Monday, November 22, 2010

Interview with Paulsen of Sports Media Watch

In the last decade, you may have heard as much about television ratings as quarterback ratings. Whether it’s television, print, radio or online, ‘major’ sports media personalities constantly mention them in some way to justify or belittle the viewership of games. However, with the increased public discussion to viewing measurement, few actually provide proper context behind the much ballyhooed numbers. It’s why a site such as Sports Media Watch has become a go-to destination for media and fans alike over the last five years.

Since 2006, Paulsen has maintained the well-regarded and highly-referenced site which takes a deeper look into Nielsen ratings and major movement in the sports media industry. Certainly one with his own opinions and curiosities about sports media, Paulsen was gracious enough to respond to questions about the purpose of SMW, the public conversation about ratings, social media’s role (or lack thereof) in increasing television viewership and his frustration with the sports media world throughout the LeBron James free agency saga.

In advance, many thanks again, Paulsen.

A Sports Scribe: You’ve operated SMW for a few years now. Could you explain why you came up with the site?

Paulsen: I used to write a lot of Wikipedia posts, which in retrospect wasn’t a great idea. One day in ’06, I read a blog post that quoted fairly liberally from one of the Wikipedia articles I edited, and I realized that it made a lot more sense for me to publish that kind of information on my own blog, as opposed to a place like Wikipedia where you really have no ownership of the things you write.

Scribe: SMW is predominantly television ratings analysis, yet over the past year and a half, you’ve added some excellent in-depth interviews with some major players in the sports media business. How did a passionate fan as you manage to talk to the crew from Inside the NBA and Russ Greenberg of HBO Sports?

Paulsen: I can really thank some very good sports PR people out there for helping me get these interviews, such as Jeff Pomeroy and Megan Bondi at Turner Sports, Nate Smeltz and Diane Lamb at ESPN, Mike Giluyi at PromaxBDA, Brandon Bagley with the Ivy Sports Symposium, and others.

I actually went to Turner Sports in December of last year and May of this year, and they couldn’t have been more gracious and accommodating, from the PR officials like Pomeroy, Eric Welch and Tareia Williams to the on-air personalities like Chris Webber, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson. They showed me an incredible amount of respect, which is amazing considering how bloggers are sometimes viewed by others in the sports media.

In February, I attended the ESPN Wide World of Sports opening, and ESPN’s Mike Soltys and George Bodenheimer were kind enough to take the time to speak with me – especially Mike, who I pelted with sports media questions as we walked through the Disney theme park. Funny story: as Mike and I were talking, a woman came by and just blasted ESPN the Weekend right to our faces. She was the only person I saw who complained.

Also, I should thank Bob Rathbun and Darren Rovell, the first two people I reached out to for interviews.

Scribe: The interviews with former players & coaches turned analysts – NBA’s Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Chris Webber from TNT and former NHLer Barry Melrose of ESPN – were especially enjoyable reads. Did they discuss anything about how they educated themselves on the media business during or after their active careers in those leagues?

Paulsen: Not necessarily. Kenny mentioned how he didn’t really see being a TV analyst as a career until Craig Sager told him how much potential he (and Inside the NBA) had.

Set Meters used by Nielsen for ratings measurement (via AgencySpy)

Scribe: Nielsen television ratings have been around since 1950, yet it truly started to enter the sports lexicon over the past decade. Sports media critics and industry insiders have had conversations about the metrics for years, yet it seems that only now, these numbers are talked up on the air in the same breath as yards per catch and ERA. Do you see a rhyme or reason to it all?
Paulsen: People like to compare. They like to say that their sport is #1, and someone else’s sport is less popular. From what I can tell, sports fans use television ratings as a sort of value judgment, where sports with higher TV ratings are somehow better than sports with low TV ratings.

Just look at the NHL-NBA and MLB-NFL flame wars that erupt each year. I think a lot of fans take pride in how their sport does on an overall level, and on a team level as well. Just going from what I see on message boards, Laker fans are proud, for whatever reason, that their team is the biggest draw in the NBA. I guess it’s a good reflection on Kobe. Yankee fans like to point out how World Series ratings drop when their team isn’t in it. It’s a badge of honor, another thing to brag about. That said, I don’t necessarily agree that TV ratings information is as commonplace as yards per catch and ERA – but it certainly seems more commonplace than it was a few years ago.

You know what this is (via Los Angeles Times' Showtracker)
Scribe: Until this past July, you were once very active on Twitter; using the forum to engage with your readers outside of SMW itself. Yet, shortly after The Decision, you tweeted “underrated aspect of LeBron saga: the unbelievably poor state of American sports media. And I don't just mean ESPN.” Could you elaborate a bit on that statement?
Paulsen: I truly believe the coverage of NBA free agency, and of LeBron James in particular, was the nadir of sports journalism – at least since I’ve been following it. Lots of rumor based reporting, the ‘Allan Houston’s house’ story being arguably the worst of it.

The coverage of LeBron post-The Decision has produced, in my opinion, some of the worst sportswriting in recent memory. There’s one writer who has gone after James in such a personal, unprofessional manner over the course of the past several months that it amazes me he is considered one of the better NBA writers out there. He’s just one of many. The number of cheap shots taken at James, whose only crime is being very full of himself, has been frankly disheartening.

I’m not a big fan of moral outrage, especially when it comes to something irrelevant like sports. I can’t muster up the energy to be offended by something like Hanley Ramirez not going hard after a ball. As far as LeBron’s special goes, I really have no respect for anybody who watched it and then complained about it afterwards. Everyone knew what it would be days before it actually aired. Nobody had to watch it; if they wanted to know where he would sign, they could have just checked any sports website that night. I watched it, and then I got on with my life. I didn’t feel the need to complain about it for four months, and I surely didn’t feel the need to judge somebody on the basis of sixty minutes of easily escapable television.

Anyone who has watched LeBron over the years knows he has a big ego. For me, that’s mildly amusing. For others, that is a high crime. I guess it comes down to perspective – or lack of it, in the case of the sports media. If LeBron wants to think of himself as a “winner” when he hasn’t won, that’s his prerogative. I don’t need to write articles sneeringly pointing out the fact that he hasn’t won a championship. A lot of these guys take James’ hubris personally, which tells me that they need to perhaps take some time off and reevaluate their lives.

The defense of the people of Cleveland has been particularly ridiculous, considering that James was a free agent and owed neither the city nor the Cavaliers anything. The fans of Cleveland deserved nothing from James, or any other player, the same way no fan in any city deserves anything from the people providing them optional entertainment. As far as James not informing Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, I just think of the many, many players who are not informed about trades, or about being cut – like Damon Jones, who in 2008 reportedly found out from his limo driver that Gilbert’s Cavs traded him to the Bucks.

Overall, it was a pretty awful summer for anyone who enjoys rational thought, as opposed to screaming outrage, cheap shots, and the ravenous tearing apart of yet another athlete. There’s a lot of people I lost respect for over the summer, not that it would (or should) matter to them.

Scribe: Being that social media has become part of the new normal, how much of a role do you think it plays in attracting eyeballs for sports programming, if at all.

Paulsen: I think the influence of social media is a bit overstated. I may be wrong about this, but I can’t imagine that a tweet or Facebook message from ESPN or Turner is going to get someone who wasn’t going to watch a sporting event to suddenly decide to tune in. Even in the case of dedicated (as opposed to casual) sports fans, I’d imagine the effect of social media on the decision to watch a sporting event would be negligible.

Scribe: Considering how deep in the forest you are when it comes to the sports industry, do you have the same sporting interests today as when you were younger? If not, how do you reconcile such changes?

Paulsen: Probably not. For example, the first couple of times the Spurs made the NBA Finals (’99 and ’03), I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it through the lens of their negative effect on the NBA’s TV ratings. Once I became more aware of the business of the NBA, it was tougher for me to watch their subsequent appearances without thinking about how poorly the games were doing in the ratings. For games that I know will do poorly – for example, Bucks/Hawks Game 7 last year – there is certainly that feeling of ‘nobody’s watching this’. Generally, games and series that do terribly tend to correlate with games and series that aren’t very fun to watch. I can’t think of very many series that have been entertaining and well-played that still had terrible ratings. Maybe Devils/Ducks in ’03, but perhaps a more astute NHL viewer than I can tell me whether or not that series was actually good hockey (I enjoyed it, at least).

At the very least, I can say that the business aspect of sports is very much present in my mind when I’m watching games.

As far as how I reconcile this with my personal sports fandom, sometimes I have to separate myself from the business aspect of sports in order to enjoy it. It’s been a bit more difficult to do that since I started the blog.

The San Francisco Giants and their fans couldn't care less about ratings (via SF Chronicle)
Scribe: Much is made about how this past World Series between the new champion San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers was tied as the lowest rated series of all time despite the teams being from the 5th and 6th largest media markets in the United States. When both teams defeated the favored Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, immediately there were cries about how the Series would fare poorly because neither team (more so New York) was involved. Do you see some sort of self-fulfilling prophesy when it comes to ratings: if people start predicting doom, doom will happen? If they begin to hype something, ‘everyone will watch’?
Paulsen: In a way, yes. It’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario. The Yankees are a big TV draw because they can attract large audiences. Those large audiences watch the Yankees because they’re told the Yankees are popular and important. Here’s my ‘theory’: there’s a base level of popularity these teams bring to the table, which is magnified by media attention. The Yankees are already extremely popular, and media hype just shoots them further into the popularity stratosphere. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Yankees would be the best draw in baseball even without media hype – but if the media gave more equitable attention to the Yankees and other teams, perhaps the gulf between a Yankee World Series (11.7 in 2009) and a non-Yankee World Series (8.4 in 2008 and 2010) would not be as great.

Having said that, one thing that bothers me is when sports fans complain about the Yankees, Red Sox, Heat, Lakers, Penguins, Red Wings, Cowboys, Patriots and others getting lots of nationally televised games. With few exceptions, these teams always get substantially higher ratings than others, and that’s on the fans, not the networks. I’ve heard it suggested that if the Rangers and Giants got more national TV appearances, the ratings would have been higher for the World Series. But the Rangers were on FOX as many times as the Yankees last season (granted, not always as the featured game) and the Giants had two fewer appearances. As another example, just this past week, ESPN aired Suns/Heat on Wednesday and TNT aired Suns/Magic on Thursday. In both games, Phoenix was blown out. The Heat game drew a 1.4, nearly twice the rating of the Magic game (0.8). Why shouldn’t the networks give the Heat more national appearances than the Magic? Say what you want about the Heat hype, but nobody’s forcing anyone to watch.

Scribe: Finally, SMW’s existence is based on a belief that sports fans should care or at least be aware of viewing measurement. As a whole, do you think they do care?

Paulsen: I would say the belief of SMW is not necessarily that sports fans be aware of viewing measurement, but that they have accurate information. There are plenty of newspaper articles that don’t distinguish between a cable rating and U.S. rating, an overnight and a final or even between a rating and a share. Granted, who cares, it’s just TV ratings. But when I see a lot of the incorrect comparisons that go on, it can be a bit frustrating.

As far as whether sports fans care about viewing measurement, I would go back to my answer earlier. Fans want to know how their sport is doing relative to other sports, and from that perspective, I do think they care. They don’t care enough to think about it too frequently, and I don’t think it’s a top of mind concern when they’re watching actual sporting events, but it matters enough for them to want the basic information.


Anonymous said...

" There’s one writer who has gone after James in such a personal, unprofessional manner over the course of the past several months that it amazes me he is considered one of the better NBA writers out there".

I'm quite sure he's referring to Adrian Woynarowsky of Yahoo! Sports.
I have always wondered myself how this guy is considered one of the best NBA writers out there. Look at most of his articles. They are more about blasting someone than talking about actual basketball. I can name you thousands of NBA writers/bloggers who are far better than Woj.

Great interview.

Jason Clinkscales said...

What's crazy about what Paulsen says there is that it could have been said for plenty of writers. There have been quite a few who have taken shots; you may have caught the news about the Miami Heat no longer credentializing Scott Raab for some pretty stupid tweets (because somehow, calling LeBron 'The Whore of Akron' could be forgiven?).

I think people will give praise when they gravitate towards someone who openly carves their knives for public viewing. It's very similar to politics; even though the issues can be broken down to sheer common sense, we (in general) prefer to see two clowns shouting and insulting each other. Do they actually focus on the issues? No. They use those topics to unload venom onto each other.

I wish this weren't the way.

All Day E'ry Day Sportz said...

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