NEW YORK – On Tuesday morning in midtown Manhattan, in a Broadway theater that currently houses The Lion King, ESPN president John Skipper made his annual pitch to media buyers in more muted tones than previous years. “We at ESPN are optimists,” Skipper told the audience at the Minskoff Theater for ESPN’s annual Upfront presentation. “We look forward to a great season and expect a great selling season. Of course the current environment forces us to be realists as well as optimists so let me be upfront at this Upfront: ESPN is responding to change.”
Those changes are most dramatic in the new weekday lineups that will debut on ESPN and ESPN2. No matter how ESPN execs want to spin it, they have sent a message to the marketplace that SportsCenter is no longer the television sports show of record. Instead, ESPN is banking on opinion-driven dialogue for its most-watched channel in an era of declining cable subscribers and viewership. The new ESPN daytime lineup in 2018 will begin with a Mike Greenberg-fronted morning show that will premiere on Jan. 1. The still-untitled daily program will originate from a studio in Manhattan and will air live from 7-10 a.m. ET on ESPN, and re-air each day at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2. That will be followed at 10 a.m. ET by First Take, whose credits include threatening Kevin Durant live on air. Two of producer Eric Rydholm’s favorites—Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre—will then co-host a one-hour live program. The show will run on ESPN from noon-1 p.m. ET.
ESPN and ESPN2 weekday programming as of Jan. 2, 2018:
Skipper did not take questions after the event, a first for him during my seven years of covering the event. Instead, ESPN senior vice president Rob King and fellow executives such as ESPN executive vice president of programming & scheduling Burke Magnus and senior vice president of original content Connor Schell handled the media inquires.
King said that SportsCenter will be a branded part of Greenberg’s new show, providing updates for viewers on the sports news of the previous day. A new edition of SportsCenter will also air live on ESPN2 from 7-10 a.m. ET. The next live, full edition of SportsCenter on linear television will air at 6:00 p.m. as part of the Jemele Hill-Michael Smith-led “SC 6.”
“ESPN is the primary source for news and information and SportsCenter is central to that,” Skipper said, making the case for SportsCenter’s relevance in 2017. “Fans understand the distinction between just getting a score and just getting a highlight then getting it on ESPN with personality and authority.”
During the presentation, Skipper highlighted the new E:60 Sunday morning show and the daily Outside The Lines show (1:00 p.m. ET) as part of an “unmatched commitment to journalism.” While no one would argue that ESPN employs far and away the most sports journalists in the country and its daily standard of sports journalism is high, Skipper’s comment comes less than three weeks after ESPN cut 100 journalists, anchors and analysts as part of a major layoff. Why should viewers believe ESPN still has the same level of journalism commitment after cutting that many news-gathers?
“You start thinking about The Undefeated and espnW writ large and what we have done with E:60 and Outside The Lines and even in the way we are thinking about sports going forward, we are committed to journalism,” King said. “We employ more sports journalists than any other entity on the planet. We did make some difficult decisions regarding talent in order for us to push into this content strategy that is multi-platform and very ambitious. We had to make some specific choices and they were hard.”
King said that ESPN’s talent cuts are concluded. On the specific question of whether there will be additional cuts involving people who are not front facing on television, video or digital, King said: “In the end we will always be evaluating our business and that means either restructuring or adding. You just have to watch over time because every business has to meet what its audience needs are.”
On the topic of whether ESPN’s programming has shifted left— ESPN’s Bob Ley has said ESPN’s issues are about technology and not ideology—Magnus said: “I do not for one second discount how some fans feel but I don’t hesitate to tell people, ‘By the way, you should know that at least part of is our competitors perpetuating a conversation because they would believe it would benefit their best interests.’ So at least part of it has to be attributed to a specific effort on behalf of a competitor to make sure that narrative, which is an overused word these days, takes hold.”