August 9th, 2007

Who’s Now? Not ESPN

Yesterday, ESPN’s dogged ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, tried her best to get her head around the reasons why behind the recently completed Summer-long SportsCenter feature, Who’s Now — a feature she claims drew more complaints from ESPN’s viewers than any topic she or her predecessor George Solomon had ever tackled before:

[T]here is no valid way to extrapolate from either the volume of criticism or the volume of votes whether this contest drew more people to SportsCenter than it drove away. What I think one can conclude, though, is that Who’s Now cracked open a huge divide within ESPN’s audience. Judging from my mail, the gap is not one of age, and I do not think it can simply be described as one between casual and serious fans, either. “Casual” is as hard to define as “Now.”

I think the word that most divided people was “buzz” — the designated term during Who’s Now for an athlete’s pop culture status. In the segment’s graphics displays, voiceovers and discussions, producers and panelists seemed to define buzz as the technoid hum of money, media celebrity and sex appeal, as if that were the zero sum of popular culture. Which was buzzier — a Super Bowl quarterback hosting “Saturday Night Live” or an Olympic gold medal swimmer posing for “Playboy”? The divide was between viewers who thought it was fun to have that question “debated” on SportsCenter and those who found it silly but no fun at all.

Far be it from me to dispute Schreiber’s conclusion, but something tells me that the divide was opened up long before the debut of Who’s Now — a feature I was barely aware of given how my SportsCenter viewing has dropped off a cliff over the past few years.

For me, the divide became all too apparent with the advent of the Budweiser Hot Seat, then widened into an unbridgeable chasm with an overlong feature on Mark Schlereth’s appearance on a day-time soap.

Something tells me that Dan Patrick’s departure from the “WWL” could be attributed to this gradual, but inexorable march toward pap and circumstance in the content of ESPN and SportsCenter — something that George Will once called, and I’m recalling this from memory, “a thinking man’s version of World News Tonight”.

Nobody would be caught dead uttering anything like that these days.

But in a world with endless media choices, why get mad when you can very quietly and without rancor get even? Long ago, I substituted my daily SportsCenter intake with PTI, but over time I’ve even lost interest in that. Now, even Bill Simmons admits in his columns that he never watches SportsCenter, but instead filps over to ESPN News for 30 minutes or so to catch up on what’s going on.

Heck, I’ve even found myself rediscovering Sports Illustrated after abandoning that title not long after graduating from college.

Perhaps it’s long since past time to think of ESPN as an old friend that we shared a lot of good times with, but has seriously run off of the rails when it comes to what it has chosen to do with its life. In the end, folks like that really can’t be helped unless they’re up for helping themselves.

If that eventually happens, great, the folks at Bristol get back on the Xmas card list. But if not, why not just remember the good times, and get busy moving on?

2 Responses to “Who’s Now? Not ESPN”

  1. PB says:

    Hi Eric -

    I used to a devoted SportsCenter and ESPN viewer and now I don’t even watch. What they classify as news is truly just entertainment and seeing Dan Patrick leave just shows me that he most likely thinks so too.

    I have ditched my subscription to ESPN magazine, and like you, picked up Sports Illustrated in its wake. I used to read Sports Illustrated in High School and now, like you, I’m returning to reading it.

    ESPN’s Sports Center is now Entertainment Tonight. They have lost their way and now seem content to try to be star making machines instead of covering sports – like they used to do.

  2. Tapeleg says:

    The definition of pop culture in sports and sportcenter bowing to media hype rather than sporting accomplishment it Danica Patrick. The woman has never won anything, yet still manages to be on Sportscenter no mater what happens. She put Indy car racing on the map again, by doing nothing but looking pretty and throwing tantrums.

    The excuse goes that the E in ESPN stands for Entertainment, but the Who’s Now feature (or whatever they are calling it) wasn’t even close to the mark in that department. Someone in ESPN cooked up an idea (someone who may not have even been associated with the network), and they took the ball and ran with it. Unfortunately, they did too much with it, made it too long, and beat the dead horse into the ground.

    SportsCenter has become a dividing point for many sports fans. I watch it only in the last ten minutes for the Top Ten plays, and turn my back on it when that is over. SportsCenter, which defined a genre, put ESPN on the map, and built the network into a sports leader, has become unwatchable, spread too thin by covering too many sports, and gives me a headache. If someone stepped up to the plate, they could be a serious contender in the type of show ESPN trys to put out. Sadly, everyone waits for ESPN to do it, and when they do, they do it poorly.

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