The Hollywood Reporter just published a piece painting a bleak picture of the internal division at ESPN. Politics, of course, are said to be at the heart of it, the root cause of all the World Wide Leader’s problems. If it feels like you’ve heard this before, it’s because you have: over and over and over again.
This one, however, leans on voices from the inside. One “high-profile on-air talent” calls Bristol and parts adjacent a “demoralizing place to be.” And THR has four different sources attributing a quote to ESPN VP of Content Dave Roberts on the now-extinct SC6 with Jemele Hilland Michael Smith.
These sources say Roberts called the show “too black.” Roberts, who is African American, vehemently denies making the comment. Another longtime executive offers a different postmortem.
“It’s not that they were too woke, or too black, the problem was they were too new. They were too unfamiliar to the 6 p.m. audience. From the second they started they were up against internal crap, the traditionalists shitting on them, and they faced harsh criticism externally. It was panic from moment one. And the network didn’t do a good job of defending and supporting them.”
There is no disputing that the 6 p.m. SportsCenter experiment was a failure. ESPN seemed to understand that and, as the handwriting grew on the wall, they shifted Hill and Smith back to a more traditional presentation. Kevin Negandhi and Sage Steele, the newly installed duo, were up 19 percent over last year for the second half of May. The show is very crisp and enjoyable to watch, and its viewership also benefitted from very compelling NBA conference finals matchups that were later in the evening.
Why SC6 was a failure is open to interpretation and the true answer is likely multi-faceted. Fair or not, SC6 was viewed cynically as a “black show.” Usually this narrative was hidden in accusations of being “too political.” Occasionally that pretext slipped.
Again, Roberts was firm in his denial that he never said this. But everyone on the inside and outside of ESPN was familiar with the perception from some viewers. It would have been malpractice to ignore that narrative and not take it into consideration. And a lot of good and bad faith detractors might agree with such a categorization, if, again, it was made at all.
ESPN’s politicization still engenders passion from the “stick to sports” crowd and may continue to do so in perpetuity. It’s difficult to know what type of toll the situation is taking internally. THR’s report reads as though the wounds are still raw and the fight raging. From the outside, though, it does feel like the company waged this war months ago. Or at least that the fight was more ferocious.