October 17, 2008

Quitting ESPN Cold Turkey

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The process was gradual. It did not happen overnight and it cannot be pinned on a specific Stephen A. Smith rant. However, after more than three years of deteriorating programming, ESPN has successfully alienated one of the world’s biggest sports fans from its network of television stations.
I have stopped watching ESPN. No more SportsCenter. No more PTI. The network has replaced analysis and insight with screaming, feigned debates and more screaming. Viewers should turn down the volume on their televisions before flipping over to one of ESPN’s channels, since there is a good chance ESPN will show someone like Jim Rome, Skip Bayless, or WoodyPaige shouting for no apparent reason. Even ESPN’s linchpin program, SportsCenter, leaves much to be desired. The show features flashy plays, spin-moves and dunks, in-game bloopers and gimmicky taglines (Tedy “Ice Cold” Bruschi, Amani “it’s not a” Toomer). What happened to breaking down strategy and explaining technique?
I began to notice the sagging quality of ESPN’s programming on June 23, 2005. My beloved Detroit Pistons were set to take on the San Antonio Spurs in the decisive seventh game of the NBA Finals. With a championship on the line, ABC (which, like ESPN, is owned by Disney) turned to a studio team of ESPN employees that included Bill Walton for analysis. During the telecast, Walton predicted a Piston victory, then a Spurs victory, then a Pistons a victory and proceeded to flip flop more than a confused politician. He stated each prediction with more certainty and arrogance than the last. Walton, who excelled as a basketball player, has succeeded in his second career: shouting a combination of convoluted metaphors, bold declarations and utter nonsense at a helpless audience of basketball fans as he rakes in the dough from ESPN.
In preparation for this column, I made a big mistake yesterday. Granted, it was not really a mistake — I was hunting for support for this column — but I probably should not have taken such drastic measures to complete my story. I made the plunge and turned on ESPN, knowing full well that Around The Horn would be on. The show consists of a rotating cast of sports writers who scream at each other during strange, contrived “debates” as a moderator arbitrarily gives the journalists points  (likely based upon who yells the loudest or makes the most inane comments). Writers with conservative, logical opinions on sports rarely participate, as the network instead opts for the outlandish views of people like Jay Mariotti and Woody Paige. The two men might best symbolize the cause of ESPN’s downfall, as they seem to have opinions on literally everything and those opinions are often illogical and rarely moderate.
In the very first segment of yesterday’s show, the analysts discussed the impact that a layoff has on an MLB team (a typically frivolous ATH discussion). Mariotti called the Philidelphia Phillies “the best National League team I’ve seen in a long time” (complete hyperbole), then explained how such a strong team should be unaffected by a six-day layoff. Paige responded by shouting, “Your argument is senseless!” (unnecessary screaming). Paige proceeded to explain that the best way for the Phillies to maintain their momentum would be to play simulated games against their minor league players for the next five days (a ridiculous premise). I quickly turned off the television in order to prevent a headache.
The difference between ESPN and some of its rival networks is well represented by the comparison of its NBA halftime show with that of TNT. TNT features former players Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith and Emmy-award-winner Ernie Johnson. Their interaction is natural, insightful, and rarely seems forced. Smith provides the in-depth analysis, Barkley offers the perspective of a brutally honest former player and Johnson keeps the show on track. In contrast, ESPN’s halftime show to begin last season consisted of Stephen A. Smith and Bill Walton competing to see who could argue contrarian stances more incoherently while Stuart Scott moderated by peppering the viewing audience with lame puns and rhetorical questions. The group was mercifully broken up prematurely when Walton had to deal with a bad back. While TNT’s halftime show is often the only thing worth watch during a bland slate of games, halftime of an ESPN game signals the time to get fifteen minutes of homework done.
I am not against the entirety of ESPN. In fact, quite the opposite is true. ESPN currently boasts the most talented and most diverse group of sports writers ever assembled and as a result, ESPN’s website and magazine are top notch. ESPN.com is firmly entrenched as my home page on Firefox thanks to astute writers like Bill Simmons, John Hollinger and Rob Neyer. Unlike the television analysts who embrace hyperbole, ESPN’s writers typically display their expertise by offering alternative perspectives and explanations regarding the world of sports. The daring guarantees and cop-out clichés that have become so commonplace during ESPN’s television programming are far less present on the company’s website.
I simply cannot bear to watch ESPN any more. Between ESPN and ESPN2, the daily lineup includes First Take, 1st and 10, Mike & Mike In The Morning and Jim Rome Is Burning. Each show has the same premise: sports analysts screaming at each other as they try to defend illogical views during contrived arguments. With sports, I look to the media to do two things: report the news and explain intricacies of the game that I might not pick up on otherwise. The internet provides everything I can ask for and more in terms of news coverage. As for the intricacies of the game, I want to know how 180-pound Dustin Pedroia managed more extra-base-hits than strikeouts, what Chris Paul did differently last year that allowed him to transform from star to superstar, and how the New York Giants contained the Patriot’s offense in the Super Bowl. ESPN programs prefer to antagonize their viewers with outlandish guarantees that are wrong as often as they are right, discussions of topics as relevant as “sex soda” (this actually happened on Around The Horn) and more mascot talk than anyone should be forced to absorb.
ESPN claims to be “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.” I just wish it would lead in a better direction.