Monday, July 18, 2005

Whooshing Beyond Relevance
It's by no means cutting-edge commentary to criticize ESPN these days. The network has come in for plenty of rips in the last couple of years as it has expanded its horizons beyond sports-- and moved further and further away from what it claims to be. Nevertheless, away I go.

Sports junkies have known for a long time that if it's sports news you want, the network's flagship Sportscenter show is not necessarily the place to find it. The show is junked up with pointless interview and game-show features, redundant promos and repetitive wrap-ups, and endless whooshing graphics until you get a headache. (Most egregious use of graphics: on the Top 10 Plays feature--usually the most entertaining two minutes of the show--the graphics often obscure the spectacular play they accompany.) The contrast between Sportscenter and the network's ESPNews channel--which presents mostly compact, info-jammed half-hours the likes of which ESPN used to present on its main channel--couldn't be more profound. Their Sunday NFL Countdown show, which used to be vital viewing for football hardcores, has been similarly junked up with shouting analysts, music videos, and comedy bits, rendering it almost completely unwatchable.

In addition, ESPN has junked up its schedule with "original entertainment" programming, some of which has only the most tenuous connection with sports as most people conceive it to be. And it's only going to get worse--they're getting ready to launch something called ESPN Hollywood, and you can probably imagine what that's going to be like. Viewers got a little taste of it last night with the "red carpet" show leading up to the network's self-congratulatory ESPY awards, in which anchor Stuart Scott openly leered at Serena Williams' breasts--and then joked about how he was leering at Serena Williams' breasts. The ESPYs themselves, which have somehow proliferated for 13 years now, were one of the first junk entertainment products the network ever launched--and it's hard to accept that we might be living in a world where some of our fellow creatures consider such a hype to be must-see TV.

ESPN can scarcely cover anything without hyping it anymore. The major league home-run derby has become a fixture of the All-Star break, but if you've ever watched it, you know how incredibly dull it is. And what makes it worse is lead anchor Chris Berman's blowhard commentary, which makes it clear that he knows how dull the show is, but it's his job to try and save it. (I have been a Berman fan for a long time, and I still think that he's one of the top TV guys on pro football--but let him get involved in covering anything else and he wants to be one of the great TV sports essayists of old, Heywood Hale Broun or Jack Whitaker, and the results are painful.)

Even when the network covers real competitive games (and by this I do not mean poker, billiards, extreme sports, or lumber sports), they manage to offend a discerning viewer. The network has always had an east-coast bias, which is natural given that the majority of anchors, producers, and production assistants come from the Philadelphia-to Boston corridor. There was a time when they tried to hide it, but no more. When ESPN landed major league baseball in 1990, they pledged to broadcast a game from every stadium in the bigs during each season. In recent years, howevcer, they've become the national flagship station for the Yankees and Red Sox, broadcasting most of their games live and hyping the others, trying to turn regular-season games into High Drama. They began their grossly overhyped "50 States in 50 Days" tour at Fenway Park last night by fawning over the Yankees and Red Sox as the best rivalry in sports--which it isn't. It's the best rivalry in east coast sports. In other parts of the country, the best rivalry is something else. Nevertheless, if ESPN could sign the kind of exclusive-rights deal with the Yankees or Red Sox that NBC has with Notre Dame football, they'd do it in a heartbeat.

The 50/50 tour is a way to get through the dog days of summer. They're going windsurfing in Oregon and to the Buick Open golf tournament in Michigan, to football practice at the University of Nebraska and to the Brickyard 400 in Indiana--all representative events in those states. In Wisconsin, however, they'll close the series by visiting the Highland Games and Celtic Fling in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb. I guarantee you that there are people in West Allis who've never heard of this event--and when you think of the top 10 ethnicities in Wisconsin, Scots aren't on the list. Germans, Norwegians, Poles--those we've got. If ESPN had bothered to think of Wisconsin as anything other than flyover country, it might have dawned on them to visit a high-school football game, or Packers camp, or go to some damn fishing hole already.

There are a few things ESPN does extremely well: NFL Primetime is the best sports show on TV, because it has two anchors who never argue with each other and keeps its eye entirely on the ball. In a world full of arguing-sportswriter shows, Pardon the Interruption is clearly the smartest one. NFL Live loses points for being the conduit for analyst Sean Salisbury at his most unpleasant, but gets them back for packing itself with solid information. Over on ESPN Classic, the SportsCentury series is extremely well-made, even when discussing athletes who aren't going to be enduring figures in sports history. (Curt Schilling--are you kidding me?) And the network has a few Sportscenter anchors who are better than the show on which they appear: John Anderson, Steve Berthiaume, Fred Hickman. But that leaves a lot of other hours to fill and a lot of other people to fill them--and ESPN doesn't seem to make consistently good decisions in accomplishing either one.

Quote of the Day:
"To many, President Bush firing Karl Rove would be the equivalent of the Pope firing God."--Dave at Electablog.

Look Over There: This afternoon on Best of the Blogs: "Take One and Call Me in the Morning." (If it's not at the top, scroll down to find it. Links to individual posts are iffy at BotB these days.)

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