There is plenty of blame going around for why ESPN had to cut 100 reporting and anchoring jobs yesterday. Cord-cutting millenials are easy targets. As cable subscriptions decline, fewer people are bringing ESPN into their homes. And as one of the most expensive networks for cable companies to carry, any losses equate to a big difference in revenue for the network. Others blame the hiring of "left-wing" hosts for ESPN's decline--thinking that discussions about race, domestic violence and how much coverage women's sports deserves turned off the largely white, male audience.
I think the downfall of ESPN was due in large part to one show: Pardon The Interruption. And ironically enough, the salvation of the network can be found in the very same show.
PTI was groundbreaking when it debuted in 2001. Yes, ESPN had "sports debate" shows on before--most notably The Sports Reporters. But that was a Sunday morning show with a niche audience. PTI was a daily show, and the pace was much faster with timed segments to discuss each topic. It immediately got great ratings and the suits at ESPN quickly moved to "embrace debate"--rather than longer format analysis and highlight shows that had been its staple for years. Soon you had Around the Horn with four sports reporters arguing every day and then came First Take--with two hours of constant sports argument. And those begat dozens of other "let's yell at each other" shows across all of their platforms.
The only problem with the "argue about sports all day every day format" was that many of those hired by ESPN had neither the background nor the perspective of PTI's Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. These are guys that have covered the greatest players and sporting events for decades as newspaper reporters--not as bloggers or talk show hosts or social media mavens. They've done actual work to write their stories and gain their knowledge. And when they would argue their points, they would do so with personal conviction, believing that they are right--rather than just taking contrarian viewpoints just for show.
And while the ESPN executives may have been loving the numbers that PTI produced in terms of ratings and revenue, they should have been paying closer attention to what the hosts were saying--as Kornheiser and Wilbon continuously mock what they (rightly) see as the network's greatest failings. As a native Midwesterner, Wilbon points out that ESPN believes teams west of the Eastern Time Zone exist only to provide occasional opponents for teams on the East Coast. Kornheiser openly admits that he knows nothing about western teams in any sport because their games start too late and he is already in bed. For years, both have poked fun at ESPN's obsession with all things football, to the detriment of fans that do pay attention to baseball, the NBA and the NHL playoffs in the spring (instead of mock drafts).
These are obviously points that continue to be lost on ESPN management. Those let go yesterday were their most veteran reporters--the types more likely to use knowledge of the game to provide insight into the results--instead of spewing a bunch of hip-hop song lyrics and trying to appeal to twenty-somethings watching on their smartphones.