Sunday, July 15, 2007

The View from Bristol, Part 1

This isn't a blog about the cool shit I've seen during my time at ESPN. For the record, I've seen alot of cool shit. My summer has been a perpetual vision of cool shit.

Rather, I wanted to take on a few of the journalistic items that have crossed my mind, and the collective sports media consciousness, in these past weeks.

ESPN's dynamic, because of it's vastness, is invariably complicated. The business relationships that made it into the monopolic behemoth it is today have impacted its journalistic integrity at times. Don't think this is lost on the people who work there, though - they're normal, working professionals doing the best they can, and fight this mixture of journalistic integrity and commercial obligation, like every other facet of the media.

During a Q and A session, I asked one of the veterans of the company, who had a journalism degree, how he felt about infusing advertisements into SportsCenter (the example I used was a mini-trailer for Pirates of the Carribbean leading into a highlight for the actual Pittsburgh Pirates game). The pessimist in me expected him to skate around the answer. He was refreshingly honest when he said he was torn by the whole thing.

He told the room that he knows he and the company have obligations to the company fueling their perpetual growth, but that there has to be a threshold the network reaches in its cross-promotional efforts. He then wanted my opinion, and I told him it hurts to see things like the trailer as a journalist, but I understand why it happens. I joked that I was worried about being honest because I loved it in Bristol, but he seemed pleased with my response.

NHL die-hards have let it be widely known that they believe hockey is being intentionally pushed out by the network. Personally, I chalk up the NHL fans conspiracies as denial that their sport has been horrifically marketed and manipulated for the better part of 2 decades. That, and those making these comments are probably coming from places where the sport still thrives - i.e., the Northeast. Get outside that bubble, and you'll see that apathy regarding the sport reigns over most of the U.S.

Also, I'd like to add this: I've heard more hockey-related banter inside the ESPN newsroom the past few months than I have the rest of my life combined. I would argue that ESPN has covered transactions in the sport this summer on a fair scale in terms of newsworthiness. Some of the anchors would be happier if it was talked about more.

ESPN, from my experience there, has been a fantastic organization and a joy to work at, but it's hard to see them conspiring in a room to destroy hockey. There are so many hundreds of voices channeling into the network's product, that to imagine them all pushing one specific agenda is kind of laughable. Honestly, efficiency is not their strongest suit.

As someone who has spent the summer witnessing the hundreds of technicalities that go on during highlight show broadcasts, I can assure you that the frantic work being done by so many professional individuals doesn't permit pausing to remember how much the network hates hockey.

This isn't about hockey, though - what I'm reaching for is a broader point. When you're the biggest show in town, the people will pick at your flaws, rather than celebrate your success. Spiteful commenters on blogs like Deadspin (which I enjoy) and Kissing Suzy Kolber (which I enjoy immensely) harp on everything that the WWL does wrong. Berman is annoying, Who's Now is ridiculous, and the like. Well, not the like - really, the commentary is more harsh, vulgar, and often hilarious.

But this is no different than anyone, or anything else, that achieves widespread success. When a band blows up, indie kids who touted their greatness think they suck. Pseudo-intellectual hip-hop heads loved Common until he went and sold a bunch of records. And sports fans yearn for the glory days, when ESPN was just spreading it's multi-national wings, and Dan and Keith were your boys in the SC anchor chairs.

People throw rocks at the throne, no matter what field that throne lies in. Nobody bothers to pepper the up and comer with stones - on the contrary - they often see them as trendy and fresh. When they get to the top, they've reached their zenith, they've jumped the shark, it's all downhill. Many people clamor for change, disregarding if the product is even better than before, because crispiness appeals to their microwavable tastes. What can we get that's FRESHER?

In the consistently negative sports blogosphere, this is what has happened to Bill Simmons, and is beginning to happen to Deadspin. By 2008, Kissing Suzy Kolber, or the Big Lead, or whatever, have a strong likelihood of feeling this. And then, someone who's new will have their 18 months in the sun, until they're picked apart by those who just love to bitch about everything.

Will Leitch sounded like a nervous, web-sufficient hermit on adderrall when he was on The Dan Patrick Show being interviewed by Scott Van Pelt last week. I thought Van Pelt was fair, yet managed to lightly scorch the obviously nervous Leitch. After seeing how he's acted in the spotlight, I can't help but form new opinions of Will. Maybe the safe-house of blogging suited Will better than going into journalism face-first? Mere speculation, but that's just the impression I've been gradually left with.

For a long time, ESPN has been able to skate by on its sheer size. The new flock of sports blogs that find its flaws can serve as a great ombudsman and resource for the network if used properly.

Will had a fantastic chance to champion the journalistic traits of Deadspin the Media Critic when Van Pelt asked him to. Scott asked Mr. Leitch what he would change at ESPN. Will made a lame joke, then tried to talk about the lack of transparency of the network, but his verbose analogy was difficult to follow, and lost its effectiveness.

I guess the bitter masses haven't found the right critic in Mr. Deadspin. They'll keep looking.

More to come later in the summer.

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