Q&A With First Take’s Top Exec

Richard Deitsch of SI.com recently conducted an interview with Marcia Keegan, the ESPN vice president of production who oversees First Take as well as other shows including SportsNation, Numbers Never Lie and Outside The Lines (OTL). The conversation reads below as a straight Q&A.

SI.com: As the top executive regarding stewardship of some of ESPN’s highest profile studio shows, how do you view your role regarding First Take?

Keegan: First Take is one of the shows I oversee and I am involved with it similarly in the way I am with other shows, which is to make sure things keep going the way they should be going and that people are generally happy. If there are going to be any drastic changes of direction, I am spearheading that. Day to day, I am hands off.

SI.com: Are you proud of the show?

Keegan: I am proud of the show.

SI.com: Why?

Keegan: Because it appeals to an audience that some of the other shows I have responsibility for don’t. We’re a big tent at ESPN. I am very proud of OTL and their journalistic efforts. It is journalism at its best and this [First Take] to me is a different way of reaching different fans.

SI.com: How fair is it for me to describe First Take as a program built around disagreement-as-entertainment?

Keegan: That’s not unfair.

SI.com: Given that, one could suggest that the concept of disagreement as entertainment is highly flawed because you ultimately need to manufacture disagreement to maintain what the program is.

Keegan: No, we never manufacture disagreement. What we do is find topics where there is disagreement and there are times when they have agreed on things. But mostly it is a debate show. So if there is a topic they are in vehement agreement about, it might be one we choose to go with that day.

SI.com: What journalistic purpose does First Take serve, if any?

Keegan: It depends on how you define journalistic. I’d say journalism like OTL, if you are looking for that, it’s not. But neither are Top 10 highlights on SportsCenter. A lot of what we do is not journalism per se. It all depends on the show and the topic and so forth.

SI.com: Let me ask you some questions I received from readers if I could. From Andrew Bucholtz [who runs Yahoo! Canada’s CFL blog]: What does ESPN want to see from First Take? Audience numbers? Sports points of view that aren’t expressed elsewhere? Something that inspires conversations elsewhere? What is the actual goal from the show?

Keegan: The answer to that is yes. We want to offer something different and talk about things people are talking about. We try to do it in a way our SportsCenters can’t and don’t have the freedom to, and may not want to. He’s highlighted three things I do want to do with that show.

SI.com: From Matt Yoder [who is also the managing editor of Awful Announcing]: How has “Embrace Debate” positively and negatively affected the ESPN brand?

Keegan: I think it has positively affected it in almost every way you can think of.

SI.com Why?

Keegan: It has been great for ratings. If you told me five years ago when I first had responsibility for this that we could regularly do a 0.4 [350,000-450,000 or so viewers.] at 10:00 a.m. on ESPN2, I’d say what are you smoking? It is a great for ratings. I will not share with you the financials but it is good for financials. And I think it is good for the brand.

SI.com: From reader Ken Weide: Why is the show is so focused on topics that are looking to “blame” someone?

Keegan: I would disagree with that characterization.

SI.com: Why would you disagree with that characterization?

Keegan: I think we talk about everything. Not just a blame game but an opinion game. One thing I don’t know if you looked into or talked to people about is we do race very well.

SI.com: We’ll get to that later, for sure. From reader John Kollm: How do they target certain demographics and how does that shape the show?

Keegan: We never set out to target a demographic. When I was given First Take [Keegan took over in fall of 2009] I looked at it and said, “What is its identity?” I don’t know what this show is. It often appeared to be ‘Not SportsCenter.’ We were just giving the viewer something that was not SportsCenter at that time of day. Then I asked Jamie Horowitz to come in and look at the show and debate always rated well on the show. He is the one who suggested all debate. I was a little leery at first but I said give it a shot. And it has done very well. So that is how it evolved.

SI.com: People on Twitter often ask me about Bayless’s Twitter feed and I will be the first to admit that I also solicit people’s opinion on what he has said. He tweeted at the end of the NBA Finals, “I cannot express how much fun I’m having watching LeBron cry at the end of the bench,” He’s called LeBron James, “LeCramp” and “Prince James” among other names. One my readers sent a graphic of Bayless sending nearly 30 tweets on LeBron over a short time span. How would you characterize Bayless’s comments on LeBron James?

Keegan: Expressing his strong opinions about LeBron James.

SI.com: How would you counter my assertion that his attacks on LeBron James are unprofessional, unbecoming of ESPN, and done merely to call attention to Bayless?

Keegan: I’d certainly argue that are done solely to call attention to Skip. Skip believes everything he says. He has strong opinions and wants them out there. Different people have different ways of communicating their thoughts. Skip has 1.4 million Twitter followers so there are a lot of people who want to hear what he has to say.

SI.com: So in terms of the content of his tweets and specifically on his tweets about LeBron James, you are comfortable with what he is putting out there?

Keegan: I would not tweet that, okay? But I also allow for the fact that some people want to hear that and that is how some people communicate. The line between acceptable and unacceptable — and we deal with this all the time with our tweets — is not clear. I don’t think Skip has ever crossed that line.

SI.com: A couple of years ago Bayless said that Dwight Howard looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. He’s called Chris Bosh by the nickname of Bosh Spice. Do you see any sexism or misogyny with those comments?

Keegan: I don’t recall those comments but I can’t separate them from the Skip Bayless I know and he is anything but sexist or racist.

SI.com: Outside The Lines is also under your purview. The show has moved previously in July or August from ESPN to ESPN2 before the start of the NFL season. Will that happen again?

KeeganYes. The daily show for certain. I’ll have to check on the Sunday show.

SI.com: When will that change happen?

Keegan: I believe it is mid-July.

SI.com: You and your colleagues know my point of view when it comes to OTL. Is that a fair move for a show that just won a Peabody Award?

Keegan: Programming is the department that makes those decisions and a lot of things go into it: contractual obligations, ratings, sales. I can’t really address why it is done.

SI.com: As the person who oversees the show, how concerned are you that the audience will hemorrhage with switch as the metrics showed it did last year?

Keegan: Hemorrhage is a strong word. If the viewers want to see it, we try everywhere possible to tell them where to find it. People get OTL segments on SportsCenter. They go to the dot-com for portions of the show. There are all sorts of ways to get the content of the show and the ratings only is not a fair assessment of that.

SI.com: Do you consider Bayless and Stephen A. Smith to be journalists?

Keegan: Yes.

SI.com: Why?

Keegan: I think that their background is clear that they are journalists. But to go back to what you asked me earlier: Is First Take itself a journalistic show? No, not in that sense.

SI.com: Let me read you something from Richard Sherman who said the following to Skip Bayless on your airwaves: “I am intelligent enough and capable enough to understand that you are ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin, and that’s what it comes down to. And I’m going to crush you on here in front of everybody because I’m tired of hearing about it.” Do you consider that a good or bad moment for First Take and why?

Keegan: I consider it a moment. I don’t characterize it. It certainly was not what we were looking for and not what we were expecting.

SI.com: How much of the show’s content will revolve around Johnny Manziel heading forward?

Keegan: If he remains a hot topic, it will remain a topic.

SI.com: In hindsight, how do you feel about the show’s coverage of Tim Tebow?

Keegan: At the time Tim Tebow was in the news every day and we talked about him a lot. Other shows followed suit at ESPN so it wasn’t as if everyone was saying that is a terrible idea. He was a hot topic.

SI.com: You are not in the day to day production meetings at First Take but when it comes to First Take’s topics, who decides the topics chosen?

Keegan: Stephen A., Skip, Antoine Lewis (the show’s coordinating producer) and our producers all talk about it. But we do want Skip and Stephen A. to feel strongly about the topic. They are two stars.

To read the entire interview visit SI which is where this story was first published

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