Tag Archives: Chris Fowler

ESPN17: Start Bailing ‘Little Buddy,’ This Skipper Can’t Steer a Ship Either

4 May

ESPN president and Disney Suit John Skipper would never be confused on sight with Alan Hale’s seafaring TV character of the 1960s shipwreck comedy, Gilligan’s Island (’64-67 CBS). Now “Thurston Howell III,” Jim Backus’ sarcastic and always well-attired millionaire on the high-traffic but officially deserted key, he might bear a slightly better resemblance, at least in trappings.

Hale Jr. (“Skipper”), the son and near image of his famous actor father (mother was silent star Gretchen Hartman) and namesake who teamed with many greats including Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (38) (“Little John”), played the perpetually frustrated captain with the half-dozen castaways and bore little physical likeness to the contemporary Cufflink and Columbia graduate.

But were you to compare the two on their judgment and disposition of respective charges (“S.S. Minnow” v. ESPN), “Mr. Howell” might very well say this of both leaders: ‘Now I say, Lovie, there are two men cut from the same cloth…burlap!’

Disney ≠ sports

Last week the Disney (ESPN) sports network made the real news page when they announced the firing of 100 or so employees, some of long standing like NFL reporter / insider, Ed Werder and anchor Jay Crawford.

You want details on the pink-slip parade? You’ll have to peruse the net yourself. I can’t afford the megabytes, not with usage rates soaring skyward (oy vey).

Suffice to write, if these terminations are consistent with the industry approach in recent years, most of the pinkees were male, white, older (35+) and performed their jobs with overall skill and dedication, i.e., too many college degrees for too few jobs and with too many niche markets to meet.

Do we care about the cut-down, even as sport fans? Hmmm, not really. Aside from the smidgen of camaraderie I feel for the majority in that I too am male, white, degreed and older, those fired should’ve seen this coming years ago and prepared accordingly with resume updates in phone #s and references.

This mass, forced exodus may be just one more phase in a pattern of ill-advised changes that’ve been steadily implemented since Skipper took to steering content calls in 2005. Though, in the case of fired NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, the former QB had not been the same since he seems to’ve taken that bad (saboteur-ish (?)) advice from “Kenny Mitchell” on the set to develop an edge (See; Rob Parker).

What the downsize does do is provide a sounding-board for this former Disney devotee to vent views on likely motivations behind the on-going chintzy changes being wrought by Skipper & Co. to the network’s motif & mission, and then the big markers along this sad journey that have turned what had been a sport fan dreamland (1979 – 2010) into a nightmare that seems to have no good end.

♫ Those Were The Days My Friend ♫

I was a regular of ESPN’s early entrée in the 1980s. I think those like me had grown up on ABC Wide World of Sport and figured this was the next best step.

Diversity in race, gender and games was absent in the anchorage and content in this Mercury stage of cable media, so to speak. But by Apollo phase (85 >) pay-load in variety had launched, hit pay-dirt ($) and has been in orbit ever since.

Bottom-line: Everybody was welcome. Male or female, black or white, young or old, USA-born or foreign, most viewers had a common thread running through their collective letter jacket: A sincere love of sport. We didn’t care if you were a purple octopus from Venus reading the copy, if you knew your stuff, we could tell and we watched. And if you didn’t, we could spot that too. But those fakes never showed up on the Sportscenter back then or were awful terrific actors.

If a fan of the American majors (MLB, NFL, etc.) and highlights, you were in clover. Sport news served piping hot, before poker (Zzzz), college aid (ESPNU), morning fashion plate, kid content (X Games), music promos, Sportscenter specialty segments and all those boorish talking heads. Had the foreign sporting fare been served up (soccer (fútbol), rugby, béisbol – 野球 – 야구), their fans too would be waxing sentimental and grinding their teeth over ESPN’s devolution.

And there was always the ticker at the bottom of the screen as your fall-back to get scores, sans the endless sabrmetric snooze for today‘s fantasy gambler.

For $12 a month, basic cable gave you a whole new world of information, not as broadly capable as the internet but less pricey and totally cool.

For news you got locals, networks and CNN Headline 24-7 with neutral anchors who just read the copy. For sport you got TBS (Braves), WGN (Cubs), USA network and Bristol-based ESPN: Also 24-7 with anchors in standard-issue blazers. Then came the acquisitions by ABC (‘84), Capital Cities Communications (‘85) and in 1996 the game-changer in The Walt Disney Company.

The anchor personalities were memorable (Tom Mees (d.1996) and Charley Steiner come to mind), all clear, often clever without being cute. There wasn’t a clunker among ‘em. The savvy Linda Cohn and Bob Ley are the two remaining but most moved on to greener pastures ($) only to fall off the map, so to speak.

And now it’s all gone, gone with the wind in Turner vernacular.

Youthenization

In the 90s began the serious expansion and then dilution of the ESPN product.

First came ESPN Radio (‘92), ESPN2 (93), ESPY nite (Only SAG name is worse) and then the X Games (95), the start of a youthenization that’s swept the TV dial (Expect a “Harry Potter” marathon on TCM in the not too distant future) and all consumerland (See; Honda Civic). All reasonable enough ventures but started a process of change that’s become OCD with the Suits & Skirts in charge.

With Disney’s stewardship an arrogant air began to permeate the place. Contra-indicated, given the history of Walt‘s baby, but this wasn‘t your father’s Disney.

Media high-hats arrived like Tony Kornheiser, Stephen Smith, Skip Bayless, most on the Sports Reporters not named Dick Shaap or John Saunders, radio Colin Cowherd, onliner Bill Simmons, host Trey Wingo and former jocks in Marcellus Wiley, Tedy Bruschi and Mark Schlereth, all displaying to differing degrees, that boyish bravado to stoke confrontation and then have come to define the new ESPN gestalt: Edgy and most often annoying as hell, for sport fans, anyway.

Once at the content wheel, John put his Disney-sized staple-remover to work.

Out went trusty ESPN News (b.96), bread & butter for the sport junkie.

SportsCentury, the hour-long documentaries hosted by Chris Fowler, before he took residence in the weight room, that did more for sport and history than anything Ken Burns ever did (or likely will), was given the boot in 2007.

Pulled from premium, mid-level satellite – cable package was ESPN Classic where light-hearted (Cheap Seats) and thought-provoking diversions (Woody’s World), made with equal parts of insight and comedy, were showcased.

And due to the network coined ‘instant classic’ phrase, any game, even from the nite before, qualified as vintage, meaning, Howe v. Hull, Lasorda v. Herzog, Bird v. Magic, Marino v. Kelly, were permanently shelved as pre-historic.

Then came the clearest sign that Disney no longer had any interest whatsoever in keeping up the pretense that their ESPN property was a sports network.

Even as 1st and 10 had became the most highly anticipated daily sport debate in all of American media (2003-11), sometimes as a segment (Cold Pizza / First Take (AM gab-fest format)), later stand-alone but always diverse, Skipper pulled the plug and replaced it with a niche-market sabrmetric / diversity combo show called Numbers Never Lie, then His & Hers. Perfect.

I don’t watch much Disney (ESPN) anymore. I’d suspect not many sport fans do (unless an engineer or heart surgeon, “numbers (can) lie” plenty). Why go where you’re not welcome, especially when the time allotted for real sport news is thinner than the newest female anchor?

Who’s likely to watch the “leader” in sport coverage nowadays?

1) College females and family with a connection to Title IX;
2) College males and young brothers with fantasy play lineups;
3) Foreign-born citizens and residents (ESPN Deportes 2004);
3) NBA followers; and
4) NFL fans who have by August developed a ravenous appetite for anything football. The exits of the too comfortable Tom Jackson – Chris Berman can only fuel the hunger to feast whatever‘s put onto the plate.

Cohn spoke recently about the firings, stating that she believes “politics” played a role in the employee upheaval. That’s very likely but something long standing, more deeply engrained in the Disney dynamic is really at its root.

Youthful whimsy in cartoon defined the Disney company Walt and his brother Roy began in 1923 Los Angeles. That core purpose in selling to children and adult sentimentalities to that end has remained the focus in today’s diversified media and entertainment giant. Modern empire-builders, the Disneys understood the emerging, malleable market that were Amercia’s youth (plus their giving parents) and designed a template for success that worked as a sort of incubator of early youthenization marketing which John has simply carried over to the ESPNs.

Even as yesteryear’s cartoons and theme-park pirate patches have been replaced on the network with slinky club-wear, rap music motifs, fantasy-driven stat-parades and ESPN phone-apps, the goal remains the same: Selling to kids.

What’s good for the Donald has not always been what’s good for the Daisy.

Most perplexing in John Skipper’s management of the ESPN monopoly is that in its multitude of channel options, sufficient to cater to all their target markets in kids, females, foreign fare and angry men (radio), he could’ve quite easily stayed connected to the substantive news format on one of those channels to retain the base viewership that had always been the network’s real sustenance.

But when a better, more sport-centric, likely more popular product is juxtaposed along-side a channel that runs so much niche stuff or downright gobbledygook, that arrangement can make programmers, not necessarily prospective viewers, very uncomfortable for having slotted the ephemera in the first place.

Me and my ilk departed from ESPN Islands long ago. There’s a free charter on the south end with weather updates on the hour. It’ll take you anywhere you want. All you need to board is a suitcase full o’ frustration and a love of sport.

Steven Keys
Straight Shooter
Photo credit: TheWaltDisneyCompany, wordmark, wc.cca; A.Hale.Jr., 9.12.66, wc, GilligansIsland, CBS; ESPN, wc, word mark; ESPN2, wc, word mark; ESPN, wc, 2.26.10, Jaworski, Wingo, Schlereth, Bruschi, J.Kern; ESPN-studio, wc, Jkinsocal, Bristol-CT, 2.2.13; StraightShooter, citrus.fruit-label
Posted: 5.4.17 @ 12:28am EST, edit 5.4; Copyright © 2017

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