Yesterday afternoon news officially broke that ESPN had signed Paul Finebaum to a five year contract. The deal calls for 100 TV appearances a year and a simulcast of Finebaum’s radio show on the upcoming SEC Network, set to debut in August of 2014.
It’s a smart decision that fills up several hours of programming year-around on the upcoming SEC Network. Putting radio shows on television works pretty well already and is a cost-effective duality. ESPN pioneered the strategy in sports with multiple shows now airing daily and NBC and CBS have followed up on the decision, placing Dan Patrick and Tim Brando front and center on the NBC Sports Network and the CBS Sports Network. It would be a pretty big shocker if Fox didn’t also have a radio show on television when FoxSports1 and FoxSports2 debut this August.
But the biggest aspect of this deal is the message that the SEC is sending to the college sports universe.
In fact, it tells you what the SEC Network is not going to be — a bland, boring take off of the Big Ten Network.
Privately many involved with the SEC Network have shot down the idea that the Big Ten Network is in any way a model for the SEC Network’s content. People at ESPN and the SEC feel the Big Ten Network programming is tedius and as even more of an indictment they point to the way the Joe Paterno scandal was covered by the network. The Big Ten’s Paterno coverage bordered on Chinese media coverage of democratic uprisings, it was entirely state-sponsored television that was completely divorced from the truth.
Indeed, many at ESPN and the SEC said they were using the Big Ten Network as a model of what not to be with the SEC Network.
That’s easy to say, but what would happen when content decisions had to be made? How much creative freedom would media actually have on the network? Would this be entertainment or propaganda?
Well, Finebaum’s hiring answers that question — the goal of the SEC Network is to be entertaining first, propaganda second. That’s an impressive editorial decision because many in positions of corporate power want to select the banal and bland alternative, the content that never shakes anything up, the one that never leads to any complaints.
That’s fine, but it’s the very antithesis of entertainment.
No one tunes in to watch propaganda.
Hiring Finebaum as the very first official employee is a clear signal that the goal of the SEC Network is to be entertaining.
That speaks volumes about the SEC and ESPN’s goal for the SEC Network. This channel wants to have mass appeal even when the games aren’t going on. Yes, it will have 45 football games, but that’s a small part of the hours that have to be filled on the upcoming network. You have to give people a reason to watch this channel from April to July, when football season is a long way away and there’s nothing much happening on the college sports landscape. You don’t want to create a network that people only care about for three months a year.
And that’s the thing about Finebaum — and all successful radio shows in the modern media era — they have to have mass appeal. Sports talk radio is entertainment, the last place in the media universe where you have the luxury of time. If you have someone in studio for an hour as a guest, it’s impossible for them to leave without having revealed a ton about themselves. Howard Stern is the master of this, radio gives us the opportunity to pull back the artificial masks of the modern era. Put someone on radio for an hour and you’ll leave with a much better understanding of them than you can from any other media. People listen to a radio show every day for the same reason they lay down on their couch and flip on a game when they get home from work, because it’s comfortable and refreshing to relax and be entertained after a long day of work.
For the past decade or more Finebaum has done twenty hours of live radio a week. It’s fashionable to hate on Finebaum in some circles, but this criticism is lazy and misses the difficulty involved in being entertaining for twenty hours of live radio a week. He’s incredibly talented at a very difficult medium. Very, very few people can do that amount of live radio. Even fewer can do that amount of live radio and do it well.
Finebaum is incredibly smart — witness his interviews with intelligent people — but he’s also a deft ringmaster — witness his interaction with idiot callers. Finebaum’s genius is in crafting two shows running simultaneously, the actual show and the people who love it, and the other people listening to the show who also love it but can’t believe it’s real.
There are many smart interviewers, but few of those smart interviewers have the ability to switch from Condoleeza Rice to Legend and never skip a beat in the process.
That’s why Finebaum, turning 58 this year, is the most-talented Southern media member of his generation.
Plus, he’s not afraid to let his show wander down into the creepy recesses of the Southern mind. One thing that has always been underrated is the Southern affinity for eccentric oddities. We all have really weird relatives down here. From William Faulkner to Paul Finebaum, great gothic humor has always come from shining a light on these darkened magnolia lined hollows, on the aunts and uncles we all welcome at Thanksgiving. “Good Lord, what’s Uncle Earl going to say during the prayer this year?” we all quietly wonder.
Come next year on the SEC Network the nation will be even more exposed to the wackiness of our homeland. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, eventually if we get you down here long enough you turn a little bit crazy about football.
I don’t know why exactly, maybe it’s the heat.
Or the fried foods.
But eventually you’re going to go a little bit insane.
The SEC Network could have chosen to run from these quirks and oddities in favor of conveying an airbrushed version of Southern life, the kind you see in corporate banking advertisements for cities like Charlotte. It’s safer to go that route, but it’s less authentic. Eventually that lack of authenticity would fester, boiling up into a morass of disinterested viewers who would seek their entertainment elsewhere.
The SEC Network would have turned into a punchline as potent as the Big Ten Network is now, the Big Ten Brother Network comes South.
Instead, in hiring Finebaum the SEC and ESPN sent a strong message that the SEC Network won’t be politically correct and inoffensive to all.
Because most great entertainment is neither of these things.
Get ready America, the SEC Network might just become one of the most ridiculous reality television channels ever.
Down here we deep fry everything, even the crazy.
Bless your hearts, you ain’t seen nothing yet.