finest filmmakers. The triumphs and tragedies of famous and not-so-famous athletes were chronicled, eliciting reactions of amazement, gratitude and sometimes reports of tears from an appreciative audience. Hopefully, ESPN will respond by doing more programming along these lines — challenging at times, but still entertaining, educational and uplifting. Although it’s relatively expensive programming, the expanding number of platforms ESPN serves should allow plenty of opportunities to extensively replay these timeless gems and more than recoup the cost.

The Little League World Series seemed to bring out in this column’s audience an appreciation for sports’ better possibilities. The mailbag reflected an appreciation for the purity of competition. Plaudits for the coverage included “The innocence and purity of watching these kids play is refreshing and never tiring” and “Was there ever a sporting event more fun to watch?” Perhaps the subtle message here is that there is a part of ESPN’s audience that craves more programming that provides an alternative to the look-at-me egoism, bench-clearing brawls, sexual incidents, recurring recruiting outrages, union disputes and other problems that have become so entwined with major college and pro sports.

There was also a positive response to’s addition of local websites in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. Sports fans don’t seem to overdose on their information and opinion sources. ESPN research shows sports fans are more savvy about new technology than the average viewer and are approaching a transformational point of using other media as much as television. Media consumption is no longer the zero-sum game it was when dominated by three or four national broadcast networks. Television as a medium is being viewed at record levels. In 2010, ESPN scored its highest ratings ever even as it continued to grow the number of platforms it programs. Perhaps the proliferation of choices on ESPN won’t necessarily lead to the cannibalization of audience that conventional wisdom would once have suggested.

The innovative use of technology was another cause for compliments in the mailbag. Although the audience can’t possibly be aware of all of the 60 to 70 advancements ESPN introduced in the past year and a half, new Internet programming, mobile apps and ESPN’s “Goal-Line” (the collegiate answer to the NFL’s Red Zone channel) generated positive responses. ESPN, of course, is much more than just its cable offerings. Each week, 107 million people consume some form of ESPN media, and surprisingly, 45 percent use more platforms than just television.

“Our goal is to create content for new platforms and technologies concurrent with the introductions of those platforms and technologies,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “We are wired to do this because of our commitment to serve fans. That gives us license to regard new technologies as opportunities rather than threats. We have generally found that there is significantly more upside than downside. The more different places people experience ESPN content, the more likely they are to consume more of our core content.”

For many, the lower-screen crawl known as The Bottom Line has become synonymous with ESPN. Started in the early ’80s as an update at 28 and 58 minutes after the hour (when the three national broadcast networks went to station breaks), it has developed into a reliable source for scores, headlines and general news. It’s always there, a constant companion of information.

Although many consider it a valuable tool, the mailbag has sent out contrarian signals. Some complain that TBL is distracting and takes away from watching the game. A few even suggested that they attached duct tape over the bottom of the screen as not to be distracted by the constant motion. There must be some validity to this concern, or why would ESPN leave it off of some of its biggest events, such as the recent BCS Championship Game broadcast?

I think TBL is a good idea, but I do find myself at times reading it instead of watching the game, and resenting the experience. I also question whether it’s not providing too much information. Individual point totals, batting summaries, and extended news stories make it compete with the event on the screen. At times, it seems like technology exploited beyond the zenith of its capabilities.

But my biggest concern is when it deals with reputational matters. An example would be the case of former Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable, who was alleged to have committed multiple instances of domestic abuse. Words and phrases such as “physically abused … girlfriend … 20-year period … altercation … denies … says he slapped … regretted” streamed across the screen in relation to Cable. Watching that scroll through 10 or 20 times an hour over the course of an entire game telecast can give accumulated weight disproportionate to the news value of the factual information in the story.

As is often the case with ESPN, I’d offer three simple words: Less is more.

Final wrap

When I started my tenure as ombudsman, I understood the job was to sift through your feedback, spotting themes on important issues. I would represent that point of view and challenge ESPN personnel to explain or respond. I was also asked by the network to include my own opinions.

Being ESPN’s ombudsman has been intriguing and enlightening. It has allowed me to explore the inner workings of an incredibly complex machine that touches the lives of hundreds of millions of viewers, listeners and readers each month. It has allowed for an up-close-and-personal examination of an entity that produces as much electronic programming and digitally distributed information as any in America. It’s among the most profitable media companies in history, with an ability to lay claim to new technology that’s mind-boggling. That it runs as well as it does is a tribute to talented professionals who truly seem devoted to their tasks. More importantly, its audience feels a deeply profound, personal, almost primal, sense of connection — passionate fans who border on a pride of ownership, demand that ESPN be better and show no fear in pointing out its shortcomings.

Some might misunderstand the fact that my every comment has not been a scathing, blistering indictment of network miscues. That might be because, after 40 years in the business, I have an appreciation of the intricacies and difficulties of what ESPN is trying to accomplish. There is plenty to criticize in Bristol, but in some respects I marvel at how well the company presents its product on so many varied platforms. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking today makes any other production operation seem puny by comparison.

Is every one of the 30,000-plus programs on air or each of the millions of pages on a gem? No, and that’s never going to happen. Does ESPN make egregious mistakes? Of course. Are there philosophical differences between ESPN’s approach and the way its audience and critics would like to see things? Certainly. Does programming multiple platforms for the widest possible audience run counter to the individual needs and tastes of some in ESPN’s audience? Absolutely. Are some of its efforts going to fall flat? Does Peyton Manning ever throw an interception?

There are regular contributors to the mailbag who seem to revel in their disdain for an entity they feel has grown too big, too powerful, too arrogant. There are others who angrily decry an injustice they perceive has been done to their team, sport or favorite competitor. There are those who are disappointed by some action they feel is out of character for a service they value. Some are appreciative of work well done or touched emotionally by a memorable moment. All of these are the ombudsman constituents — and ESPN consumers — and all deserve to be heard and served.

There are undoubtedly some inside ESPN who question whether it makes sense for the company to distribute a column that basically critiques and criticizes the network. There is a general feeling among some in Bristol that because of the network’s pre-eminent position, ESPN already wears a significant target on its back and doesn’t need to invite additional critical analysis. I can empathize with that thinking while wholeheartedly disagreeing with it.

In most instances, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the openness and candor of the people whose decisions I’ve questioned or whose work I’ve criticized. Often, the discussions have been lengthy, and sometimes heated, but there’s no reticence to accept responsibility if convinced there’s guilt. And just as many discussions began with the recognition that a mistake had been made and moved quickly to what was being done to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Whether in the form of an ombudsman or other efforts at transparency, I think it’s important for ESPN to have someone from the outside with open access to the people on the inside, posing questions and demanding answers that have been raised by viewers. Without some external pressure, it would be too easy to slough off criticism by rationalizing ratings, downplaying the volume of complaints or taking the you-can’t-please-all-the-people-all-the-time approach.

There are some reassuring thoughts about ESPN I’d like to leave you with. The people behind the products care deeply. Do they listen to the complaints from the audience? Yes, they do. Do they take them seriously? My experience over this term says again, yes they do. Will they address concerns? They will if they think they have merit and it doesn’t run counter to some other goal the company seeks to accomplish. So, are your communications important? Absolutely!

In closing, to those who thoughtfully wrote to me, sharing your observations and frustrations and providing the ultimate inspiration for the columns; to those who in increasing numbers read the column (I never thought I would write an installment read by half a million people); to those who sent letters of approval and/or appreciation for the views expressed; and to those at ESPN who generously shared their time and candid responses to the issues raised … a sincere thank you.

For the last time …

This column was originally published on on Jan. 26, 2011.

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