Le Anne Schreiber targets critics

“Who are these people and why are they shouting at me?”

That’s a question Le Anne Schreiber, as ombudsman for ESPN, posed in the second of her monthly online columns last April. One month into her job as a viewer’s advocate, she was taken aback by the decibel level achieved by the anchors on some of the sports net’s signature shows.

The blowhards haven’t entirely disappeared from ESPN, but the on-air personalities “are at least a little more self-conscious about it,” says Schreiber, speaking by phone from her house in a remote community in upstate New York, which she refers to as “the middle of nowhere.” (In March, she succeeded the first ESPN ombudsman, George Solomon, who served for 21 months; Schreiber’s contract is for two years, which is the term limit for the network’s ombudsmen.)

Except for PBS and National Public Radio, the role of ombudsman is unique to ESPN. “We were getting an avalanche of criticism from viewers every year,” says John Walsh, exec VP and executive editor of ESPN and its Internet group, and the man most responsible for hiring Schreiber. “So we decided to find an internal critic who’s better than any of our outside critics.” Schreiber is a former sports editor of The New York Times.

Deflecting criticism is well-advised because “ESPN operates like a monopoly,” says Rick Gentile, professor of sports management at Seton Hall U. and a former top exec at CBS Sports. “ESPN charges cable operators higher license fees than any other cable network, and acts like the robber barons of a century ago.” Analysts predict ESPN will harvest more than $4 billion in profits next year.

Schreiber is making an impact, says Neil Pilson, head of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports. “Her columns are discussed not only by the people who produce and direct ESPN shows,” Pilsn says, “but by the younger staff members. It’s a healthy exercise.”

And a needed exercise, says Kevin O’Malley, who runs his own sports consultancy. “Calling a live sports event requires dozens of spur-of-the-moment judgment calls,” O’Malley says. “Doing self-examination is a must for ESPN in these circumstances, and the ombudsman is a super idea.”

The power of ESPN is not lost on Schreiber. “Imagine the New York Times owning half of the Broadway theaters whose plays it reviews,” she said in a May 10 ESPN column. “Or imagine CNN paying billions of dollars for exclusive multiyear rights to cover the war in Iraq.”

That column was triggered by streams of complaints from hockey fans, convinced, as Schreiber puts it, that “ESPN’s news judgment is being distorted by its rights deals.”

When ESPN didn’t renew its National Hockey League contract in 2005, NHL fans subsequently began railing against what they said was a downgrading of hockey news on “SportsCenter” in favor of coverage of other sports linked to ESPN by contract, even when those sports were out of season.

Schreiber’s prodding of ESPN’s management caused the network to draw up a report comparing the 1 a.m. “SportsCenter” in March 2007 with that of the same month in March 2004, the last year of ESPN’s NHL contract. And, indeed, the report found that, as she puts it, there was “a 28% decline in hockey’s allotment of airtime” in March 2007.

Schreiber’s toughest column — which was not triggered by viewer complaints — was probably her Sept. 7 criticism of some of ESPN news coverage of Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting. One “scoop” on Aug. 24 that ESPN kept harping on was that Vick had not admitted either to gambling on the fights or to killing dogs.

“The scoop was seriously misleading, if not dead wrong,” Schreiber said in the column, “which is always the risk one takes with a single anonymous source when the source has a vested interest in how the news is presented.”

Schreiber did lots of work on the Vick column, interviewing ESPN executives to find out what went wrong. But she also gets many column ideas from viewer e-mails, which makes the job rewarding. “The passion with which people care about what ESPN does,” she says, “has caused gender and age barriers to dissolve.”

What she means is that as a 62-year-old author of two literary memoirs and a former editor of the New York Times Book Review (in addition to her various sports jobs), Schreiber says that she never thought she’d find common ground with the male 18-49 demo that makes up ESPN’s target audience.

“But when I write a column, I’ll get e-mail from young men who tell me, ‘I think exactly as you do,’ and, ‘You have your finger on the pulse of ESPN viewers.’ ”

But Schreiber is also a realist. “I know that Nielsen ratings rule at ESPN,” she says. “When you get right down to it, the ombudsman can be tuned out effectively, and utterly.”

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