With new technologies in telecommunications, computer and social networks exploding onto the consumer scene, you’d think television would be on the ropes, fighting to survive. But you’d think wrong.
The fierce competition for consumer coin, coupled with horrifically bad TV potpourri that revolves around corpsel-ooze and faux reality-snooze, may have the Nielsens ebbing low but ‘the telly’ still has plenty of power left in that championship punch.
The tube is here to stay.
Texting may be all the rage and the worldwide-web a wonder but neither will ever be, to borrow the words of Sam Spade (Bogart), “the stuff that dreams are made of (Maltese Falcon),” i.e., talking-pictures.
I do the internet daily for my fix of sportology but sometimes you’ve just gotta’ have that injection of audio / visual. And who’s my supplier? ESPN, of course.
Though all the majors now have their own network, all remind me of a Dangerfield-ism from Caddyshack (‘80): “snobitorium.” I don’t know if it’s the superior syntax of jock-laden line-ups or the laid-back, laugh-it-up style, but I’m often left feeling like an intruder, an uninvited guest. Best of the lot: Speed Channel and NFL Network.
Born in Bristol, CT in 1979, then acquired by ABC / Capital Cities (‘84) and today owned by Disney (’96), the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network has lived up to its billing as the “Worldwide Leader in Sport.”
No stranger to criticism in its 30-something lifespan, ESPN has, in large part, met its leadership responsibility by keeping its product uncomplicated, inviting and faithful to the belief that a thread of humor should run through its SportsCenter scripts.
Think of ESPN as the McDonalds of sport media. Often maligned by culinary snobs for their uninspired menus and flavor-challenged fare, the fast-food king is loved worldwide for its reliability and those delectable French fries. Wherever you may be, when you see those golden arches you know what to expect. Same holds true for ESPN, sans the fries.
Continuity counts plenty in a time when mores are changing with the wind. Tradition may be toxicity to the agents-of-change who strategize in steel towers on Michigan & Park Avenues, but to Main Street America, yearning for something familiar, the expectancy maintained by McDonalds and ESPN is a welcome friend.
Anything as big & diverse as media giant ESPN is gonna’ have a few clunkers mixed-in with the showpieces. As much as I’d like to vent about the Broadcast College coach who trained Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Tedy Bruschi, Marcellus Wiley, Mark May & Mark Schlereth to first, love themselves, this write is not about the misfires.
This piece is about those people & programs that hit-the-mark, the glittering gems that comprise the best of ESPN.
Aces of the Airwaves
Doris Burke: NBA sideline reporter
In a time when reporter questions (‘You played great tonight, how does that make you feel?’) are as uninspired as dialogue on The Office, Doris breaks the mold. No pedestrian queries from Ms. Burke. She knows the game & business of basketball, knows the players, asks the questions fans want answered and then the stars seem relieved to hear. No “clown” queries when DB is courtside. A breath of fresh air.
John Clayton: NFL Insider
At first glance you’d think John was a late fill-in from accounts. Though not your typical wide-neck, square-jawed, ex-player analyst, John knows more about the goings-on in the NFL than most GMs. That’s not surprising, given that he’s been covering the game since working the Steelers’ beat back in the mid-70s. Others at ESPN like Chris Mortensen, Ed Werder, Sal Paolantonio, Adam Schefter and charming Rachel Nichols are top-notch, but John is that rare TV hire most fans will look at and say, ‘He’s a civilian, he’s one of us.”
Tim Kurkjian: MLB reporter, story-teller
Whether recalling a by-gone ball-player like Stan Williams (heaven help the hitter who liked to hog home-plate when 6’4” Stan took the mound) or weighing-in on an umpire issue, Tim reminds me why I love the game. Maybe because he loves the game so. It was a grand day when Kurkjian moved into ESPN‘s top spot a few years back. Sensible enough to not step on toes but brave enough to fulfill his social-contract with fans by giving honest opinion, TK appreciates the balance most others dismiss as trite.
Hint: Solid state. That describes ESPN’s baseball telecasts whose production & play-by-play is second to none. But like all the national broadcasts, their endless analysis of balls, strikes & strategy is enough to bore the bejeebers out of you. It’s a sin when a venture as vibrant and rich in history as baseball will demand so little color from its commentators.
Best in Show
1st and 10 (First Take, Presented by Bass Pro Shops)
If it works, don’t fix it. That expression used to carry weight. Not anymore, not with today’s fidgety TV producers. Such is the case with ESPN’s foray into the morning-show genre as somebody just can’t stop tinkering with this popular segment.
Veteran writer Skip Bayless is the star of 1st and 10 and not averse to hitching his wagon to other stars on the rise (Tebow / Lin). As elder statesman, Skip is resident doormat on the set but takes it like a pro because the slot and pay are sweet. Cocksure Stephen A. Smith was recently seated opposite Skip to give the segment an edgy feel. If mollified, Steve can be an insightful, congenial foe, but his loud, bombastic, often mocking style is best suited to AM radio. Tube watchers want smart, light-hearted debate and that means the pairing of Skip and Rob (“I’m not buying it”) Parker. Like Skip & Steve, Rob can homer on occasion (favorites) but keeps it real in reminding the big-suits that one need not be an ex-player to have a valid view.
Host Jay Crawford can break neutrality but keeps the peace, while Cindy Brunson makes a terrific back-up. Show’s appeal likens to Howard Cosell’s MNF re-cap of NFL’s Sunday slate in the 70s. Monday Night Football was always a bit of a snoozer (even with Dandy Don), but America stayed tuned long enough to hear the best 3-minute sport-wrap ever.
Hint: One of ESPN’s defining traits has been its inclusiveness, putting out the welcome-mat for everyone. Fixing on one music motif, whether it be jazz, pop, country-sex or in this case, hip-hop rap, goes against that proven policy. Target one audience and you’re bound to lose another. Besides, it’s not the right thing to do.
Outside the Lines
We fanatics aren’t the dullards many would have us be. Like the cultured set, we can appreciate a clever quip, have been known to say ‘good morning’ and will even put out recyclables. And some of us watch OTL, ESPN’s tribute to 60 Minutes (CBS). Hosted by charter member Bob Ley (’79) with talented back-ups Steve Bunin, Jeremy Schaap and T.J. Quinn, this show takes head-on those topics deemed too weighty for the “be-boppin’ & scottin’” guys (Cowherd / Rome) or the witty banter of Sportscenter.
The show that changed it all. It too has changed over the years. Those standard-issue blazers in the 80s were special. But there’s been one constant that’s made it all gel: the anchors. Though a few got too big for their britches (Eisen / Olbermann / Patrick), on the whole, the hosts stick to the clever-copy, ad-lib when apropos and stay outta’ the way. The toppers: Linda Cohn, Chris McKendry, John Anderson and Stuart Scott.
1) Retire ESPY name. Is there a worse award-tag in the business than this gobbler?
2) Bring back Classic ESPN. Sport & history go hand-in-hand. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been drawn-in by its usurper, ESPNU. Take a poll, y’all.
3) Ditch AXIS (camera) title. If I’m the WWII generation I’m a bit miffed. Heck, all of America should be insulted. The fact the colors (red & black) match the Nazi flag, maybe by accident, is nonetheless doubly-offensive. Destroy the AXIS-moniker and require the persons responsible for its existence to watch the entire British TV documentary, The World at War (1973 / 24 episodes).
Note: These are the observations of one person. No doubt there are other individuals in front of and behind the cameras that I have yet to discover or chosen to omit in the interest of style (length) that help to make ESPN worth watching.