By Rich Jensen
Did you know ESPN has this show called First Take? Okay. It’s on ESPN2. ESPN2 is a channel whose existence is predicated on the notion that ESPN has so much stuff you should see that they can’t fit it all onto one channel. This is difficult to comprehend, because having two ESPNs does not double the amount of hours in my day, so I still have to make choices, and if I choose what’s on ESPN2, then I can’t also watch ESPN, unless I stop watching ESPN2. And what if I have to go to the bathroom, people? Or have to eat? I worry that they haven’t thought this through because they also have ESPNNEWS and ESPN Classic and ESPN Deportes and ESPNU. Clearly, I can’t watch all of these channels at once. I’m not Elvis. And Elvis didn’t have enough TVs to watch all these channels at once. I also do not live in a sports bar.
And they also have this thing called the “Longhorn Network.” I’m not sure what it is, but it sounds like it might involve pornography or Texas, so I’m not going near it in either case.
Anyway, they have this show called First Take. It’s got these two guys on it. One of them is, I think, a CGI recreation of a once reputable but now presumably deceased journalist named Skip Bayless. The other is clearly an android programmed with talking points from the Twitter trending list. For some reason they argue a lot, and it sounds like this:
Because when a CGI replicant and an android argue, the winner is the American Public! Or perhaps advertisers whose normally idiotic commercials suddenly look witty and compelling as compared to the TV equivalent of packing peanuts, but without the nutritional value or pleasing mouthfeel (of course, I’m talking about artisanal small-batch packing peanuts).
I am watching ESPN2 because ESPN is showing an episode of Sports Center. Do you remember when there was broadcast TV? Like NBC and CBS and ABC and stuff, and how in the summer when people did things outside, it was because there was nothing good to watch on TV, and that was because TV was showing “reruns”? Because now a bunch of “reruns” is called a “marathon,” and people actually stay inside for these things!
Well, while “First Take” is on, ESPN is running Sports Center reruns. And I’m not talking about that really funny Sports Center from last October when Trey Wingo and Chris Berman got stuck in an elevator with special guest Don Rickles. I’m talking about the Sports Center that they ran an hour ago. And an hour before that.
It’s about this time that I begin to question whether ESPN has enough TV shows for two networks, let alone the fifteen that they currently have (call your cable provider today and ask for ESPN Atletikë. It’s ESPN in Albanian, with special coverage of all those Albanian sports you want to see, like, soccer and probably something involving goat cheese.)
My first clue should have been the 8 a.m. time slot in which you can either watch a Sports Center repeat or you can actually, physically, watch a radio show. You remember how you laughed at these photos?
And you thought, “ha ha, those people are watching the radio! Like you can actually see what’s going on!” and didn’t think, “Maybe they had to be close because the antenna was lousy and the speakers were bad and the tuner was suspect and it wasn’t very loud.” Guess what? This is what you’re doing if you’re watching ESPN2’s broadcast of ESPN radio.
Okay, so you’ve slogged through the morning broadcasts of stuff that they filmed once and showed eleventy times in a row and the stuff that made you dumber and the stuff that is being broadcast on the radio. Now you get real sports!
By the way. Did you know that poker is a real sport? It is. Just like tiddlywinks and bowling and Australian Rules Football (Australian Rules Football is like what would happen if cricket and rugby had a kid. And the kid was ugly — but seriously, I’m sure it’s got a great personality.)
So when it’s not “March Madness” or some other kind of madness or some kind of Week with a Capital W, ESPN manufactures content. And by “manufacture,” I do not mean that there is a factory, or quality inspections or anything quite so reassuring. You are not going to find a little slip of paper at the end of “X Games Tignes” saying “Inspected by No. 14.” This product was not inspected. Because people will get very angry if the TV they purchase does not work properly, but apparently, if that TV asserts that snowboarding with a snowmobile is a “sport” all is well.
But every so often, ESPN puts on a game that you know the rules to (probably, kind of, sort of) and to which you have some attachment (maybe, or there’s nothing else on, which is amazing because your TV has 1,094 channels and you’re paying $299 a month for the Premium Plus Package With Sports Pack and Movies On Demand-— which is where you pay the cable company for the privilege of paying the cable company to watch a movie).
And then you turn on ESPN and guess what? You’re not really watching ESPN. You’re watching the game itself.
Except that the game is repeatedly interrupted by ESPN reminding you that they exist. In case you had forgotten or grown worried. And also that several companies with whom you may or may not do business also exist, again, in case you had forgotten or grown worried.
This is a rather absurd conceit. Let’s say you’re eating a nice bowl of breakfast food. Imagine if your enjoyment of this breakfast food was interrupted on a regular basis by a reminder that “You’re enjoying Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, brought to you by Land’O’Lakes 2% Reduced Fat Milk. Stay tuned for Land’O’Lakes Sour Cream and Chives During Your Snack!”
Oh. I almost forgot about Sports Center. The primetime ones. Not the one that is repeated all morning long while good people are either at work or nursing hangovers.
Sports Center is described by ESPN as their “flagship news program.”
It is a collection of videos and news. Or, as I like to call it, “stuff on the Internet.”
I mean, look. I get it. ESPN has to pay the bills. They’ve got expenses. I mean, they had to custom build Michael Wilbon’s chair so that he looks as tall as Magic Johnson. That’s not cheap. It’s also not cheap to pay the fifteen technicians who operate the animatronic Lee Corso (thank you Industrial Light and Magic!) But there comes a point when it is clear that it’s no longer about paying the bills and setting aside a tidy nest egg against a rainy day. And folks, that’s where we are.
It’s not about the content. It’s about the brand. And it’s not about the brand, it’s about growing the brand. And it’s not about growing the brand, it’s about monetizing the brand. And it’s not about monetizing the brand, it’s about maximizing the gap between what people are willing to pay and what people are willing to put up with.
About the author: Rich Jensen is a frequent TVFury contributor who longs for the simple days of CNN Sports Tonight with Nick Charles and Fred Hickman.