ESPN likes to bill themselves as “The World-Wide Leader In Sports.”
According to a good deal of sports fans, however, the network is also destroying sports culture. Looking at the network’s flagship show, Sportscenter, you can see the company blacklist certain sports, create stories out of nothing, and generally cater to the lowest common denominator of sports ‘follower’. But believe it or not, ESPN wasn’t always like that.
Once upon a time, they had an anchor named Keith Olbermann. He was smart, and funny, and most importantly knew what the hell he was talking about. KO also liked to ruffle feathers and before long found himself out at ESPN and talking politics instead of sports. Monday night, though, he made his triumphant return to the sports airwaves, as ESPN 2 launched Olbermann in an attempt to save the network from themselves. Let’s review what happened on the first episode of ESPN’s return to sanity.
00: Olberman is back on ESPN. I’m excited and expecting something that mixes ESPN’s resources with the intellectual side that they famously struggle with.
01: Hey we’re taking shots at Manish Mehta. No one’s done this before.
01: Miley reference, then Chris Christie and the president. KO acknowledges he’s back to politics. Some things never change.
02: Hey, highlights from the Jets games from Saturday. Haven’t seen this before.
03: Joke about the Jets being terrible. Ground breaking stuff.
03: It’s not like I’ve seen this Rex Ryan presser before.
03: I wonder who this anonymous beat writer we hate is, because KO won’t call him by name (even though there’s a big picture of him and his twitter handle on screen).
04: Shots at print newspapers. Great for us journalism students to hear.
04: Hey, did anyone ever notice that ESPN loved to blow the Jets circus out of proportion last year? Nah…no one’s ever done that except the NY Daily News, says the network that employs Skip Bayless.
05: Reporting is dead, claims KO. He then talks about how you have to contradict yourself to succeed, which he’s ironically doing right now.
06: Am I the only one who thinks its counter productive to talk about how terrible a journalist is by reading his articles on the air? (Never mind that I’m kind of doing that here)
07: Decent point about how Sanchez is the entirety of NFL news right now although he’s pretty irrelevant.
08: Clips of Ryan guaranteeing various things. (Spoiler: He’s always wrong)
09: KO begrudgingly admits that Chris Christie is right. Never thought I’d write that sentence.
09: Wacky presser clips take 2.
09: KO tells me to pretend to be Rex Ryan for a moment. Immediately eat some ice cream, check out some foot fetish videos and get an embarrassing tattoo. (I didn’t do any of those things. OK maybe one, but I’ll let you guess which.)
10: Hey Keith, I didn’t know Rex Ryan isn’t the best public speaker. Can you explain more of this to me?
11: Clip of Ryan’s mouth with the Peanuts adult-speaking trumpet sound. I’ll admit I laughed.
12: KO says locker room/beat reporters should have the balls to ask direct questions. Easier said than done when he’s sitting in a studio. The few times I’ve been in a pro locker room, it’s intimidating. You have to ask a question that serves your story while at the same time doesn’t seem idiotic or is too direct/combative to get answered.
14: Jason Whitlock is the first guest on an intellectual show…ok then.
15: The Wire reference! Ok, Whitlock literally just said The Wire, but I’ll take it.
15: Whitlock is wearing a denim blazer while calling the newspaper industry incompetent. His claim is technology forces a beat reporter to create a story rather than just report one.
16: “I’m not an anti-capitalist, but….” Exactly what I want to hear on a sports show
17: Whitlock says his solution is for an outside entity like Deadspin to exist and watch the watchers. I wonder if that’s why this show is trying to be like them?
18: KO thinks every journalist should spend a day as a subject, so we can see how things are reported. Interesting point, if kind of elementary as far as I’m concerned. Scrutiny comes with celebrity; I’m not saying you automatically surrender your right to personal privacy, but you have to know what you’re getting into.
19: The role of African Americans in sports comes up. Cringing begins because it’s Whitlock.
20: Whitlock wants black athletes to be more like Jackie Robinson and care more about racial advancement than building themselves up. I get his point, but saying that makes it seem like they’re the only selfish athletes which in itself is kind of stereotypical.
21: Whitlock says he stepped his game up because he and KO had to live up to Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus.
21: KO stumbles into commercial. Gotta love live TV.
21.5: Think of Whitlock and KO as Thicke and Miley once again. Go to the bathroom for some Pepto-Bismol.
23: Highlights cleverly called Keithlights. No Mr. Obermann, I will not stroke your big ego.
24: Fan picks his nose, bad joke about the sun (“The sun is an issue, which it has been since the dinosaurs”), and a glorified blooper reel of Royals dropping pop-ups. My mind is expanding at a dangerous rate due to all this intellectual sports discussion.
25: Dancing KC camera man
25: Derek Jeter is old! Let’s make 3 jokes about that within 4 minutes.
26: Hey we don’t like it when A-Rod hits home runs. That’s trendy.
26: Ichiro drops the ball. KO yelps.
27: Is there some important tennis thing happening now?
28: “And the ball goes ‘weeee’ into the stands.”
28: KO makes a bunch of jokes I didn’t understand about the sound that tennis players make when they hit the ball. Does anyone know of a toy that makes an “ahhheeeee” sound? I don’t.
28: Awkward hug between Schiavone and the ballboy is made more awkward by Olbermann staring at it.
29: Matt Harvey’s hurt. I feel legitimately bad about that. If you like the Mets, I’ll buy you a beer or something. Seriously.
29: The Patriots are trying to get money back from the Aaron Hernandez contract. “Hide the money inside a birthday cake,” advises KO.
30: Clip of KO on Sportscenter from ’94. Gets awkward points for referring to a golfer being on the grassy knoll of the course.
33. Super Bowl selection committee is the one of the worst sports people in the sports world. I’ve seen this segment somewhere before.
34: In response to the Super Bowl being in the Meadowlands this January (note, it’s cold in January in the North East and the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting snow) K.O compared it to a student registering for a 7 am class and thinking ‘that’s months from now.” Not the greatest analogy, but it makes sense and I’ve done that before so I’ll let it slide.
35: Showed a misspelled high school banner and misspelled tattoo, both of which would have been really funny if they weren’t on Deadspin already. TV can’t be rival the Internet in that regard. Not much wacky sports/pop culture stuff is going to break close enough to an 11 pm show for Olbermann to beat Deadspin or even blogs linking to Deadspin to it.
36: The Astros are reportedly making a profit despite being awful, but deny it. Not sure who to believe, since I once asked Lou Lamorillo about the Forbes revenue numbers for the Devils and he said they’re nothing like the real thing. Could be an interesting point to discuss, if it wasn’t crammed into a minute and talked about over haunted house organ music.
37: He used the word suck on the air! ESPN mind control shattered.
37: Ended a segment with a paper toss. Somewhere Tony Reali must be planning a lawsuit for copyright infringement.
39: The Rickie Fowler This is Sportscenter commercial is actually funny. (It makes fun of his orange outfit!)
40: Mark Cuban is guest #2 (Why?). We also learn he was once a disco dancer. Ok then.
41: Cuban, classy as ever is wearing a t-shirt of the team he owns. He makes a Skip Bayless joke, KO makes an A-Rod joke.
41: Why do I care what Cuban says about baseball? His greatest connection is trying to buy a team and getting shut down. He could either be awesome and say things no one else has the balls to say or default to glorified sour grapes.
42: Cuban refers to a certain guy who owns the White Sox and Bulls…clearly he hasn’t learned subtly yet.
43: Bud Selig is kind of heavy handed? Gee I never knew that.
44: Cuban brings up a point I read in Will Leitch’s book from I don’t know how many years ago: that a good amount of players use PED’s legitimately (such as prescribed testosterone, cortisone, etc.)
45: Cuban addresses why PEDs aren’t relevant in the NBA. Again, could be interested if it was fleshed out more.
46: Cuban’s already sucking up to Adam Silver.
47: Plug for Shark Tank and a not so subtle jab at ESPN being not the best bosses. Talking out of both sides of your mouth at the finest right there.
48: Toss to commercial cryptically alludes to a football hall of famer wearing eye shadow…that sounds vaguely familiar. It’s almost like I saw it on Deadspin last week or something.
49: KO uses the phrase wild and wacky, then shows a clip of Kyrie Irving playing cricket while making an injury joke about Andrew Bynum.
51: “ A video from the mystical planet known as the internet” intros the aforementioned Cowher video. KO screams a lot.
52: I don’t even know what to say to this.
53: Hey, Goldberg the wrestler is still alive. The more you know.
54: There’s a picture of KO in his school days and an odd story about his teacher who recently died. Kind of touching, in the sense that I feel bad making fun of it.
57: KO dons “the jacket”, which he wore when he launched ESPN 2. Think there’s a great story to it? Not really, the studio was cold because a spotlight shone on the air conditioner.
59: More Keithlights. It’s even more clever the second time (no it’s not).
00: KO : “That’s 1-6-4 if you’re scoring at home…or even if you’re alone.” Yay for clumsy sex jokes.
01:We’re in overtime here. More highlights, this time without a witty name. They were also shown about 40 minutes ago. Jokes are recycled.
03: Another video I’ve seen before. KO jokes that college tuition is $4 M annually. If only he knew about NYU. Shed one single tear.
03: Ends with good night and good luck. He’ll need it more than me.
The Final Take: I’m really not sure what I watched. I was expecting something kind of Sportscentery, but mostly intellectual and edgy. KO was supposed to say things that wouldn’t fly on other ESPN shows. He did that, but not how I expected.
ESPN obviously got the memo that Deadspin represents the opposite side of the spectrum: the website is funny, irreverent, and smart to the network’s vanilla pandering. Deadspin, though, is also a website. “Olbermann” is a nightly TV show, so any attempts to throw in some viral videos and things like that fail unless the crew is extremely good or extremely lucky. Also, pointing out fans picking their nose during a highlight is kind of clunky; if I’m watching clips of the game, I want to know about the game. Olbermann can be smart and he can be funny, but cramming them together is doesn’t work well for late night sports TV.
As for the guests, I was disappointed due to the fact that KO is known for selecting who will appear on his show. Whitlock and Cuban frankly seem more troll-y than intellectually stimulating. I’ll grant them that a few really intriguing points were brought up, but the show’s format didn’t allow them to be expanded upon. Since then, though, the guests have been better. Tony Kornheiser usually makes things better.
On the whole, Olbermann was a step in the right direction for ESPN, but still came across like the network trying to hard. The fact is is that ESPN is still an entertainment business, and I can almost hear someone in a Bristol boardroom saying, “Hey people like Deadspin and think we’re dumbing sports down. Let’s bring back Keith Olbermann (smart) and have him show some funny videos (you know like Deadspin does).” To ESPN, programming choices will always be about reaching out to new demographics. Now it’s gotten some pretty good reviews and really doesn’t have much competition in the time slot, so there’s hope that Olbermann and his staff can reach above that.
I really want KO to succeed, primarily because I don’t want to be nauseated every time someone turns on ESPN. I can chalk up some of Monday to first show hiccups, but I’m not optimistic for the long term. I think he can revive his sports career, but ESPN probably isn’t the place for that.
Also ESPN should never have a show in which someone talks about the media making stories out of nothing. Ever.