To say that the business prospects at ESPN are troubled is to place the mildest of spin on the problem. The network is bleeding viewership and seeing its ratings erode from several fronts. The main problem is cord-cutting, as more people are finding ways to ditch cable. The question becomes, how much is the network the victim, or the cause?
ESPN management could very well be encouraging that flight. The network’s open policy of partisan politics on the air has been noted — and costly. ESPN is regarded as something of an anchor network, one that is compulsory for many viewers when ordering cable TV service. Once network executives became cavalier about repelling conservatives in their audience the result could be an increased tendency to simply dispatch cable entirely; rather than just suffering from cord-cutting ESPN may be exacerbating the problem.
Add in the the politicizing of the NFL, leading to fans turning away from the biggest money-earner, and the challenge facing ESPN is actually a crisis. Layoffs of on-air talent, reporters, and support staff have been occurring on a regular cycle with a steep drop in revenues. In the midst of this turmoil the network has bet a significant amount — both in terms of money and talent — on a new morning program, and the early returns have been horrid.
“Get Up” is the flashy new entrant in the morning 7:00-10:00 slot. You may have heard of this, as the network had been heavily promoting it ahead of its April 2 debut. But the odds are you have not seen it; the ratings from the debut week have been, depending on the source you listen to, somewhere between “disappointing”, to “dismal”.
The show premiered with numbers that could not make anyone at ESPN happy. The debut drew 283,000 viewers, and by Wednesday the total fell to below 200K. The week’s average near 250,00 was a drop of -15% from the static Sports Center broadcast that occupied the same time slot the week prior. It was a huge drop of -25% from the same date one year ago.
This was disastrous for a program that was relentlessly promoted by the network and, following numerous delays, was arriving during a remarkably active sports segment. The Final Four, The Masters with a return of Tiger Woods, Baseball’s opening day, and the NBA and NHL playoffs were all in play to draw interested fans. For the show to founder amid something of a sports convergence means the question to ask is, how bad would the ratings be had they debuted in a softer segment of the calendar?
The buildup for “Get Up” has been more than the PR hype machine. This has been a long-in-the-works production that involves returning talent, lavish salaries, the breakup of a stalwart program, and the disgraced departure of the network’s President. All of that backstory drama only meant that more pressure was placed on a show that needed to be a success.
The program was the brainchild of John Skipper, then President of the network. Skipper was part of the executive class encouraging more political discourse during broadcasts. He entered into protracted discussions with on-air personality Mike Greenberg about a possible new show. As ambitious as the show host may have been it ultimately shattered the most dependable broadcast on the channel.
Nearly two decades ago Greenberg paired with former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic for the “Mike & Mike” show. Originally strictly on radio, “M&M” proved so popular the network began to simulcast it live on air, setting them in the popular morning hours. For well over a decade theirs became one of the highest rated broadcasts on the network.
Those discussions concerning Greenberg’s desires moving forward have led to what can best be described as a divorce with Golic. After eighteen years of working together Golic toyed with retirement, before settling into a new radio hosting position with Trey Wingo. Golic has indicated he was never a part of the decision to end their show, and that the network directed both Mikes to not discuss things on the air, even while much of their audience was aware of the back office shifts leading to its end. It appears the two are no longer speaking with each other.
John Skipper’s idea for the new morning show was to have a varied format, where cultural and political topics could be woven into the sports content delivery. (Some have derisively been describing “Get Up” as “Woke Center”.) He also decided to invest big. Michelle Beadle, the outspoken and occasional socially controversial host was added, and former NBA player/ESPN analyst Jalen Rose was also brought in.
Additionally, a new studio was constructed, but not in the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. A new space was secured in New York City, a waterfront locale in the South Street Seaport area. It is thought that Greenberg had lobbied for this as he is a native of the City, but the network spins this as being a location that can lure in more stars and guests.
It is that opulence of the show has many asking hard questions. The Hollywood Reporter detailed that the on-air trio sports a significant salary: Rose is paid $3 million, Beadle earns $5 million, and Greenberg has netted a $6.5 million deal. That payout for talent, plus the cost of the 21,000 square foot studio and office complex in a prime location in Manhattan, runs in direct contrast to a reality the network is facing.
ESPN is losing viewers at a stark rate, encountering drops in advertising revenue, and it has laid off two hundred and fifty employees last year. Making it all the worse is that this is a problem foisted on the network by a President who quit abruptly in December, just ahead of a scheduled debut. John Skipper made the sudden announcement he was stepping down, due to substance-abuse issues. (He later admitted to cocaine addiction and being extorted by a drug dealer.)
As Skipper left the network with an expensive enterprise, just ahead of its launch, the reins were taken over by Producer Bill Wolff who seems to fit in with the corporate activist mindset. He came back to ESPN last year after working on “The View”, and with Rachael Maddow. But Wolff indicated a retooling of the direction to take the show, possibly contributing to the delays. It also displays a confusion, which seems to have become evident to viewers.
The anchors and producers stated they were steering away from some of the broader social issues that were of interest to Skipper. But then Wolff himself declares, “If something political makes itself part of our world, we are dishonest and inauthentic if we don’t discuss it.”
The producer seems to miss the fact that making politics part of their sports broadcast has been leading to rather authentic loses the past few years.