ESPN Cuts Reflect Triumph of Personality

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John Skipper

There have been a host of stories written over the last few days about the massive cuts recently made at ESPN, the cable sports giant. A lot of folks have offered explanations for why more than 100 folks were laid off in this latest round, which follows another set of cuts made earlier on the production side.

Some reasons being given include the impact of folks cutting their cable/satellite subscriptions, the monetary losses being suffered by increasing rights fees being paid to sports leagues, even political fallout for ESPN’s supposed “liberal” bias (a joke considering they are a multi-national corporation about as far from expressing a socialist/leftist worldview as possible).

But one thing that hasn’t been discussed quite as much but should concern those who think that any supposed news entity should be more in the information business than anything was something said by ESPN President John Skipper regarding a prime factor in the decision process regarding who stayed and who left. It wasn’t experience, knowledge, even on-air presence. No the main thing that Skipper cited was “personality.” Now personality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly television is an entertainment medium and that has to be factored into any decision.

However ESPN likes to pretend that it is more a news organization than anything else. Certainly it broadcasts a bunch of games in multiple sports, but they have touted “SportsCenter” in particular and the realm of sports reporting in general as the main focus of what they do. So it was quite informative that in deciding which people they would retain and who would be let go, personality played more of a role in the decision making than anything else.

In fact, personality and versatility were the qualities that were repeatedly cited in a letter Skipper released to the general media.  “Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value,” Skipper’s memo read. “And as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands.”

Taken another way, people who specialize in a particular sport or whose expertise is grounded in knowledge and experience, but aren’t necessarily humorists or interested in being part of shouting matches, aren’t necessarily what the company’s looking for at this point. While versatility is certainly a good thing, not everyone knows everything about all sports. You run the risk of having someone discussing something without truly knowing what they are talking about, or misinterpreting or distorting information and ultimately giving the audience a false picture of what they are covering.

A prime example of what Skipper’s emphasizing can be seen in the decision to drop baseball analyst Doug Glanville and basketball analyst Len Elmore. Both were gifted, educated and articulate observers, but neither was big on glib comments, inserting pop culture references into their analysis, trying to be funny at the expense of information, or engaging in heated “hot take” responses. Here’s a list of some people that are highly valued in the new ESPN world. Sportscenter with Scott Van Pelt, Sportscenter hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, radio hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, and First Take, which includes fiery commentators such as Stephen A. Smith. According to ESPN, this group brings humor, inflammatory comments, and opinions in addition to the news across TV, radio, and social media.

While I have nothing against any of those people, and I regularly listen to the podcasts of Hill and Smith, as well as Bomani Jones and the two Mikes, I fail to understand why ALL content on ESPN has to be the same. It’s a shame there doesn’t seem room anymore for those more interested in giving insight and information more so than edgy rhetoric and pungent opinions.

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