ESPN's 'Bonds On Bonds' Plays Ball With Journalism

For ESPN's reality series "Bonds on Bonds," the problem comes because the show is not quite a documentary, and not a fictionalized entertainment show. It's just in between enough to drive viewers and business reporters crazy.

You can understand why ESPN took a shot at this juicy subject, in spite of its controversial approach: the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds is chasing baseball's all-time important record for home runs. Bonds is the sometimes indifferent and mysterious interview, all as the drumbeat gets louder surrounding his alleged premeditated steroid use.

How could anyone turn this down--even with the unusual journalistic caveat? "Bonds on Bonds" is an entertainment series produced by ESPN's Original Entertainment, not the ESPN news division. That means Barry Bonds himself can have input--though limited, according to the producers.

The "Bonds on Bonds" producers, Tollin/Robbins Productions, churn out stuff like "One Tree Hill" and "Smallville" on the WB, and theatrical movies such as "Shaggy Dog," "Coach Carter," and "Radio." The company also produced a documentary, "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream," which won awards and was Oscar- and Emmy-nominated.



So perhaps the production company knows what it's doing. (One wonders if Hank Aaron got veto power similar to what Barry Bonds received.)

Critics moaned about ESPN's too-close-to-the-wall approach between news and entertainment. One wonders if advertisers are worried about this as well.

To keep everything on the up-and-up, ESPN's main news show, "SportsCenter," only gets to see each episode after it is televised--so it gets no advantage to other media outlets. So far there's been little to report. Bonds hasn't even hit a home run yet this season.

But here's the problem. ESPN's EOE division has done a number of docu-drama accounts of Dale Earnhardt ("3") and Roger Bannister ("Four Minutes"), to name a few. Imagine watching CNN and seeing a documentary of sorts where Hillary Rodham Clinton has a say in content. Imagine if, in addition to CBS News producing the "CBS Evening News" and "60 Minutes," it also produced shows under a new banner, CBS News Original Entertainment.

ESPN might argue it is behaving like other media companies. The real difference, it would say, is what CBS News and CBS Entertainment each produce.

News traditionalists would say we are just talking about sports news-- typically not about serious matters, like Army jeeps getting blown up in the midst of desert night maneuvers in a country far from home.

For "Bonds on Bonds," we have yet to see any real damage--in front or behind the camera.

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