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Skip Bayless defended? A Q&A with head of ESPN's First Take

Stephen A. Smith (left) and Skip Bayless represent the faces of ESPN's Photo:

Stephen A. Smith (left) and Skip Bayless represent the faces of ESPN's "First Take," a daily show centered around debating sports topics.

If you are a frequent reader of this column (or follow me on Twitter), you are well aware of how I feel about First Take and the "Baylessization" of ESPN2's mornings. For those unfamiliar: ESPN2's First Take is a show designed around 62-year-old Skip Bayless debating and defending sports opinions (whether against real "opponents" such as co-panelist Stephen A. Smith or straw men), attacking famous athletes (e.g. Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Richard Sherman), and generally acting like a hockey goon without the charm of one.

There is no arguing that the show has its fans. First Take regularly draws over 300,000 viewers for first-run episodes -- a big number for a 10-noon ET slot on ESPN 2 -- and hit 425,000 viewers on June 9, the high for the month. The show also produces a ton of social media mentions, making it the apple of some in Bristol who worship at the altar of buzz.

Two weeks ago SI.com requested an interview with Marcia Keegan, the ESPN vice president of production who oversees First Take as well as other shows including SportsNation, Numbers Never Lie and Outside The Lines (OTL). After a couple of days of negotiations with ESPN PR, conditions were agreed upon: I agreed to ESPN's request that an ESPN PR staffer (Jay Jay Nesheim) sit in on the interview. ESPN agreed that the interview would be on the record at the start, and anything off the record would happen only after SI's questions were concluded. We met at a midtown Manhattan pastry shop. Over the course of a 25-minute interview, Keegan answered all the questions I asked, which I respect. The conversation reads below as a straight Q&A.

SI.com: As the top executive regarding stewardship of some of ESPN's highest profile studio shows, how do you view your role regarding First Take?

Keegan: First Take is one of the shows I oversee and I am involved with it similarly in the way I am with other shows, which is to make sure things keep going the way they should be going and that people are generally happy. If there are going to be any drastic changes of direction, I am spearheading that. Day to day, I am hands off.

SI.com: Are you proud of the show?

Keegan: I am proud of the show.

SI.com: Why?

Keegan: Because it appeals to an audience that some of the other shows I have responsibility for don't. We're a big tent at ESPN. I am very proud of OTL and their journalistic efforts. It is journalism at its best and this [First Take] to me is a different way of reaching different fans.

SI.com: How fair is it for me to describe First Take as a program built around disagreement-as-entertainment?

Keegan: That's not unfair.

SI.com: Given that, one could suggest that the concept of disagreement as entertainment is highly flawed because you ultimately need to manufacture disagreement to maintain what the program is.

Keegan: No, we never manufacture disagreement. What we do is find topics where there is disagreement and there are times when they have agreed on things. But mostly it is a debate show. So if there is a topic they are in vehement agreement about, it might be one we choose to go with that day.

SI.com: What journalistic purpose does First Take serve, if any?

Keegan: It depends on how you define journalistic. I'd say journalism like OTL, if you are looking for that, it's not. But neither are Top 10 highlights on SportsCenter. A lot of what we do is not journalism per se. It all depends on the show and the topic and so forth.

SI.com: Let me ask you some questions I received from readers if I could. From Andrew Bucholtz [who runs Yahoo! Canada's CFL blog]: What does ESPN want to see from First Take? Audience numbers? Sports points of view that aren't expressed elsewhere? Something that inspires conversations elsewhere? What is the actual goal from the show?

Keegan: The answer to that is yes. We want to offer something different and talk about things people are talking about. We try to do it in a way our SportsCenters can't and don't have the freedom to, and may not want to. He's highlighted three things I do want to do with that show.

SI.com: From Matt Yoder [who is also the managing editor of Awful Announcing]: How has "Embrace Debate" positively and negatively affected the ESPN brand?

Keegan: I think it has positively affected it in almost every way you can think of.

SI.com Why?

Keegan: It has been great for ratings. If you told me five years ago when I first had responsibility for this that we could regularly do a 0.4 [350,000-450,000 or so viewers.] at 10:00 a.m. on ESPN2, I'd say what are you smoking? It is a great for ratings. I will not share with you the financials but it is good for financials. And I think it is good for the brand.

SI.com: From reader Ken Weide: Why is the show is so focused on topics that are looking to "blame" someone?

Keegan: I would disagree with that characterization.

SI.com: Why would you disagree with that characterization?

Keegan: I think we talk about everything. Not just a blame game but an opinion game. One thing I don't know if you looked into or talked to people about is we do race very well.

SI.com: We'll get to that later, for sure. From reader John Kollm: How do they target certain demographics and how does that shape the show?

Keegan: We never set out to target a demographic. When I was given First Take [Keegan took over in fall of 2009] I looked at it and said, "What is its identity?" I don't know what this show is. It often appeared to be 'Not SportsCenter.' We were just giving the viewer something that was not SportsCenter at that time of day. Then I asked Jamie Horowitz to come in and look at the show and debate always rated well on the show. He is the one who suggested all debate. I was a little leery at first but I said give it a shot. And it has done very well. So that is how it evolved.

SI.com: People on Twitter often ask me about Bayless's Twitter feed and I will be the first to admit that I also solicit people's opinion on what he has said. He tweeted at the end of the NBA Finals, "I cannot express how much fun I'm having watching LeBron cry at the end of the bench," He's called LeBron James, "LeCramp" and "Prince James" among other names. One my readers sent a graphic of Bayless sending nearly 30 tweets on LeBron over a short time span. How would you characterize Bayless's comments on LeBron James?

Keegan: Expressing his strong opinions about LeBron James.

SI.com: How would you counter my assertion that his attacks on LeBron James are unprofessional, unbecoming of ESPN, and done merely to call attention to Bayless?

Keegan: I'd certainly argue that are done solely to call attention to Skip. Skip believes everything he says. He has strong opinions and wants them out there. Different people have different ways of communicating their thoughts. Skip has 1.4 million Twitter followers so there are a lot of people who want to hear what he has to say.

SI.com: So in terms of the content of his tweets and specifically on his tweets about LeBron James, you are comfortable with what he is putting out there?

Keegan: I would not tweet that, okay? But I also allow for the fact that some people want to hear that and that is how some people communicate. The line between acceptable and unacceptable -- and we deal with this all the time with our tweets -- is not clear. I don't think Skip has ever crossed that line.

SI.com: A couple of years ago Bayless said that Dwight Howard looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. He's called Chris Bosh by the nickname of Bosh Spice. Do you see any sexism or misogyny with those comments?

Keegan: I don't recall those comments but I can't separate them from the Skip Bayless I know and he is anything but sexist or racist.

SI.com: Outside The Lines is also under your purview. The show has moved previously in July or August from ESPN to ESPN2 before the start of the NFL season. Will that happen again?

KeeganYes. The daily show for certain. I'll have to check on the Sunday show.

SI.com: When will that change happen?

Keegan: I believe it is mid-July.

SI.com: You and your colleagues know my point of view when it comes to OTL. Is that a fair move for a show that just won a Peabody Award?

Keegan: Programming is the department that makes those decisions and a lot of things go into it: contractual obligations, ratings, sales. I can't really address why it is done.

SI.com: As the person who oversees the show, how concerned are you that the audience will hemorrhage with switch as the metrics showed it did last year?

Keegan: Hemorrhage is a strong word. If the viewers want to see it, we try everywhere possible to tell them where to find it. People get OTL segments on SportsCenter. They go to the dot-com for portions of the show. There are all sorts of ways to get the content of the show and the ratings only is not a fair assessment of that.

SI.com: Do you consider Bayless and Stephen A. Smith to be journalists?

Keegan: Yes.

SI.com: Why?

Keegan: I think that their background is clear that they are journalists. But to go back to what you asked me earlier: Is First Take itself a journalistic show? No, not in that sense.

SI.com: Let me read you something from Richard Sherman who said the following to Skip Bayless on your airwaves: "I am intelligent enough and capable enough to understand that you are ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin, and that's what it comes down to. And I'm going to crush you on here in front of everybody because I'm tired of hearing about it." Do you consider that a good or bad moment for First Take and why?

Keegan: I consider it a moment. I don't characterize it. It certainly was not what we were looking for and not what we were expecting.

SI.com: How much of the show's content will revolve around Johnny Manziel heading forward?

Keegan: If he remains a hot topic, it will remain a topic.

SI.com: In hindsight, how do you feel about the show's coverage of Tim Tebow?

Keegan: At the time Tim Tebow was in the news every day and we talked about him a lot. Other shows followed suit at ESPN so it wasn't as if everyone was saying that is a terrible idea. He was a hot topic.

SI.com: You are not in the day to day production meetings at First Take but when it comes to First Take's topics, who decides the topics chosen?

Keegan: Stephen A., Skip, Antoine Lewis (the show's coordinating producer) and our producers all talk about it. But we do want Skip and Stephen A. to feel strongly about the topic. They are two stars.

**ESPN PR's Nesheim interjects.**

Also, the night before there is someone who is tracking whatever the hot topics are so they work off of a list in the morning of what they think the highlights are.

(Back to Keegan)

SI.com: How would you define Jamie Horowitz's influence on ESPN programming now that he has left the company?

Keegan: Any influence he had was positive. Jamie is a very talented guy. I enjoyed working with him. He had a different way of thinking and infused different ideas into many of our shows. I would only characterize it as positive.

SI.com: In your opinion, does First Take race-bait?

Keegan: Absolutely not.

SI.com: That has been a tag sometimes leveled on the show whether from The Washington PostDeadspin, or this column. Why don't you think that is a fair characterization?

Keegan: It has been tagged by Deadspin, which never says anything positive [about ESPN] and with all due respect, you don't say anything positive about the show. I have not seen the Washington Post say that. I'd like to know what causes you to say that.

SI.com: If we want to use the most well-known incident: [Former First Take panelist] Rob Parker made a clear delineation regarding what he said was an authentic black person versus an inauthentic black person through the prism of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III. I would say that's race baiting. That's an outlier on the show, yes, but that is an example of race baiting.

Keegan: That is an extreme example and Rob is no longer with us.

SI.com: I want to make clear that the preamble to this question is my opinion. ESPN employs a 62-year-old man who mischaracterized his high school basketball career on national televisionimplied Troy Aikman was gay in a book prior to coming to ESPN and refers to athletes by nicknames that are straight out of junior high school. How reflective are these things kind of things when it comes to ESPN's overall editorial ethos?

Keegan: Well, I would disagree how you characterized Skip. So I would say not only in Skip's case, but in all cases, that is not reflective of who we hire and who we put on the air.

SI.com: Are there any plans to expand the First Take franchise beyond the two-hour block and repeats?

Keegan: Not at the moment.

SI.com: How do you view [moderator] Cari Champion's role on the show. She's someone who is bright but rarely gets the opportunity to speak her peace on the topic. What is your view of her role and could that role change in the future?

Keegan: Cari and I have had conversations about this. When we hired her we told her we thought it was probably a two-year role because anyone who wants to grow was not going to be able to do on that show. I think she does it very well but I don't see [the role] changing in the future.

SI.com: Are Bayless and Smith provocative for the sake of being provocative?

Keegan: I don't believe they are. I firmly believe as close to knowing what another person is thinking that they really believe what they are saying and that is how they communicate.

SI.com: Is there something you would like to add before we conclude?

Keegan: I would. I think Stephen A. and Skip are two very nice people. Skip Bayless is one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know and I was very surprised to find that out when I first met him. I wish you would take the chance to meet him.

The Noise Report

SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. The opposite of disagreement-as-entertainment is what we've seen this month from ESPN's World Cup Tonight studio show. It's been a very good watch, and the best part of the program has been the informal "Last Call" segments where ESPN's studio talent sit around a table and chat about the matches of the day.

Chris Alexopoulos, ESPN's lead MLS producer, and Pete McConville, who normally works on Baseball Tonight, have shared the producing responsibilities for the show. Both have great reputations in Bristol and what they've constructed is a welcome escape from the daily drumbeat of "Buy or Sell," "Hot/Not" and other unimaginative standards that appear in every medium. Jed Drake, ESPN's executive producer for its World Cup coverage, described "Last Call" as "highly coordinated spontaneity. That's a pretty apt description.

McConville said World Cup Tonight's 90-minute format is somewhat planned out. The first two blocks or segments run about 35 minutes and are based around highlights, analysis and news. At the end of the second block, the on-air talent heads over to the "Last Call" set.

"Then the rundown becomes more of a suggestion than a guide," McConville said. "We put a framework around each discussion and as the show progresses we decide if the conversation is better served on camera or with video or using the touchscreen. Those decisions are often in the moment. This is a show you need to listen to as you produce it."

How are the commentators chosen each night for World Cup Tonight? Drake, coordinating producer Amy Rosenfeld, Alexopoulos and McConville slot analysts around appropriate storylines (e.g. Michael Ballack will work nights that Germany and Group G play). ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman has appeared on the show a number of nights and believes the show has worked because it is authentic discussion.

"It's as real as you get when it comes to discussion of our sport on TV," said Twellman. "It's what we do after games at the bar over beers; now we sprinkle in some touchscreen and other TV elements but all of us thoroughly enjoy just taking the 'gloves off' and talking the game."

McConville said Drake conceived the idea based on his experience with the World Cup staff four years ago in South Africa.

"When we were in South Africa, we would get done with our night and head back across town to the Hyatt hotel where the production people and talent would congregate for a late night drink," McConville said. "The talk always evolved into a discussion, sometimes strong, always funny, about what happened on the field that day. Jed wanted to take an entertaining conversation and put it on television here in Rio and Last Call was born."

1a. A burning World Cup Tonight television question: Will the Men in Blazers duo of Roger Bennett and Michael Davies ever appear on the main set? "Michael and Roger have been hanging out with us in the green room as we prep the show" McConville said. "They go into their segment with a real understanding of what we are talking about that night. They work some of their elements into the fabric of our discussion. I'd love it if they finished their segment and crashed the set one night."

2. Here's the ESPN commentator schedule for the upcoming week of the World Cup and of note for U.S. fans: Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman will call U.S.-Germany game while Jon Champion and Stewart Robson will call Portugal-Ghana. The full schedule is here.

2a. ESPN said it is averaging 3.74 million viewers through 29 matches (through Saturday night) for its World Cup coverage. That's up 26 percent (2,961,000 viewers) from the same spot four years ago. The network's Germany-Ghana match drew 5.74 million viewers on ESPN, a huge number for a non-U.S. match in the Group stage.

2b. Univision is averaging 3.37 million viewers through 29 matches.

2c. Awful Announcing examined ESPN's World Cup ratings.

3. How will the NFL look on television in 2024? For a longform piece for The MMQB, I examined television's impact on the NFL and spoke to a number of people in the television industry on what the game will look like in the future. The full story is here.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• ESPN's Tom Friend wrote a splendid tribute for Tony Gwynn.

• SI's Chris Ballard traveled to Brazil to discover the brave, new world of U.S. soccer fans.

• Beautiful piece on Tony Gwynn by David Johnson, who was a bat boy for the team.

• Classy tribute by Mike Wilbon for the late Sports Illustrated and ESPN writer Ralph Wiley:

• Wright Thompson's blog from Brazil has been excellent.

• Vice Sports had an excellent five-part series on sexual abuse in sports.

• ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne has done terrific reporting on Donald Sterling. This piece examines the last chapter of an angry billionaire.

Non-sports pieces

• The New York Times presented the tale of a rookie firefighter. It was the best thing I read last week.

• The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes for Esquire on the term Redskins.

• Via Michael Becschloss: Amelia Earhart sent this prenuptial letter to fiancée George Putnam in 1931:

• The Economist obit on Chester Nez, the last of America's Navajo code-talkers:

5. Starting Sunday, SportsCenter will air from a new 194,000-square foot studio known as Digital Center 2 around ESPN's campus. The new facility includes five studios (including one specifically set up for NFL programming) and ESPN executives said there are 114 video and graphic display monitors versus 15 for the old setup. Among the amenities: You'll see anchors standing in front of a giant screen that has text on it, and they'll be able to point to, circle, and highlight text. ESPN will also have a social media newsroom as part of the facility and there is now a seat for a social media producer during SportsCenter shows. (DC-2 is also equipped with laser beam to destroy planets and small cable sports networks.)

"One of the goals when we built the set was to be able to put a camera in the middle of it, and if you turn that camera 360 degrees, you'd be happy with whatever we were showing the audience," said Craig Bengtson, vice president and director of news for ESPN. "We're going to allow people to come into our home a little bit and see how we do what we do, and occasionally that may lead to some interesting moments."

5a. I really loved this photo Tony Gwynn fans honoring his memory.

5b. On Tuesday HBO's Real Sports will air an Andrea Kremer-reported piece on the pay and working conditions of of NFL cheerleaders. Sharon Vinick, an attorney who is representing a former Raiders cheerleader suing the team, tells Kremer that NFL mascots make between $35,000 and $65,000 a season and the women working as NFL cheerleaders are making less than $2 an hour after expenses. The show airs at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

5c. Fortune and Sports Illustrated combine for the annual Fortunate 50, which ranks the 50 highest earning U.S. athletes.

5d. ESPN's Keith Obermann had a terrific video tribute to Gwynn.

5e. One of the great Instagram videos of the World Cup.

5f. Writer Jeff Pearlman interviews ESPN OTL host Bob Ley.

5g. ESPN will air 140 live hours from Wimbledon on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS and ABC. The network will also have 1,000 hours on ESPN. The full schedule is here.

5h. Marca, a daily newspaper in Spain, had an amazing front page after the team's 2-0 loss to Chile:

5i. Outside The Lines will once again move from ESPN to ESPN2 prior to the NFL season. As I've written before, the shift in timeslot and networks is a de facto burying of the show and no matter how much spin you hear from ESPN about OTL content appearing all over the brand, the show was once again significantly devalued by management. I'll be writing more on this heading forward.



 

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