Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Has ESPN gotten too big for its own good?

I need to begin this post with an admission of bias -- I find it harder and harder to watch ESPN except when it is airing a game. Whatever ESPN had been, it is no longer, in my opinion.

Newsweek takes a deeper look at the phenomenal growth of the network and how that growth has changed the network. I quote multiple excerpts below:
When one team is running up the score, resentment is inevitable, and in 2012 ESPN finds itself the object of criticism on a variety of fronts. Uniting them all is a sense that “The Worldwide Leader,” as its slogan goes, has gotten too big for its own good. By driving up the price of sports-rights packages and passing along the cost to consumers, ESPN helps send monthly cable bills through the roof. And in order to maintain favorable access to athletes, teams, and entire leagues, it is widely accused of downplaying stories that cast sports in a negative light. Live games may lead fans to watch ESPN more and more, but they’re seeing less and less of the network they fell in love with. ...
Powered by the dual revenue stream of ads plus surcharges, ESPN has since grown to include ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, ESPNU, ESPN Deportes, and 47 international channels; the largest sports-radio network in America; a website that clocks 52 million unique visitors a month; and its own $100 million theme park in Florida. “They’re on your telephone, your laptop—they want to be everywhere,” says Jim Miller, coauthor of last year’s mammoth oral history of the network, Those Guys Have All the Fun. “One of the reasons they created ESPN: The Magazine was they wanted to go into the bathroom with you.” ...
With revenue of $8.5 billion last year, ESPN has become the principal cash spigot of the Walt Disney Co., the network’s 80 percent parent. To the largest entertainment corporation on earth, the backwater of Bristol has become more important than Disney World and Disneyland combined. ...
But as viewers begin to squawk over rising cable bills, cable operators protest that the sports giant has gotten too pricey and too coercive in its terms. Outspoken Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei, who oversees Starz and QVC, has called ESPN’s fees “a tax on every American household”—the key word being “every.” Because cable channels are bundled into packages, tens of millions of people who never watch sports end up paying for it anyway—and paying a lot more than they would for a package that didn’t include sports channels, ESPN the most expensive among them. Cable carriers who balk and threaten to drop ESPN must also contemplate losing its corporate brethren: the Disney Channel and ABC Family. ...
ESPN’s executives reject the idea that their product is expensive, noting that a viewer’s entire monthly cable bill might be less than the cost of attending one game in person. And they definitely don’t like the notion of pick-and-choose plans that have been floated. “We’re the best value, bar none, in town,” insists CFO Christine Driessen. “At the end of the day, with regard to à la carte, the viewer will pay more and get less.” ...
Much graver is the outrage over ESPN’s poor early coverage of the biggest sports story of 2011, the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal. As students rioted, ESPN had no cameras on the scene. When they did show up, commentators seemed more concerned with the impact of the news on recruiting and coach Joe Paterno’s legacy than on the alleged crimes.
“With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal,” wrote the network’s ombudsmen, Jason Fry and Kelly McBride, who investigated the coverage after widespread complaints. “The tone of the early ESPN coverage was spotty—sometimes getting it right, but more often seeming inappropriate.” ...
If ESPN has taught us one thing about broadcasting sports, it’s that storylines matter: matchups are more riveting when there are heroes and villains. Having played the underdog for the first half of its corporate lifetime, ESPN has, to many, become the dynasty it feels good to root against. Fans are watching—and everyone is paying for it. ESPN is the network we have to have.
Is it? Here's the dilemma -- the hard-core sports fan (and that number is in the millions) cares more about  the teams, the players, the scores, the highlights and the machismo that is professional and college sports. Yes, they have a bias; they choose to see what's on, not what's not. Whatever ethical issues there are about ESPN are ignored.

But there also are large numbers of people who recognize that ESPN has a responsibility to be more than an orgy of teams, players, scores, highlights and machismo. They can be found in newsrooms and college classrooms (among other places), but they are trumped; their criticisms are lost among the Top 10 Plays and other mind-blowing (insert laugh track here) moments that make ESPN what it is.

You could turn it off, but chances are you would miss it. Until something better comes along.

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