The way in which tennis networks cover major tournaments has been a constant source of exasperation for American tennis fans (and also Canadian fans when their sports networks cede coverage to the American ones).
Yet, complaining can only do so much. Why not simply document the various moves American tennis networks make during a major tournament, especially during the cluttered first week? That’s what we’re doing here at Attacking The Net: We’re going to allow you to decide what you would have done if you were in the production truck or the executive suite, choosing how to structure the coverage of a prestigious tennis event.
We’ll follow this extensive documentation of the first week with a brief closing commentary on Tennis Channel and NBC.
COVERING THE COVERAGE:
WEEK ONE AT ROLAND GARROS, AS IT HAPPENED ON AMERICAN TV
8:12 a.m. ET, Sunday, May 25: ESPN2 showed a Roger Federer post-match interview during a break point for Venus Williams at 4-3 in the first set against Belinda Bencic. ESPN2 didn’t return to a split screen until after Venus broke for a 5-3 lead.
8:34 a.m. ET: ESPN2, returning from the first changeover in Serena Williams’s match against Alize Lim – which was expected to be a blowout – stayed with Serena’s match even though Venus Williams’s much more anticipated match against Bencic had moved into the second set. Venus bolted to a lead and pulled away from Bencic in that second set while ESPN2 stuck with the early stages of Serena’s match.
11:04 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel’s panel talks at the anchor desk while, on Court 2, American Sam Querrey tries to break for the first set, leading 5-4 against Filippo Volandri. Tennis Channel later picked up a portion of Querrey-Volandri (before noon Eastern time).
12:03 p.m. ET: NBC comes on the air and, after a two-minute introduction, picks up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Edouard Roger-Vasselin live. The conclusion of that match filled less than half an hour of programming. For the remainder of NBC’s three-hour block allotted to tennis on Sunday, taped matches (Roger Federer and the Williams Sisters) were shown.
Approximately 2:10 p.m. ET: American Varvara Lepchenko begins her match on a court that is available to be covered on television (Court 2), while both NBC and Tennis Channel air taped matches instead.
Monday, 10:08 a.m. ET: ESPN2, going beyond its original broadcast window (scheduled until 10 a.m.), airs the match between Novak Djokovic and Joao Sousa. Tennis Channel, which was supposed to take the handoff from ESPN2 at 10, comes on the air and shows the Djokovic match as well. It is the first instance of simultaneous two-channel coverage of the same match at Roland Garros in 2014.
12:01 p.m. ET: NBC comes on the air in the East, but with this being a Monday and not a Sunday (even though it’s a Memorial Day holiday), other time zones in the U.S. report a lack of live tennis on NBC.
12:40 p.m. ET: Eastern time zone viewers report that NBC and Tennis Channel are showing the Rafael Nadal-Robby Ginepri match at the same time.
1:01 p.m. ET (12:01 p.m. Central): NBC comes on with tennis in the Central time zone. Viewers in Chicago and Western Illinois report that NBC is showing taped tennis. The Nadal-Ginepri match had arrived at match point in real time, but apparently, NBC was starting its coverage in the Central time zone at an earlier point in the competition.
1:30 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel picks up coverage of a journeyman’s match between Julien Benneteau and Facundo Bagnis at 11-all in the fifth set. (No final-set tiebreakers exist at the French Open and the other non-U.S. Open majors.)
Tuesday, 10:26 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel airs a match between Gael Monfils and Victor Hanescu at 5-2 in the first set, while a women’s match between Caroline Wozniacki and Yanina Wickmayer sits at 4-3 in the second set. After Monfils closes out the set, 6-2, Tennis Channel stays with that match, while Wozniacki and Wickmayer move to 5-4 in the second set (with Wickmayer leading by a set). Wozniacki eventually wins the set, 6-4, without any live look-ins from Tennis Channel.
10:47 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel shows the conclusion of the second set between Andy Murray and Andrey Golubev.
10:51 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel goes back to Monfils-Hanescu, ignoring the third and deciding set of Wozniacki-Wickmayer.
10:58 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel conducts an anchor-desk interview with American ATP player Jack Sock.
11:07 a.m. ET: Wickmayer defeats Wozniacki, 6-2 in the third, without receiving coverage in the final two sets. (The first-set tiebreaker was aired live.)
Wednesday, 8:55 a.m. ET: ESPN2 picks up a first-set tiebreaker with Milos Raonic and Jiri Vesely, even though matches involving Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were also going on at the same time (early in sets).
9:15 a.m. ET: ESPN2 breaks away from the Roger Federer-Diego Schwartzman match to show the conclusion of the Novak Djokovic-Jeremy Chardy match.
10:59 a.m. ET: Steve Tignor of Tennis.com tweets about what he’s seen on Tennis Channel.
Approx. 11:15 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel shows the tail-end of a match between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jurgen Melzer, with Tsonga leading by two sets and 4-1 in the third. Meanwhile, young American hopeful Taylor Townsend is facing Alize Cornet in the early stages of the first set.
12:02 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel goes to a match between Maria Sharapova and Tsvetana Pironkova, instead of returning to the Townsend-Cornet match, which it briefly strayed from to show a first-set tiebreaker between American John Isner and Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan.
12:36 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel confirms what many on Tennis Twitter (and elsewhere) had begun to realize over the past few hours, in light of the non-coverage of the Townsend match that American viewers had wanted to see. The network did not hide its desire to have viewers try out their app and/or live streaming services for an additional charge, due to Tennis Channel’s need to make money and sustain its ability to adequately cover all the non-major tournament portions of the tennis calendar.
12:47 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel picks up Townsend-Cornet at 1-0 in the third set.
12:49 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel moves to the second-set tiebreaker of the Isner-Kukushkin match.
12:58 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel rejoins Townsend-Cornet at 3-1 (Townsend) in the third and follows that match to its conclusion, leaving viewers wondering why it wasn’t willing to stick with that match in the first place.
Thursday, approx. 7:50 a.m. ET: ESPN2 goes to a women’s match between American Alison Riske and France’s Kristina Mladenovic (3-2 in the first set) after Rafael Nadal wins the first set of his match against Dominic Thiem.
10:40 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel picks up the first-set tiebreaker between Richard Gasquet and Carlos Berlocq at 5-3, after having ignored the match in its entirety up to that point.
1:06 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel picks up the first set of a match between Ana Ivanovic and Elina Svitolina, with Ivanovic leading, 5-4.
1:08 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel moves to a match between Simona Halep and Heather Watson, with Halep two points from the match at 6-2, 5-4, deuce. Halep wins the match, and Tennis Channel returns to the end of the first set of Ivanovic-Svitolina.
Friday, 2:45 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel shows an interview with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga instead of the beginning of the fifth set of a match between Milos Raonic and Gilles Simon. The interview occurred at 8:45 p.m. Paris time, with the conclusion of the day’s play arriving in no more than 55 minutes. Naturally, the interview could have been taped and then shown after the conclusion of the day’s play (regardless of whether the Raonic-Simon match finished before darkness).
Saturday, 6:11 a.m. ET: American Sloane Stephens plays a third-round match against Ekaterina Makarova, rightly getting the prime viewing slot on Tennis Channel. However, during a changeover at 4-3 in the second set, Tennis Channel goes to commercial instead of showing a first-set tiebreaker involving fifth-seeded Petra Kvitova and 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.
6:28 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel picks up a match between American Jack Sock and Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic at 5-4 in the second set.
6:51 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel picks up the second set of a match between fifth-seeded David Ferrer and Andreas Seppi at 6-5 in the second set.
7:04 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel shows the beginning of the third set in Ferrer-Seppi, with Ferrer leading by two sets, even though Kvitova and Kuznetsova are in the third set and another match between Ana Ivanovic and Lucie Safarova is 3-3 in the first.
7:13 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel goes back to Sock and Lajovic. Women’s tennis continues to get ignored. (Reminder: Both the Sock and Ferrer matches involved two-set deficits, as opposed to being tied at one set apiece.)
7:19 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel finally picks up Kvitova-Kuznetsova at 2-1 in the third.
7:21 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel goes back to Sock-Lajovic, with Lajovic leading 4-3 in the third and closing in on a match win.
7:30 a.m. ET: After Lajovic wins, Tennis Channel goes back to Kvitova-Kuznetsova in the third.
7:59 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel moves to the Ivanovic-Safarova match, with Safarova having match point in the second set.
8:01 a.m. ET: Ivanovic fends off match point and holds for 3-5 in the second. Tennis Channel goes back to Kvitova-Kuznetsova, with Kuznetsova two points from victory at 6-5 and 15-30 on Kvitova’s serve. Kvitova holds for 6-6, and Tennis Channel shows Safarova winning the match over Ivanovic after the brief use of a double box, a la NFL RedZone.
9:05 a.m. ET: With Rafael Nadal cruising, up two breaks over Leonardo Mayer in the first set (4-1), the match between Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini – at 5-4 for Fognini in the first set – stood out as a natural place to turn to. Tennis Channel stays with the Nadal match, however.
10:29 a.m. ET: With Nadal up two sets over Mayer and the Monfils-Fognini match tied at a set apiece and 4-all in the third, Tennis Channel sticks with the Nadal match.
10:38 a.m. ET: With Fognini serving to stay in the third set at 4-5, Tennis Channel airs a live interview with Jelena Jankovic. Monfils breaks to win the third set, 6-4, without a single point being shown on Tennis Channel.
10:49 a.m. ET: American Donald Young tries to stay in the second set against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, trailing 5-4. Tennis Channel offers no coverage, staying with the Nadal match instead. Garcia-Lopez serves out the set, 6-4, a few minutes later without coverage.
10:55 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel finally moves to Monfils-Fognini, with Fognini leading 3-0 in the fourth set.
GENERAL NOTE: During its Saturday window, Tennis Channel carried interviews with non-superstar players such as Jankovic and ATP player Kevin Anderson. Introducing these players to the audience was and is a laudable goal. The simple and avoidable problem with these interviews is not that they were conducted, but that they were aired over live tennis. Given Tennis Channel’s regular offerings of taped and/or packaged coverage in the afternoons and evenings, these interviews can so easily and obviously be aired then… just not during live tennis.
Back to documentation of the week in tennis coverage on American television…
Saturday, 12:02 p.m. ET: NBC takes over from Tennis Channel and goes live to Donald Young’s match, instead of airing tape-delayed fare.
1:37 p.m. ET: NBC arrives at a break of action (a changeover) in a match between Andy Murray and Philipp Kohlschreiber, while a women’s match on center court between Andrea Petkovic and Kristina Mladenovic arrives at 5-3 in the third set. NBC stays with the Murray match. Mladenovic took the place of Li Na in this match after knocking out Li in the first round. (Li probably would have been shown at 5-3, but not Mladenovic.)
Approx. 2:05 p.m. ET: NBC takes another “NBC Sports Break” during its three-hour window of coverage. NBC had taken a similar “Sports Break” roughly 40 to 45 minutes earlier, interrupting tennis for non-tennis sports news and large blocks of commercials. These interruptions of live tennis lasted at least six to eight minutes if not longer. This particular break, just after 2 p.m. Eastern, prevented viewers from seeing Murray win the first three games of the fourth set.
3 p.m. ET: NBC’s coverage window ends, but the network stays with the Murray-Kohlschreiber match, now in a fifth set, to the conclusion of play on Saturday in Paris.
3:27 p.m. ET: NBC’s truck shows courtside referee Brian Earley signaling for two more games to be played in the Murray-Kohlschreiber match before darkness makes conditions unplayable in Paris.
Sunday, approx. 7:30 – 8:30 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel airs the completion of the suspended Murray-Kohlschreiber match (from Saturday night) over the majority of the first set of the fourth-round match between Roger Federer and Ernests Gulbis.
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET: NBC comes on after Tennis Channel and picks up a match live between Maria Sharapova and Samantha Stosur. After the completion of that match, NBC went live to the end of the other remaining singles match between Garbine Muguruza and Pauline Parmentier before showing taped coverage of Federer’s loss to Gulbis.
GAIN THE TRUST OF THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO WATCH YOUR PRODUCT
American (and Canadian) tennis viewers don’t ask for much — really, they don’t. A very simple message came through loud and clear in the North American portion of Tennis Twitter this past week:
“We already pay extra money for Tennis Channel on our cable bill, because we don’t get TC on our basic sports tier. We need to get the extra sports tier. Now we’re being asked to pay more money for apps and streaming services, all while our streaming options on ESPN3 are limited because of various contractual limitations and entanglements connected to Tennis Channel and NBC.
“We, as North American tennis fans and as consumers of multimedia products that enable us to watch tennis matches, just want to be able to see whatever tennis match we want to see when we want to see it. If Match A is on TV, fine — we just want to be able to see Match B or C on a streaming service, but this has not been the case at Roland Garros this year or in past years as well. An NBC embargo here, a limitation of an ESPN3 streaming window there — we don’t get unlimited streaming availability at all times, either through ESPN3 or Tennis Channel. Is this really too much to ask?
“Can there simply be one service or outlet through which we, as consumers, can pay money to get a full menu of tennis coverage? Shouldn’t every streaming service be made available under one corporate umbrella or in one easily accessible package? Paying money is not the problem — paying money only to have streaming accessibility then limited or cut off is the problem.”
In addition to those three italicized paragraphs above, American viewers expressed a great deal of displeasure with the decision highlighted earlier during the coverage of the Taylor Townsend-Alize Cornet match on Wednesday: Tennis Channel obviously wants and needs to generate more revenue streams through its extra services, but if television — still the main gateway for many if not most tennis fans at the majors — steers a large enough percentage of coverage to the apps and live streams, viewers will be tempted to ditch the TV channel and its sports tier on Comcast or other cable carriers.
Very simply, Tennis Channel needs to win viewers’ trust by getting the basic TV decisions right first, and THEN building more of a multimedia product with uninterrupted streaming availability. Getting the TV part right while solving the issue of inconsistent streaming availability will create loyal customers. Failing to do that will continue to alienate tennis fans who are willing to buy their products… if only they’ll be met halfway.
The final note in this piece concerns NBC’s “Sports Breaks” last Saturday: To veer away from live tennis for tennis interviews — such as the Tennis Channel does at times — is exasperating but, at the very least, still part of an attempt to highlight tennis. To break from tennis for non-tennis news is a central manifestation of how broadcast networks (NBC and CBS over the years) have treated tennis compared to the rest of the American sports landscape.