It’s been a tumultuous time for the worldwide leader in sports. In 2015, ESPN lost a number of their best on-air talent, as Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, and Keith Olbermann all vacated Bristol University. The company also shut down Grantland, and eliminated three hundred jobs, painting a gloomy picture for the largest sports media operator in the country.
But then 2016 arrived, and many assumed that the worst for ESPN was in the rear view mirror. Yet aside from the devastation of losing 300 positions, ESPN finds itself in similar territory, dealing with major talent departures once again.
In just four full months of the calendar year, the company has already lost or terminated Skip Bayless, Mike Tirico, Brad Nessler, Robert Smith, Keyshawn Johnson, Curt Schilling, Joe Schad, and Robert Flores. Another talented analyst Trent Dilfer is also expected to depart.
If there’s a media company capable of overcoming these types of losses it’s ESPN. But, when you lose high profile talent consistently, it has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass.
Keep in mind, we don’t know yet if Jeff Van Gundy or Mark Jackson will get scooped up by an NBA team looking for a new head coach. It’s too early to tell how a change in the Monday Night booth will affect Jon Gruden, and making the wrong hire on First Take could create a situation where the show has to be changed or possibly even cancelled down the road.
Even the network’s signature morning show “Mike and Mike“, which has been on the air for more than sixteen years, recently added Molly Qerim and it’s changed parts of its presentation. Depending on who you ask, the reviews are mixed.
Will the morning show continue to undergo future tweaks? Does the show finally move permanently to New York City? Or has the network reached a point where it’s decided it needs a fresh new program to kickstart a new era in mornings on ESPN Radio and Television?
ESPN Executive Vice President of Production and Programming, John Wildhack said “Understandably when there is a high-profile change, the picture might be viewed through a very small lens. Yet the facts are that more than 95 percent of our talent have remained at ESPN and there are a wide range of circumstances surrounding the few who don’t.”
He has a valid point. The company has indeed signed agreements with 200+ talent over the past twelve months. Given their ability to employ a large number of high profile positions, ESPN is well equipped to continue meeting the needs of sports fans across multiple platforms.
Remember that they’ve been stung by departures before. Great talents like Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen, Craig Kilborn, Charley Steiner, and Rick Reilly have all exited, and although they’ve gone on to successful careers, ESPN has remained dominant without them. To write off the most successful sports media company in America, and suggest that it’s on the verge of turning off the lights would be a bit presumptuous.
However, consumers and investors do have a reason to raise their eyebrows. With every talent defection comes larger questions about the company’s future, and its willingness to invest in keeping its best talent. A simple way to eliminate that noise is by locking up the company’s top people, introducing new media stars, and adding new programming that energizes viewers, and gives them confidence that ESPN is healthy and committed to being number one.
It’s rare to see ESPN getting outbid for quality personnel, but with Fox, CBS, and NBC chomping at the bit to take the next step, it’s the four letter network’s responsibility to make sure they protect their turf and retain their best assets. Failing to do so could open the door for others to make deeper inroads, and possibly lead to a larger competitive threat in the future.
Did ESPN Eliminate Curt Schilling’s Game 6 Heroics on Purpose?
Prior to ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball matchup between the Red Sox and Yankees, the network chose to air the 30 For 30 documentary “Four Days in October“. The story covered the Red Sox miraculous upset of the New York Yankees during the 2004 ALCS, except it was missing one critical piece of the story – Curt Schilling’s Game 6 performance where he helped the Sox even up the series while pitching with a bloody sock.
ESPN said the program was edited because it needed to adjust its broadcast time to get back on track due to the Arizona-Oregon softball game running long. They supplied the following statement:
“When a live event runs long, it’s standard procedure to shorten a taped program that follows. In this case, we needed to edit out one of the film’s four segments to account for the extra length of the softball game.”
I recognize that there are times when edits need to be made to fit a schedule, but if you’re going to air a program, you cannot remove one of the most important parts of the story. Any baseball fan who watched that Yankees-Red Sox series will always remember Curt Schilling’s heroic performance in Game 6. It would be like removing the scene in Rocky 4 where Apollo Creed gets killed by Ivan Drago, and fast forwarding to Rocky’s fight at the end of the film. By removing the Game 6 drama, it showed a terrible lapse in editorial judgment, and denied fans the opportunity to understand the whole story.
To make matters worse, the issue occurred during the same week when Schilling went on the record blasting ESPN. It also involved a team which plays in a city (Boston) where ESPN’s image has been tarnished. If the company was looking to get back in the good graces of New England sports fans, they didn’t help their cause with this decision. Why they couldn’t edit out an earlier part of the story, or air a different program, I’m not sure.
Fox Sports Looks To Attack ESPN With Its Own Strategy!
Fox Sports National Networks President Jamie Horowitz has been unafraid to spend big for talent, while aggressively calling out his former employer. At The CAA World Congress of Sports in April, Horowitz touted ESPN’s decline of SportsCenter viewership, and proclaimed he would take a page out of the Fox News playbook and build FS1 around opinionated talk programming and polarizing personalities. He said that the approach would not only stand out more in today’s cluttered sports media environment, but it would cost less than sports programming built around news and documentaries.
That may seem hard to believe when Horowitz is opening the Fox checkbook to pay talents like Cowherd and Bayless. According to reports, Cowherd is making in the neighborhood of six million annually. Bayless is expected to receive more than five million per year. But featured presentations like 30 For 30 cost a pretty penny too.
The reason why Fox has aggressively pursued personalities is because they see their programming future driven by what Horowtiz likes to call ‘opinionists’. Cowherd, Bayless, Jason Whitlock, Katie Nolan, Clay Travis, Nick Wright, and Joy Taylor all fit that description.
But is replicating ESPN’s talk show programming a wise play? Or is it a subtle reminder that Fox is offering a replica, not the original?
Fox confirmed plans this week to launch a new television show with Cowherd and Whitlock titled “Speak For Yourself”. The show is expected to follow a PTI-style format.
Cowherd and Whitlock should make for a great pairing. They’ve forged a nice chemistry thanks in part to Whitlock frequently appearing on Cowherd’s radio show, and are both comfortable at offering hard hitting opinions, and in-depth commentaries. The duo will benefit from Colin’s radio/television simulcast serving as a promotional tool to help drive people to the new show.
Tony Kornheiser, and Michael Wilbon on the other hand are in the midst of their fifteenth year hosting PTI. Quality, consistency, and chemistry are three things they’ve supplied to audiences during their run on ESPN, and beating them at their own game won’t be easy.
Cowherd and Whitlock should be able to present a younger, edgier, and wittier presentation on camera, and the fact that they’re seen as the shiny new toy should help generate some early sampling. Whether or not they can produce an equal or better television show than PTI though remains a big mystery.
Fox is also said to be developing another opinion based program with Bayless. The show is expected to feature a second personality opposite Skip. No word yet on who that might be.
It’s hard to argue with the strategy since it involves well established talent, and a formula which has paid dividends for ESPN. The questions though are “can Fox do it better“, “will Skip’s exit from First Take bring new viewers to FS1” and “is the audience willing to abandon the brand they’ve spent a lifetime with in favor of something new“?
How the audience responds will tell us whether Horowitz has the right gameplan or not. Regardless of the result, you have to commend him for having the chutzpah to challenge one of the world’s most powerful media brands.
Saturday Night Live Eliminating 30% of Commercials
Media groups find themselves in an interesting predicament. On one hand, they’re fighting for every advertising dollar available, trying to hit this month’s budget, and ignoring the future. On the other hand, they find their products being consumed less, because listeners and viewers refuse to sit through long stretches of commercial breaks.
So what do they do?
In Saturday Night Live’s case, they’ve chosen to protect their programming by reducing their ads by 30%. SNL’s creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels said, “As the decades have gone by, commercial time has grown. This change will give time back to the show and make it easier to watch the show live.”
SNL’s skits have performed well when distributed on social media, but ratings for the program on both cable and broadcast television have suffered in recent years. One reason is because younger viewers have fled to on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.
To offset the loss of inventory, NBC will bring in more original sponsored content from advertisers who will partner with the show for branded sketches, something the show is known for. Plans are also in place to add more pre-taped segments, and extend the length of some of the live sketches.
Over the past year, Viacom and Turner have reduced the commercial load on their networks, and Turner, TruTV and TNT have announced intentions to cut their ad inventory by 50%.
This resonated with me because the opposite is happening in sports radio. I see stations adding more inventory than subtracting it, and that’s a pattern that’s going to cause long-term damage to brands if they don’t take steps to address it.
For example, I listened to eight different radio stations last Thursday (the day of the NFL draft). Four of them treated their audiences to twenty minutes of commercials/sales benchmarks during drive time programming. If I include the sports updates that number increases to twenty four or twenty six minutes.
Three stations I observed ran between sixteen and eighteen minutes of spots, not including the updates. The worst sinner of them all aired twenty four minutes of commercials, and benchmarks, plus three updates that were between one and two minutes each. That means that half of their hour was spent running commercials.
If the key to building a connection with the audience includes treating them to entertaining personalities and topical content, how can you do that when you’re not available to be heard 33%-50% of the time each hour?
From a ratings perspective, if you’re required to generate at least five minutes of listening in a quarter hour to gain credit, is that realistic for your radio station when you’re providing only six to seven total minutes of programming? I didn’t even include the use of production opens, or liners which also takes away from your time.
If five major television companies can see where the world is headed, and why it’s critical to adapt before it’s too late, then why is radio consistently late to the party? I don’t care how storied your brand is, if you consistently feature twenty five minutes of interruptions, you’re begging your competitor to crush your business. Do you expect your audience to be loyal to you when you feed them twenty five minutes of spots, and another five to six minutes of generic sports updates each hour?
Once your numbers start to evaporate, don’t dare put that blame on your talent. The failure belongs to the programmer who wasn’t willing to stand up to protect the brand, and the sales manager and market manager who were naive enough to think that they could abuse the audience to enjoy a short-term benefit.
We have shifted towards a world where including advertising in content is normal. How we weave it in may be a work in progress, but it’s what we’ll need to provide to keep revenues high, and commercial time low. You should be thinking about the things you create on a daily basis, and how you can attach your clients to each of those assets. Listeners will endure hearing a sponsor’s name and ten second tag during a quality piece of content. What they won’t accept is a seven or eight minute barrage of commercials and equal or less content time.
If television can get creative, and sacrifice millions of dollars in ad time to help improve their programming, and ratings, then surely radio can figure out a way to do the same.
Under The Radar:
- Congrats to John Cassio who has earned a promotion to Program Director of 1240/1270 The Fan in Fort Myers/Naples, Florida. He added the PD stripes in early April.
- Mitch Nelles has gained additional air time on The Big 920 in Milwaukee. His program “The Mitch Nelles Show” added an extra hour, and is now broadcast weekdays from 1p-3p CT.
- A tip of the cap to Jeff Parles who was named afternoon producer of “The Big Show” and host of the Saturday morning show “The Sports Wire” on KTGR in Columbia. Parles took over for Brandon Kiley who left to produce Kevin Wheeler’s show on 101 ESPN in St. Louis.
- Paul Jarvis has left Greater Media’s 92.9 in Boston to return home to Burlington, Vermont where he’s taking over as Operations Manager of Vox AM/FM’s four station cluster. As part of his new job, he’ll be overseeing two sports radio brands, 101.3 ESPN, and 960 The Zone.