Late in 2017, ESPN was dealing with the following controversies: the benching of Jemele Hill. Attacks by President Donald Trump. Barstool Van Talk. Two gutting rounds of layoffs. And president John Skipper being extorted by someone who was selling him cocaine.
Late this year, ESPN is dealing with the following controversies: Jason Witten’s development as a Monday Night Football analyst and the height of the Boogermobile.
From a certain viewpoint, president Jimmy Pitaro’s first year on the job has accomplished exactly what his Disney bosses wanted. Pitaro has turned ESPN into a quietly purring content machine. But that change also has an artistic aspect. Another way to think about Pitaro is that he has brought an end to an interesting if chaotic period in which ESPN threatened to grow into something other than a meat-and-potatoes sports network. Being a meat-and-potatoes sports network—slick and snazzy as it may be—is now ESPN’s explicit goal.
In the late Skipper period, ESPN’s critics did a sneaky thing: They suggested the network’s defining feature was that it was “political.” Actually, its defining feature was that it was creative in ways you never expected ESPN could be. Wesley Morris was an ESPN employee. So was Nate Silver. There was a nightly edition of SportsCenter that had pictures of Bob Marley and the Notorious B.I.G. on the set.
That ESPN didn’t just have creative highs—just about every version of the network has those—but had the ability to truly surprise people. SC6 mounted an expansive parody of the opening credits to A Different World. Grantland and Wright Thompson delivered fresh slabs of longform. Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. pulled down Roger Goodell’s pants, and Keith Olbermann, on his nightly talk show, demanded Goodell’s resignation.
Recently, Kate Fagan told The Washington Post she was once “naïve” enough to think ESPN could accommodate a show she wanted to host about women’s sports. I know how Fagan feels. I worked there. At the time, it seemed like ESPN could accommodate just about anything.
The Pitaro regime has traded that expansive vision for a vision of the “old,” pre-Skipper ESPN. Chris Berman, who at the beginning of last year was sent off with a biographical documentary (TV’s equivalent of a gold watch), returned this year with new segments on SportsCenter. Olbermann came back to call games and do the news. With the exception of Scott Van Pelt’s show, the idea of a bespoke, “personality-driven” SportsCenter was dropped. “All told, ESPN looks more like it used to during its heyday—less debate, more news and highlights,” a recent Washington Post story noted. In this telling, “heyday” means the Dan-and-Keith, prelapsarian past.
Under Pitaro, ESPN hired a new Monday Night crew and worked to repair the network’s relationship with Goodell. ESPN gave Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning their own muse cages—the new, easy-on-both-parties way of partnering with an ex-athlete.
Pitaro’s first year also saw the exit of a lot of people who made ESPN into something that was hard to pin down. Fagan and Hill left. ESPN the Magazine had layoffs. Bob Ley, whom Berman called “our conscience,” went on a self-imposed sabbatical.
On the one hand, ESPN probably had to recalibrate its mission at least a little. Thanks to cord-cutting, the network is no longer enjoying the unsustainable boom times of five years ago. What’s interesting is that some of the late Skipper period choices are now portrayed as editorial mistakes the new regime is trying to correct.
The (few) bits of politics that crept onto ESPN shows weren’t just the result of a youngish, diverse staff dealing with Trump. They were a sign of ESPN straying from its core mission. “I do not believe we are a political organization,” Pitaro said in an early meeting with employees. Disney chief Bob Iger told The Hollywood Reporter: “Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right.” (In a related story, Iger’s ABC canned an episode of Black-ish that touched on Trump and kneeling football players, after which creator Kenya Barris left the network.)
In the Post piece about the re-reinvention of SportsCenter, executive Norby Williamson is cast as the guy turning the ship away from Bob Marley and back toward Bill Pidto. “Instead of spoofs of A Different World with Hill and [Michael] Smith, viewers now get more segments with analysts such as Tim Legler breaking down the day’s NBA news,” writer Ben Strauss noted.
Another striking difference between the Skipper and Pitaro regimes is how decisions are made. Though Skipper often downplayed it, his decisions had the whiff of moral directives. We ought to do this for the sake of diversity/history/justice/longform.
To hear Pitaro tell it, data is now ESPN’s god. Explaining his decision to cut back on political talk, Pitaro told an audience at October’s Sports Business Journal conference that he had been “looking at that data … clear and convincing data”; that his thinking was “dictated by data” and “backed up by data.” When Trump’s goons knock on the door, Pitaro reaches for his spreadsheet.
When you talk about the soul of the new ESPN, you have to insert plenty of “to be sures.” A lot of creative types who otherwise loved Skipper were exhausted by the chaos of 2017—the year Ley dubbed ESPN’s “annus horribilis.”
Moreover, ESPN will never achieve full soullessness as long as it employs originals like Olbermann, Van Pelt, Ley, Joe Tessitore, Pablo Torre, Bomani Jones, Mina Kimes, Kirk Herbstreit, Zach Lowe, Dan Le Batard, Bill Barnwell, Rachel Nichols, and many more.
The funny thing is that ESPN is working from the playbook of its occasional adversary, Fox. After shoving out FS1 ringmaster Jamie Horowitz in 2017, Fox purposefully leaned away from controversy. The debate shows weren’t any different, but there were few outcries, few signs of a network searching for its identity in public.
That’s what ESPN felt like in 2018—a network set to silent mode. I can’t help but think of the example of the A Different World parody being replaced by Tim Legler. There are some people who will feel relief when they think of that trade-off. There are others of us who will mourn that a strange, creative, occasionally wild period in the life of a corporate behemoth has quietly come to an end.