Fair Play?

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Robert Lipsyte, ESPN's Ombudsman looks at why the first-rate documentary, Let Them Wear Towels, was seemingly buried when it was aired on the same night as the All-Star Game.

Was it a mixed message, purposeful, accidental or, you know, dude, it is what it is? This was one of several confusing messages by ESPN in July, including the uncomfortably chummy spectacle of the ESPYS, the forced switch of the commentariat on ESPN.com to Facebook, and the trumpeted return of the former He Who Must Not Be Named to the network.

...According to Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and acquisitions, the Tuesday night airing was part of ESPN’s programming plan to create a consistent schedule to showcase the Nine for IX documentaries throughout the summer.

“It was not counterprogramming,” Williamson said. “It was part of a long-term strategy to create a flight for the marketing of quality shows — not that all ESPN shows aren’t quality. But we wanted a window, almost appointment TV, for documentaries throughout the year. And Tuesday night was the night least likely to have a game.”

I like the idea of “classy Tuesday,” of a date with quality, but it makes me uneasy, too. Yes, the documentaries will air some 18 times each (on numerous ESPN channels, including ESPN Classic), and ratings indicate that the electorate prefers games and studio shows. But the word “marginalizing” still comes to mind. Meanwhile, no one has suggested that “Outside the Lines” should be a Tuesday night regular instead of making it even harder to find.

Even while we were talking about all this, OTL is being moved on Sundays from ESPN at 9 a.m. to ESPN2 at 8 a.m., coinciding with the football season, starting Sept. 8. Even with DVRs, that sends a message — and not about quality.