It’s Friday, time for the mailbag.
And while I promise you there are boobs coming at the end of this meditation, I’m going to write some about when I think someone’s sex life should be a story. Because, God knows, if there’s anyone who is an expert on the media ethics of sex, it’s Outkick the Coverage.
Our beaver pelt trader of the week is Colin Cowherd, who is leaving ESPN and headed to Fox. He’s going to be a great addition for us and I’m excited to get our new programming rolling out. You guys are going to enjoy it.
Okay, here we go with the mailbag.
Several of you emailed or Tweeted about the Gawker controversy over a post where they outed a married father of three attempting to arrange a sexual encounter with a gay porn star.
You can read the story or not, but the details you need to know are these: 1. the man isn’t really famous, but he’s the brother of a kind of famous person if you like political appointees a ton. 2. he’s a straight man with a family, but he was seeking gay sex 3. he was being extorted by the gay porn star and did nothing wrong. 4. Gawker gave anonymity to the gay porn star and published their text message exchange.
This is a big story because increasingly we have limited the zone of privacy we give to everyone in our modern era. It raises a fascinating series of questions beginning with what is and what is not a story when it comes to sex?
I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, and last fall I read a great book about Gary Hart and how the lurid coverage of his potential affair with a younger woman turned into a feeding frenzy and altered the acceptable rules of how the media cover politicians sex lives. I’d encourage you all to read this book. Gary Hart led to an era where it’s accepted by many that if a politician cheats on his wife or husband, it’s a story.
But should it be?
I don’t think so. Put simply, I don’t care whether a politician is a good husband or a good wife, I care about how he is on his job. Think about it this way, if you’re about to go under the knife for open heart surgery, do you want the doctor who is the best at open heart surgery but has screwed half the nurses in the hospital or the great husband who is more likely to kill you on the operating table? If Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton would be a better president with a harem of sexual providers, I’m all for it.
So if I’m for presidents being able to have private sexual lives then I’m certainly of the belief that a random guy’s pursuit of sex shouldn’t be a story. Especially not here, when Gawker gave anonymity to blackmailing escort and then allowed his blackmail threat to go public in a way he could never have done himself. I mean, that’s insanity.
The irony of Gawker, frequently the leader of liberal Internet mobs, becoming the target of an Internet mob was downright revolutionary and hearkened back to Robespierre, the erstwhile leader of the French Revolution, being guillotined by his fellow revolutionaries. The mob also arrived on the same day that Deadspin put me in a Klan hat on their site, which, I’m pretty sure, makes me the first former editor to ever appear in a Klan site on a Gawker site he used to help run. What can I say, I break barriers.
Many readers and media focused on the fact that this was an “outing” and felt that the story was particularly troubling for that reason. But why does whether the sex here would have been gay or straight matter? Would it have been any more of a story if the guy had been arranging sex with a female prostitute? I don’t think so. The fall out in his own private life would have been just as difficult regardless of the sex of his partner. I don’t think many wives would react that well if your opening line was, “Honey, this could be much worse. I could have been trying to arrange sex with a gay prostitute instead of a straight one.” (Proving that men and women are different, if my wife confessed she’d secretly been corresponding with a female porn star for a lesbian sex encounter, I’d be pissed at her for not involving me as a birthday present, not because she did it.)
This also raises an interesting policy question, if you’re troubled by Gawker outing a guy for arranging private, consensual sex for money, why aren’t you equally troubled by your tax dollars going to police officers pretending to be prostitutes and entrapping people attempting to pay for sex? Because if this guy gets busted for solicitation then it’s a story through the public police record and no one even blinks. Isn’t Gawker just doing what the police do? (This, by the way, is why Outkick would legalize prostitution. And most drugs. And gambling).
Anyway, the Gawker story got me thinking quite a bit on a related question, what should the standards be for publishing a sex story in our modern Internet era?
This is an interesting question for a site like Outkick, where I’ve made it pretty clear that we have relaxed morality standards when it comes to consenting adults. I make a ton of decisions on newsworthiness and I distinguish between things that we cover that are already out there and things that we don’t publish.
But what are the standards? I’ve never tried to lay them out because most of the time I can just make a call when I see it. Here’s my attempt to set standards.
First, single people are fair game because no one judges them for chasing sex. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. People love Derek Jeter because he’s never married. Yet if he’d slept with the same people while being married, he’d be worse than Tiger Woods. So if a single guy or girl has a hot boyfriend or girlfriend, we’re running that if there would be interest. Think of it as the Johnny Manziel dresses as Scooby Doo and dances with hot chicks in College Station example. Similarly, if you’re married to a hot husband or wife and outkicked your coverage, it’s kind of the point of the site to run that.
If you do something in public — or post it on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook — that’s fair game too. If, let’s say, Nick Saban made out with a random sorority girl at Innisfree in Tuscaloosa, we’d definitely run it. If a coach sent a dick pick out on Instagram, we’d probably run it.
And if you get charged with a sex-related crime — or investigated for one — that’s a story as well.
These are all easy calls.
But can we define a rule on sex stories outside of these parameters? Here’s my attempt:
As a general rule, I’d submit that a sex story is valid if the person is famous enough to be a public figure and at least one of these additional factors applies: a. it’s in public. If you do something in public and someone videos or photographs you that’s fair game. If it’s secretly recorded in private, we probably wouldn’t use it. b. the person is arrested or charged with committing a crime related to his sex or pursuit of sex (although, I don’t think we’ve run one of these stories because personally I think it’s dumb we spend tax dollars entrapping people with fake prostitutes) c. you’re covering a lawsuit and reporting on the claims d. a person may be closeted gay and has spent his career opposing gay rights (this one is more controversial than the first three, but I believe it’s valid.)
Clearly, this Gawker story fits none of the categories in play here.
Which is why, I think, so many reacted with disgust to the story. Plainly, as a first amendment absolutist, Gawker can do whatever they want — including risking the future of their company based on a post such as this or putting me in a KKK hat — but we wouldn’t write this story.
So what happens when you apply this set of standards to recent sports scandals? This would mean that the Bobby Petrino sex scandal is clearly an easy call. As a state employee, he employed a subordinate he was sleeping with, wrecked his motorcycle while riding with her, which led to a police report, and also lied to his boss about the relationship; this one is a no brainer.
But here’s where I got troubled and couldn’t reconcile things — what about Tiger Woods?
Why was Tiger cheating on his wife a story for every news outlet? Was the wrecked car outside his house the linch pin that allowed all the sex stories to follow? Because Tiger Woods getting into a car accident is a story, right? Then it’s fair game to ask why he wrecked the car. So the idea that Tiger’s wife found out about his cheating and — probably — chased his ass with a golf club causing him to wreck his car, led to all this. If that wreck never happens, is Tiger’s cheating a story at all? Tiger just gets divorced — like a ton of pro athletes and regular guys and girls too — and we never hear a word of what happened otherwise? I think that might well be true. So was Tiger’s wrecked car really significant enough to lead to the publication of many women he’d slept with, including many who were trying to extort him?
Do we all owe Tiger Woods an apology? Is he the sports world’s own Gary Hart?
I’m interested what y’all think.
Anyway, here are Charlotte McKinney’s boobs for those of you who made it through that meditation on sex stories:
A ton of you wrote about my column on ESPN, cord cutting, and the cable/satellite bundle.
This was the most interesting of those emails.
“My wife and I just started subscribing to HBO Now, we used to have it through our cable TV package. When you watch through cable, you see multiple channels… HBO, HBO2, HBO Signature, HBO Comedy, HBO Zone and HBO Latino, plus their western time zone versions. When you log into HBO Now, you see none of those. The reason why is that those channels are obsolete in an over-the-top delivery model. Cable television needs those channels because it’s the only way to broadcast multiple shows at once. On the internet, broadcast capacity is unlimited and those channels aren’t necessary at all.
ESPN, in an over-the-top delivery model, could be exactly the same way. It’s been estimated that ESPN would have to charge $30 per month, and that’s only for ESPN, not ESPN2 or ESPNU, SECN, etc. However, ESPN alone is all they would need. Just like with HBO, once you get one channel and all of their programming inventory, you don’t need all the secondary channels. All you really need is their revenue, and judging by the carriage fees of all the ESPN channels, ESPN Inc has built all their primary revenues into the ESPN carriage fee. So that $30 per month, would in fact get you all of ESPN’s programming if they went over-the-top with it.
Now, about that $30 per month. This number is based on what I believe are some flawed assumptions. It assumes only 20 million fans would subscribe, and it assumes the same total revenue that 100 million cable subscribers would generate at a $6 monthly carriage fee. I think all those numbers are wrong. HBO has 35 million subscribers, Netflix has a whopping 60 million subscribers. Let’s be honest, outside of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black… Netflix’s programming SUCKS! That means that 60 million people are lazily keeping a $7.99 monthly subscription all year long just to binge watch 2 shows once a year, and watch a bunch of reruns they can see anywhere else!
So I’m supposed to believe that ESPN, in an exclusively over-the-top delivery model, couldn’t get subscriptions somewhere in the neighborhood of HBO or Netflix? At just 30mm subscribers, they could price it $20 per month and match their previous revenue, at 40mm it could be $15 per month, 60mm would mean just $10 per month.
Right now ESPN has 8 channels that all have 24 hours of daily programming they have to fill, but on some days (like Saturdays in the fall) they need way, WAY more capacity than that. On other days, like July 15 (the slowest sports day of the year), they need way, WAY less. That problem goes away if they go over-the-top.
Long story short, if ESPN goes over the top, I honestly think they could push 60mm subscribers like Netflix. Pricing their product at a modest, reasonable and attractive price of $15 a month, they could push $900mm per month, or $10.8 billion per year! Everybody wins if this happens!”
Your point about the elimination of every other channel is really smart here, if ESPN did an over the top app just about everyone would be subscribing for the games, nothing else. The need for all the other shows is vastly diminished when viewers are picking their favorites. You don’t need as much programming, you just need better programming.
In fact, interestingly, this would probably push ESPN even more into the original programming universe. There would be more needs for 30 for 30 and scripted programming, like “Playmakers.” You’d have to give people GREAT original programming to compete with the HBO and Netflixes of the world. Good isn’t enough, you have to make these shows great. A daily sports show makes sense on a cable network with 24 hours to fill, it makes less sense on an app.
Here’s the problem with this scenario, reports are ESPN can’t offer an over the top service directly to consumers because it promised not to in contracts with cable and satellite carriers. That’s how it got such high monthly fees. In essence, cable doesn’t want to compete with ESPN if it’s paying a high fixed rate for the channel already. Once ESPN started offering an over the top service, many cable and satellite subscribers would stop carrying ESPN as a standard channel and would start charging for it as well. The result would be tens of millions less subscribers. (Sling TV, which DISH owns, is a kind of toe in the water here. For $25 a month you can get ESPN and the SEC Network and stream it without needing a cable or satellite subscription. But subscription numbers on this aren’t public). HBO can do the over the top offering because it is already a premium channel that cable and satellite providers sell independently. Once ESPN did the same, it would effectively become a premium channel as well. There goes all the money from the free rider subscribers who don’t watch the channel and subsidize the costs for sports fans.
It’s also worth noting that premium channels and Netflix have no commercials. If fans are paying for their sports over the top, are they really going to sit through ads too? ESPN makes a ton of money on advertising. Is that model still viable over the top?
Maybe you’re right, maybe the market for ESPN would be huge, but what you’re missing is this — most people aren’t that big of sports fans. Netflix truly has something for everyone. My kids love it. My wife loves it. We aren’t all watching the same shows. Plus, Netflix is spending billions on new original programming beyond “House of Cards,” and “Orange Is the New Black,” from kids shows to comedies to superhero shows. Netflix has the same challenge as HBO, make great original content. Things you can’t get anywhere else.
We have one over the top “sportsish” network right now, the WWE. WWE consistently crushes ESPN live sports in cable ratings and it has an over the top offering that includes all the expensive pay per view matches and every match that has ever occurred in the history of the sport. Right now WWE has around 1.3 million subscribers at $9.99 a month. (Full disclosure: I’m a WWE shareholder because I believe in their OTT model). The NFL Sunday Ticket is every NFL game available on DirecTV. Do you know how many people subscribe to it? Just two million, that’s just 10% of DirecTV’s subscriber base. That’s every NFL game for a couple of hundred dollars. Again, most people aren’t diehard sports fans.
You’re also discounting the seasonality of the interest in sports. Let’s say I’m a huge college sports fan and just a casual fan otherwise. If I subscribed to ESPN over the top from September to the first week in March, I’d get every college sporting event I wanted — every college football and basketball game — and Monday Night Football. Why would I subscribe from the second week of March until September? Sure, I’d miss the NBA playoffs — the parts I couldn’t see on TNT, that is — but I could still watch the NBA Finals on ABC and several additional playoff games that aired there. ESPN doesn’t have the NCAA tournament or any golf. They don’t have the World Cup. Major League baseball has its own app. From March to September ESPN would lose a ton of subscribers. That’s half the year of revenue. And if I didn’t care about college basketball at all until March Madness, which is the vast majority of sports fans, I could cut ESPN as soon as the college football playoff was over in mid-January. That would mean that I only paid for four months and change.
Sure, ESPN could require a yearly subscription for over the top buyers, but the WWE found that turned people off. They wanted to be able to subscribe when they wanted to subscribe and leave when they wanted to leave. So I think you’d have to allow people to come and go at their choice.
That brings me back to my earlier point — ESPN would have to develop its own must-see original programming that it owned and created. Right now ESPN is just a middle man that brings you sports created by the leagues. Without the games, what is ESPN? Not much.
And here’s the threat to ESPN, if everyone starts going over the top, why would a sports league re-up with ESPN as their contracts expire? With the cable and satellite bundle, ESPN solves all the league distribution issues and guarantees them payment. But if fans are paying ESPN for the games, why couldn’t they just pay the leagues themselves?
Which brings me back to the entire premise of my article, if cord cutting is happening — and truly accelerating — then ESPN is in serious, serious trouble.