Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Comings and goings: ESPN, media realignment and 'opinionists'

Much like college athletics, the media landscape is experiencing its own sort of incremental realignment.

Today, it was announced that Skip Bayless will be leaving the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), and is likely headed to Fox Sports 1 (FS1).

From ESPN PR (all four sentences of it):
Skip Bayless has decided to leave ESPN when his contract expires at the end of August. 
His final appearance on First Take will be the day after the NBA Finals conclude. 
We want to thank Skip for his many contributions to ESPN. His hard work and talent have benefited ESPN for 12 years.
On top of that, Mike Tirico, an ESPN veteran, will be leaving for NBC. These are just the latest departures in a period of turnover at ESPN, which has seen a number of big-name personalities -- of varying quality, depending on the beholder -- leave for various reasons. Those include: Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann. (For the record, I'm not particularly a fan of any of these four guys, although I do sincerely miss much of what Simmons helped build with the now defunct Grantland.)

All of this reminded me of a piece I wrote four years ago about Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and "First Take," the much-reviled but also much-talked-about "debate" show. The post was simply titled: "ESPN, Skip Bayless, and Where This Is All Going."

From that post:
Here's what it comes down to. ESPN's current chosen model of glitzy, Hollywood-ized sports coverage and subsidized trolling seems to be, in my mind, one with a limited ceiling. It has only been so successful because it has piggybacked onto ESPN's long legacy of what was at one point supposedly universally respected. This is not exactly Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will, but you know what I mean. As the Skip and Stephen A. Show becomes more and more absurd in the eyes of more and more people, there just has to be a point when ESPN decides to tone it down or go in another direction. Or, maybe not. Either way, it seems that this strategical resource has already been voraciously tapped. I have no doubt that Skip will continue to say ridiculous things about Tim Tebow, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and others, but I think that even the Worst Sort of Fan will become tired of it all much sooner than ESPN would hope. 
Four years later, ESPN is at a fork in the road. And, sadly, four years later, I'm not sure if the vast sports-consuming population has tired enough of the aforementioned antics to make media companies okay with jettisoning people like Bayless.

First, a disclaimer about my own sports consumption diet. In recent years -- having joined the workforce, picked up hobbies and the need to manage the duties of everyday life -- time spent watching ESPN has almost disappeared from my daily routine. I watch live sports when they are on the network, but, other than that, I infrequently tune in for analysis or even a stretch of lazy highlight-watching.

Part of that is that I've found other things to do besides devoting even more of my time to sports -- beyond what I already devote to watching actual games, which in and of itself is a significant chunk of time -- but another part is a purposeful alteration of my media diet. Another point worth mentioning is that I went into journalism -- as such, I like to think that choice leads me away from the type of programming ESPN provides most of the time: often shallow, substance-less, personality-driven material.

Clearly, that stuff worked for a time. But things change -- and if there's anything I've learned about the media industry, it's that it's open slow to adapt.

I have no doubt that there are many people who pay attention to what people like Bayless have to say -- this is admittedly but one metric, but he boasts nearly 1.9 million followers on Twitter. Once again: 1.9 million. 

Meanwhile, [insert bright, reasonable and articulate journalist/media personality here] and said person doesn't have quite the following. Take from that what you will.


Like politics, it's become clear that those who speak the loudest often find success, no matter what it is they are actually saying or how close to the truth their statements are. I could mine Bayless' Twitter timeline for examples of outright laughable assertions, but it would be fruitless for a number of reasons (most obviously, that there are so many, and it isn't worth the time).

But also, there's the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator. Sometimes, you have to wonder whether the people saying these things actually, you know, believe what they are saying. An "opinion" expressed is not so much an opinion -- for example, saying you would take Tim Tebow over Aaron Rodgers in a "one-game scenario" -- but rather a pointed barb launched to yield a reaction.

In that sense, it's not unlike a particularly strange, ruminating snake injecting its prey with venom. It's not so much that the snake is expressing a carefully formulated opinion about its prey -- i.e., that the prey is bad and deserves it because it is not clutch enough to avoid being eaten -- but rather that injecting things with poison is a thing that can be done to elicit a very specific sort of reaction. In prey, it's death. In media consumers, it's, well, the death of intellect by the proxy murder of reason.

Listen, Skip Bayless is an easy target. And following from the above, I have no doubt that he knows exactly what he is doing, and that people will pay him handsomely to keep doing that thing (see: FS1).

It should be noted that Jamie Horowitz, president of Fox Sports National Networks, previously worked at ESPN, where he helped make shows like "First Take" and "SportsNation" come to be.

So, it's no surprise* that he thinks like this (in an article from March, in which he discusses the desire to court Bayless to FS1):
"Your bread and butter are the live events and the studio shows that surround them," he said. "Then the daily grind of the daily opinion shows. That has to be the first iteration of FS1. Then you can add the pocket square, tie and cuff links later."
The "pocket square, tie and cuff links" is a reference to ESPN documentaries, namely its "30 for 30" series. Without entering into get-off-my-lawn territory too much -- particularly as a working journalist -- it is a problem that well-executed storytelling is viewed like it is an ancillary accoutrement. When it comes down to it, everybody shows highlights, everybody has talking heads at a desk saying things -- but not everybody has valuable tools like "30 for 30" or "Outside the Lines" or Grantland (RIP). Those were the things that made ESPN different, and, in my opinion, were the best things about it. I say all of these things, knowing that this paragraph is perhaps the height of naivete, and, moreover, not necessarily a formula for good business, in the short-term

I understand that in a 24-hour news cycle, you have to fill that programming space with something. And that something, for obvious reasons, can't always be filled by thoughtful things like "Outside the Lines" or documentary films, which take time and cost money. There is also the reality of shortening attention spans (again, get of my lawn, etc. etc.) -- simply put, there seem to be more people interested in all-caps Tweeting at Bayless than there are those willing to watch a carefully constructed documentary about a sports team for which they do not root. You could say that people's tastes are people's tastes -- but, at a certain point, isn't it somewhat of a feedback loop? If you keep inundating people with bad stuff, don't they, eventually, start to feel okay about that stuff, or worse, crave it? I think there's some truth in that thought.

With that in mind, Mr./Mrs. High-Profile Sports Network Person has one of two big-picture choices:

  • Fill programming space with empty calories and sacrifice reputation for short-term pseudo-success.  
  • Actually try. 
As we've seen far more often than not in today's media landscape, actually trying to do good things -- because they are difficult or cost-prohibitive or follow a less direct route to dollars -- is no longer the name of the game. (That is, if it ever was; if it wasn't before, it is certainly less the name of the game now than it once was.)

*Nor is it a surprise that nonsense words like "opinionist" are used to describe the media one is trying to build. 

So, we have two different situations to monitor. ESPN, on the one hand, is losing talent left and right, for better or worse. FS1, on the other hand, is trying to build itself up, using ESPN leftovers, leftovers that weren't particularly good even before they were leftovers. 

As personalities go, Tirico is the only notable loss for ESPN, in terms of actual value. As for the rest? Personally, I have not missed their presence ... but, then there's that whole social media following angle, a reminder that I am not representative of sports fans as a whole. 

That is not meant to be a haughty statement of superiority -- like all things, people have a wide range of preferences. Some prefer what most would consider "low-brow" coverage ("embrace debate"). Some enjoy a combination of everything. Some just want to read longform pieces by Wright Thompson or Lee Jenkins and watch "30 for 30" documentaries. Some want to watch live sports, only, and follow along on Twitter. Some only read blogs. Some like sports talk radio. Some hate sports talk radio. Some generally don't like talk radio, but tune in because it's something to listen to on the way to and from work. Some listen to podcasts. Some -- increasingly fewer, to be sure -- read print newspapers *raises hand*, as what they lack in immediacy can be made up for with artful presentation and the maintenance of a daily routine. 

The list goes on and on. Personally, I check several of the above boxes -- and my sports media consumption has shifted radically in recent years. I wonder where it will be 10 years from now. Given the increasing absurdity of the decisions handed down by the governing bodies of the various sports leagues (the NCAA being one), maybe I will come to a point where I decide sports aren't worth it. I doubt that will ever happen, but the fact that I've even come to consider the idea is perhaps representative of a general frustration with it all. 

And since I don't play third base for the Yankees or point guard for the Bulls or quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks -- i.e. I am not a professional athlete! -- my window to sports is informed by the coverage of it, viewed as a fan. 

So, if I'm frustrated, then it logically follows that that frustration, in part, stems from sports media's coverage -- especially the coverage provided by the very largest of sports media outlets.

Perhaps more than anything, I've taken an interest in media, in general: how things are covered, strategies deployed, personnel hired and fired. That's why I've greatly come to enjoy Richard Deitsch's "Media Circus" columns, which are always illuminating, thought-provoking and informative of something happening somewhere. Rarely do I ever read one of his columns and not learn something new.

It is also important to note -- although this is a point that seems to escape many, including myself, at times -- that media attempt to cater to a wide variety of people (as I wrote above). Basically, as many people as possible.

So, companies like ESPN are not going to please everyone, all the time. It's impossible. That, combined with the 24-hour programming cycle, puts decision-makers in a precarious position. And, on top of all of this, comes the management of egos, which could be seen in the demise of Simmons' Grantland. Sometimes, a good thing doesn't work because the people involved can't get along (e.g. the Chicago Bulls front office vs. Tom Thibodeau).

Above all, it's a business, which is not something that fans like to hear. People in charge will continue to use words like "disrupt" and "leverage" and "branding" with the utmost seriousness, feeling as if they are doing the right thing.

As FS1 assembles a coterie of "personalities," -- "opinionists," rather -- it appears like it is simply revisiting old ESPN tactics in an effort to beat it. While many might see Bayless' departure as a good thing for ESPN, ESPN still doesn't look good, as Bayless turned down their offer (Deitsch reported in November that ESPN planned to offer him $4 million per year). They tried to keep him at a lofty price, so they get no applause for failing to retain him. On top of that, they actually "succeeded" in keeping Smith. ("Quite frankly, I am outraged at this perpetuation of ludicrous assertions on every level of discourse.")

Instead of trying, sports media is intent on spitting out horrible sequels. We've seen this picture before.

Like college football's realignment, there will likely be further shakeup in the sports media landscape. ESPN will probably make its own moves to fill its "personality" void (likely at lower costs). Or, maybe it will try to be better (unlikely, but who knows). The whole thing makes me laugh, as I reminisce about Big Ten leaders talking about Rutgers bringing the "New York market" into the conference's media footprint. Amusingly, I think FS1 has the same idea, that these talent acquisitions will bring the "Skip Bayless market" and the "Colin Cowherd market."

FS1, meanwhile, which I admittedly have never watched, seems intent on creating the sports media version of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2." I never saw that, just like I'll never tune in to watch Whitlock, Cowherd, or Bayless on FS1. But, again, I'm just one guy, and there will surely be many who do flock to FS1. Like I said, different strokes for different folks ... even so, it's a little disheartening to know that so many do find some approximation of "value" in this stuff.

Whatever happens, as it stands now, the decisions being made resonate loud and clear: rather than do good things, it is much easier to do bad things and think about the consequences later, much easier to build something shoddily but quickly -- or maintain a previously good thing with quick, careless fixes -- than it is to make something of real value. This concept is well-timed, as I read a piece on the subject of producing good things earlier today:
So what will matter in the next age of media? 
Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than just your words. Thinking of your business as a product and storytelling business, not a headline and body-copy business. Thinking of your audience as finite and building a sustainable business model around that audience — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your 10 year plan and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.
Sadly, I agree with the author's assessment and simultaneously find it to be naive (like I said, sadly).

Instead of producing good things, the biggest players in sports media have decided to bring on the noise. None of it will be good or particularly interesting or useful noise, but boy, will there be noise. It won't be fun, a fact exacerbated by the fact that these noise-making "opinionists" do have a following from which they can continue to needle venomously with useless takes.

But hey, look at all that disruption.