Friday, August 19, 2005

What Hath ESPN Wrought?

By Mitchell

As you've probably noticed, I write a fair amount about sports. It's not quite as exciting for me as it used to be, and now I'm mostly interested in its cultural rammifications. Which brings me to ESPN.

You remember ESPN; that's the network that used to televise sporting events. But whereas you used to be able to depend on them for scores and highlights, nowadays it's become what they call a "lifestyle network," like We and Oxygen.

Last night I had the misfortune to see a promo for a new show they've been hyping called (I think) "ESPN Hollywood," which looks to be a cross between "Entertainment Tonight" and "A Current Affair." The clip they were showing was an interview with the wife of New York Mets pitcher Kris Benson, a former Penthouse playmate (pardon if I get the publication wrong; I wasn't about to research that) who was apparently reviewing her threat that if she ever caught Kris cheating on her, she'd respond by sleeping with every one of his teammates. That was probably a little more "up close and personal" than I wanted to get.

But if I didn't want to watch that, there was the new talk show, "Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith," who, quite frankly, is an obnoxious loudmouth. You have to be careful criticizing Smith, because if you do you're liable to be accused of being a racist. They do a lot of talking about sports on shows like these, but they don't actually show very much. In the political business we called them talking head shows.

Of course, if none of this is to your taste (and someone described programming like this as being for people who found watching sports too strenuous), there's always the World Series of Poker. This is on apparently all the time, on one ESPN station or another. It's become the biggest hit there is, and it's spread to other cable stations like wildfire, or perhaps malaria.

There is an audience for this kind of "sports"; as substitute programming it outdrew the NHL, which chose to sit last year out over a labor dispute. But then, your cat stepping on the remote can produce higher ratings than hockey.

If you want to know what ESPN's attitude toward sports is, look no further than today's USA Today and the words of ESPN's former programming head, Mark Shapiro, who just left to head up the Six Flags amusement parks: "Radio and television are in the same business as theme parks — the emotion transportation universe," says Shapiro, adding both provide "escape and diversion from everyday life."

Notice the implication of that statement. Shapiro is saying that ESPN no longer covers, it creates. That's a significant if subtle change; it's the same kind of thing many of us accuse the MSM of when it comes to news.

ESPN has not only created programming; it's created a monster. Savy athletes who know where the cameras are and make sure they're looking in the right direction when they mug it up after a big play. Virtual ads behind home plate at baseball games, ads invisible to the live crowd but all-too apparent to the viewing audience. Soap operas for the coveted "young male" demographic that expose all the players' faults, and a lot more than that. Games that routinely stretch beyond kids' bedtime. The hip-hop culture, baggy clothing, athletes with 'tude (like T.O., and doesn't it seem as if ESPN is giving a whole network over to coverage of just him), every player with an iconic nickname (A-Rod, K-Rod, DL3, etc.), Fantasy Football tips (hey, it's better than the real thing!), announcers who act like they're auditioning for open mike night at the Improv (thanks to Mike Lupica for that one). I'm not blaming ESPN for all of this, but they have to accept their share.

None of this is new, I know. Part of it is that I'm getting old and cranky. For my money the best sports channel on TV today is ESPN Classic, because you actually have a chance to see what sports used to be like (although, of course, they stretch the definition of classic pretty far). And there are some very good programs and announcers on ESPN, if you have the patience to look for them (which, I'm afraid, I often don't).

But there's no doubt that ESPN has changed, and sports coverage has changed with it. And I'm really getting sick and tired of it. Sports used to be a place where you could go to escape the outside world. Things weren't perfect; sports has always had its unsavory characters. Back then, the media consipired to keep it quiet; today, they glory in it. After all, with shows like "ESPN Hollywood" on the schedule, if you don't have scandal you don't have any programming at all. There's something ironic about that, but the programming execs at ESPN are so ironic, so hip and with-it, they probably don't even notice.

So if you're in the mood for a ballgame on this lovely summer evening, or just want to find out whether or not the home team won, you can try ESPN. But if what you see looks like it belongs on E! or the Playboy Channel or if it sounds more like Crossfire than the Hot Stove League, don't say I didn't warn you.

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