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ESPN’s new programming strategy seems clear now — whatever decision former ESPN president John Skipper made, do the opposite. Yep, ESPN is going full George Costanza now, doing the exact opposite of what would have been done before.
On Friday afternoon — the typical time to drop news that isn’t favorable — two big stories broke: Jemele Hill was leaving ESPN on September 1st, less than a year after her Tweet calling the president a white supremacist and roughly six months after she was removed from the six PM SportsCenter. The report from Jim Miller said the departure was “amicable.” That might be so, but only because Jemele Hill was able to extract a substantial cash advance on her salary and will no longer be able to murder ESPN’s brand with her consistent and shrill cavalcade of “Everything is racist!” takes on social media.
ESPN finally decided — probably in conjunction with Disney CEO Bob Iger who had long protected Hill as a way to help set the table for his presidential run — that continuing to employ Jemele Hill and rewarding her with air time was helping to kill their brand with anyone who doesn’t immediately see racism when the pot calls the kettle black.
As if that weren’t enough, Michelle Beadle — she of the infamous “Shut up and listen, white men!” hot take — was removed from “Get Up,” the disastrously expensive Hindenburg of morning shows championed by John Skipper, which has never produced any audience whatsoever. What’s more, “Get Up,” was reduced from three hours to two hours, signaling that it’s likely to be completely erased — or folded into SportsCenter — by the time football season is over.
When you consider all that had to happen for Get Up to launch: 1. Mike and Mike, the most successful sports talk show in history, had to be broken up 2. an expensive New York City studio had to be built 3. SportsCenter, the most venerable brand in ESPN history, had to be canceled in the morning 4. Beadle had to be pulled off SportsNation, resulting in that show’s cancellation and 5. tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, had to be lost, all in the space of six months to launch and support the show, I’m not sure that John Skipper could have made worse decisions if he’d been attempting to destroy ESPN’s brand.
Combining this with the shortening of “High Noon” from one hour to thirty minutes and the last three major initiatives John Skipper was most closely connected to have now been erased since he “resigned” for “substance abuse issues.”
These changes in direction represent a seismic shift for ESPN. (The only wrinkle in this decision making has been the hire of noted Donald Trump critic Keith Olbermann, but I suspect ESPN’s focus here wasn’t on Olbermann’s left wing mania, it was on his role at ESPN in the 1990’s. Olbermann’s hire was an attempt to send a message that ESPN was getting back to what made it great. Even if, you know, Olbermann long ago stopped being a sports figure).
Now SC6 is dead, Get Up is close to dead, and High Noon is already on life support just a couple of months into its existence. All three of these were major new shows championed by John Skipper to lead ESPN into the new era. All of them also, not coincidentally, have also featured the most left wing talent ESPN has to offer and all of them have been resoundingly rejected by television viewers.
This suggests, wait for it now, TWITTER IS NOT REAL LIFE.
Programming a television network to make people on Twitter happy is self-defeating, especially in sports media. What Twitter likes is often the exact opposite of what real sports fans like. If I were a sports media executive, I’d do something truly wild — I’d trust my own instincts and not read Twitter mentions from people who are dumber than me telling me what I should do. (Some of these same sports media executives are now reading this column likely thinking, “Yeah, but you’re dumber than me, Clay Travis, why would I listen to you?” The answer, as always, is my hair.)
I was out to dinner last week with some smart people in our industry and I asked this question of the table, “Can you imagine if doctors made decisions on how to treat patients or pilots made decisions on how to fly their planes based on what people on social media suggested?” We’d all think that was insane, right? So why should highly trained executives who have spent their entire lives succeeding to get to the point where they get to make important decisions care one iota what social media thinks about their decisions? Who do you think knows more about making good television, an executive, surrounded by other executives, who has done it his or her entire life or a left wing SJW Tweeting anonymously all day who won’t even watch television no matter what’s on it? (The funniest thing about listening to millennials about what to put on television is that millennials won’t even watch if you do what they say anyway. Asking a millennial what to put on television is like asking a vegan which steak to order.)
So what now?
Assuming ESPN is beginning to reject the promotion of far left wingers who don’t actually like sports, can the network get back to actual sports or not? And if they do, will the audience they lost ever return? Those are two big questions. But if you want to be an optimist, returning the six PM SportsCenter to just sports has led to substantial ratings increases. I’d expect the same thing will happen when they eventually cancel Get Up.
In the meantime, the times, they are a changin’ at ESPN.
They finally have executives in charge of the business who have realized WokeCenter is bad for ESPN’s brands. Sports fans don’t want to see sports and left wing politics mixed ad nauseum.
It’s probably too much to ask ESPN executives to get red pilled, but maybe they’ve finally woken up from their drug-addled haze and realized their brand was toxic. The best way to cure a toxic brand? Get rid of the people who made that brand toxic.
That’s why I think you have to give substantial credit to new network president Jimmy Pitaro for recognizing the calamity he inherited and starting to make changes to dig ESPN out of the massive hole John Skipper created.
There’s still a long way to go, but for the first time in a long time, ESPN has at least stopped digging the hole to bury itself in.