As much as we would like to think that grown men really are thrilled about Space Mountain and shaking hands with Mickey, the simple truth is that it is all about money. It is no coincidence that ESPN and its sister company ABC, channels owned by Walt Disney, use their influence in the sports world to advertise Disney’s theme park in Florida. It is also not a coincidence that ESPN’s premier show, Sportscenter, regularly takes time out of its already cramped schedule to shamelessly plug upcoming Disney films related to sports (Remember the Titans, Glory Road, We are Marshall, Invincible, etc.). Recently, Sportscenter has even been plugging blockbuster summer films not even distributed by Disney. An interview with Jessica Alba about her newfound interest in the Golden State Warriors seems suspiciously like a poorly disguised advertisement for her upcoming film “Fantastic Four II.” When that segment is immediately followed by an actual commercial for the film that features two of ESPN’s anchors, it is apparent how far ESPN has fallen.
Objective journalism has been replaced by coverage to the highest bidder.
Sportscenter only has 45 minutes to cover the wide world of sports, and to spend time interviewing Hollywood actors, or talking about an upcoming Disney sports film, is just plain irresponsible. Viewers tune into ESPN to get news about sports in the real world, not Hollywood.
The truth is that since its conception in 1979, ESPN has grown less and less concerned with delivering fair and balanced sports coverage and more concerned with profits. Bill Rasumusson and his son Scott founded the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network in 1979. The pair founded the company with the dream that it would provide sports coverage 24 hours a day, an ambitious goal considering cable programming itself was it its infancy in the late 1970s. The first show ever aired on the network was Sportscenter, which provided objective news coverage on sports around the globe. The other 23 hours were filled with coverage of various other sports that had previously never been broadcasted. Over the past 28 years ESPN’s commitment to excellence has slowly morphed into a commitment to the bottom line.
This was made abundantly clear in 2001 when ESPN hiked the price for cable providers up 20 percent simply because corporate heads knew people would pay it. ESPN now has half a dozen channels, many of which were old competitors who were bought out, like ESPN Classic. (Watch out FSN and Speed channel, they are coming for you.) The company’s recent multi-billion dollar deal with NASCAR also illustrates their continued commitment increased profits, not fair coverage. Since making that deal, NASCAR has suddenly become deserving of its own show as well as a significantly increased coverage on all the ESPN networks.
It seems that any cable channel with a monopoly in their market eventually succumbs to the almighty dollar, a shift quickly followed by the deterioration of their programming to absolute garbage. In the 1980s Music Television was a proud provider of quality programming and a pioneer of the music video industry. In the past 10 years, MTV has changed its image so extensively that a more accurate name for the channel would be “Trashy and Scripted Reality Television.” (However TSRTV isn’t as catchy as MTV.)
ESPN may very well be heading down the same path.
Obviously it is impossible to expect a show like Sportscenter to please every demographic. The majority of people in Buffalo care as much about NASCAR as people in Talladega care about the Stanley Cup. An inability to please the entire nation doesn’t, however, give ESPN a license to sell their coverage to whomever writes the biggest check. The goal for ESPN should be to cover, as balanced as they can, whatever is newsworthy in the world of sports. ESPN could learn some important lessons from serious news networks such as CNN and MSNBC.
Lessons such as: Don’t allow your sports anchors, who are supposed to be unbiased, do commercials endorsing whatever Disney tells them to.
And: If your going to shamelessly shove advertisements down your viewers throats during your supposed “news” show, at least try to be subtle about it.
It seems, however, that fair coverage simply cannot compete with the politics of money that pull the strings at ESPN. Without any competitors to speak of, it is hard to say how far ESPN’s deterioration will go. If history as taught us anything, however, it is that eventually sports fans will realize how commercialized ESPN has become and begin to look elsewhere for their sports coverage. Until then, look forward to your sports news being interrupted by the “Coors Light Six Pack of Questions” wasting your time interviewing Mark Walberg, Matthew McConaughey, and whoever else the Walt Disney Corporation deems news-worthy.