When a network is started to cover sports 24/7, it should follow its simple mission statement. ESPN was devoted to showing live sports programs, sports news shows, and sports journalism specials. Things began to change when it started creating its own programming, as outlined in the RN's ESPN on the Brink.
By creating its own drama made-for-television movie (which contained factual inaccuracies for dramatic effect), ESPN risked its journalism credibility. Purists feared that the sports network would turn into a sports version of MTV. Well, ESPN has began to morph into a MTV program clone. Less live sports and more produced shows.
The network went from covering events, to creating event programming with the X-Games. Then it went farther in creating opinion-sports argument shows that look like the Gong Show without prize contestants to reality shows. The mission of providing sports information has changed to sports entertainment. Dumb sports reality shows, and overhyped dramas like Playmakers or The Wild Rules do not enhance the image of being the source for sports reporting in America.
The reason for the change is simple. Self produced shows cost less than rights fees to professional leagues. High television rights fees and soft advertising spending in a recession lead to a re-examination of what is profitable. Self produced shows have more shelf life; you can repeat them and build up a film inventory. Events are rarely replayed after the first highlight show. And the network has three cable channels to feed. One can see the game plan to warp ESPN into an all-network produced reality show, sports movies and drama series like MTV did by pushing all its music videos to MTV2. ESPN2 would then be the place to see live gamecasts. It would force cable operators to carry both sports channels, generating more revenue to ESPN.
The trend has created a circus. The shows have to be more entertainment than factual. Opinions and boisterous dialogue are more important than game analysis. In order to keep up with the FOX's football pregame humor, and CBS's Dion Sanders outrageousness, ESPN's Countdown program added Rush Limbaugh to the set of former players as The Voice of the Fan. (Viewers were never told that it was the voice of the skybox fan.) There was no doubt that Limbaugh is a football fan. He tried out for Monday Night Football a few years ago, losing the job to comedian Dennis Miller. ABC was looking to juice up MNF ratings, and adding someone extremely different to the booth was the program department's solution. It did not work. To correct the situation, MNF spent more money to raid FOX for analyst John Madden, and all the goofy Turkey-leg and megabus baggage he brings to the booth.
Limbaugh's jungle turf is national politics. Politics is the control of public social programs, taxpayer dollars and division of patronage spoils. He speaks to a conservative audience daily on his radio program. He believes himself to be in a minority, a conservative talkshow host, in a liberal media environment. His forte is to criticize his critics in opponent political parties or the national media.
To the best of everyone's knowledge, Limbaugh never played professional football, or was employed by a professional football team. (He did work for the Kansas City Royals for several years.) His credentials for seeking a football role in television was that he was a broadcaster who was passionate about his favorite sport, football.
Now, if you are a broadcaster, you could think that if you are good in one form of broadcasting, you will be just as good in another form of broadcasting. That is a generalization. Some broadcasters are good play by play announcers, but lousy talk show hosts. Some announcers are good at one sport, fair at others. ESPN must have felt that Rush was good at making opinions, so it would be interesting to have his celebrity sports views shared on their program. (In addition, the network would get free publicity on his own radio show which should increase the Countdown ratings.)
Fitting Limbaugh into a program whose format has not really changed in decades would be hard. A commentary segment could easily be timed. Then the hokey Rush's Challenge (like a coach throwing the red flag on the sidelines to get into the discussion) was really lame. But is all a part of all the pregame shows hype over substance approach to their lead-ins to the games.
Limbaugh's nature is to hit hot buttons. His opponents take issue with any points he makes to try to twist political correctness to invalidate his position on issues. It is the dynamic that has got Limbaugh and his opponent political consultants very rich over the years.
Limbaugh resigned from the Countdown show after a backlash from NFL players claiming that he made a racist remark about Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb. It was not what he said, but how he said it that got him in trouble. Limbaugh believed that McNabb was overrated as a NFL quarterback by the national media because the (liberal) national media wants black quarterbacks to succeed in the NFL. He stated that the Philadelphia defense carried the team to the post-season, not McNabb. He was attempting to criticize the media and its bias; however, he only used one example, McNabb, to make his point. His audience of former players and arm-chair fantasy league jocks took the statement out of context. His comment was quickly spun to Rush saying McNabb was overrated because he is black.
There is evidence to support the argument that the national press has a bias in favor of minority advancement in sports. During every coaching change in baseball, football or basketball, there is a scorecard of how many white coaches verus minority coaches in the league. On most of its sports commentary programs, the subject of race is interjected by a panelist either as a critical argument for affirmative action in hiring minority coaches or as praise for the accomplishment of an athlete would succeeded against the odds. There is no doubt that substantial national media corporations have been championing liberal, social causes in sports and society. In fact, the press took Martha Burk's side against Augusta National. The press then took Tiger Woods to task for not speaking up for more minority membership at Augusta. Some agreed with the NFL fine of the Lions for not interviewing minority coaches before hiring its new coach.
What quickly occurred was that Limbaugh's critics jumped on the opportunity to label him as a racist for his comments. Labels, like most symbols, convey powerful messages to people. The majority of people do not consider themselves racist; most corporations do not want to be identified with racist or controversial issues. Like a wildfire, the campaign to connect Limbaugh and race cost him his commentary position on ESPN. Advertisers would not want to be associated with the program. Other employees did not want to be associated with the comments. The real decision was probably to remove Limbaugh from the show in order to defend the program from attack of special interest groups, advertisers, viewers and their media colleagues. It would have gotten worse if Limbaugh did not resign quickly because there are segments of society who have been waiting years to pounce on him. It was said that he was ignorant; he was not qualified to comment on professional football; McNabb was a star quarterback; other NFL players were upset with the comments and ESPN for hiring him. That is why Rush was sacked.
Only one person made any real sense in reacting to this story. Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson said he was strongly against Limbaugh resigning his position just as strongly as he disagreed with his statements. Every man has a right to his opinion. Every other man has a right to disagree with it. Every debate has two sides to the issue; one side should not be penalized for expressing their views otherwise there would be no free speech rights.
Limbaugh's resignation was suddenly quick. He would normally not back down from a fight. But he did not want to disrupt the Countdown show or its employees.
Now, two days later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Bear quarterback Kordell Stewart was complaining that there was a double standard in the NFL against black quarterbacks. He claimed that if a black quarterback fails, he is not given a second chance to succeed while white quarterbacks are given that opportunity. However, Stewart had been given several opportunities in Pittsburgh to succeed until he lost his job to Tommy Maddux. Then his own argument fails on its merits because the Bears gave him a second opportunity by bringing him in as their starting quarterback this season. Clearly, Stewart was making racial comments on how his sport is managed. He was possibly trying to deflect the blame of the critics for the Bears 0-3 horrible start. Injecting the race card in a conversation has been used as a crutch to deflect criticism in political debates. But his statements were clearly wrong. The national media did not pick up on the story. Commentators have not touched the story with a ten-foot pole. Why? Because the accusation deals with a taboo subject in a politically correct world view of life.
McNabb himself thought that at this point in history, people would just see people for who they are or what they do, and not based upon skin color. That is true if we did not live in a politically charged society. Special interest groups currency is using a status in order to be heard. Everything is filtered through their (insert minority group)-American political agenda. It was like the protest earlier this year of a Charlie Chan film festival. Opponents did not like the way Charlie Chan was portrayed in the movie. (However, was he not portrayed as a proper, polite, witty, charming, crime solving sleuth?)
ESPN has now lived through its crash course in the cross-media meat grinder. And the lesson that should be learned is that the network should shy away from the new gimmicks, the new programming and reality shows and get back to the basics which made the network popular in the first place: covering sports.
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