German webs take Tour detour

Pubcasters pull plug on cycle race

BERLIN — German pubcasters are taking an unusually hard line in their coverage of the Tour de France cycle race in the wake of widespread doping revelations.

Last week they unceremoniously pulled the plug on the tour, at least temporarily, following a positive doping test by German cyclist Patrik Sinkewitz. He denied any wrongdoing.

The pubcasters were waiting for confirmation of the test before making a decision as to whether to continue airing the race.

It’s a far cry from the webs’ former cheerleader-style enthusiasm for the event, now wending its way through the Gallic countryside.

The pubcasters admit they are embarrassed about not giving enough weight to the problems of drug use in the sport, and had abruptly switched from a lap-dog to attack-dog approach.

They unceremoniously dumped their cyclist commentators — even those never suspected of using banned performance-enhancing drugs — and replaced them with doping experts in the broadcasting booths.

Teutonic interviewers raised eyebrows among the French media by treating every strong cycling performance with suspicion, assuming some illegal substance helped the riders up the mountain or to win the sprint finish.

“Get f—-ed,” was the succinct answer from Australian Robbie McEwen when an ARD interviewer asked if doping had anything to do with his amazing comeback to win the first stage on July 8 despite crashing 12 miles before the finish. ARD broadcast the exchange, complete with McEwen mumbling epithets as he stomped away from the camera.

The change in tone has been as dramatic as the plunge in ratings for the daily four-hour block.

The market share for race coverage was at a 10-year low of 8% in the first of three weeks, or just over a million viewers each afternoon. That was down from 19% in 2005 and 12% in 2006 when a doping scandal knocked out German cyclist Jan Ullrich on the eve of the race.

“I’ve never seen such as dramatic drop off as this in the 22 years I’ve been head of programming,” says ARD programming topper Guenter Struve of the race that is broadcast to 185 countries around the world.

ARD, which was once a direct sponsor of a team on the Tour, later admitted it had given a lucrative contract to Ullrich for exclusive interviews.

ZDF editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender conceded that his web had been far too close to the Tour and blind to doping allegations in the past.

“We used to block out the doping issue entirely,” Brender told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. “Critical journalistic values and doubts weren’t taken seriously. That was a mistake.”

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