Remember how simple Barcalounging used to be in the early days
of cable? Back then, MTV actually stood for music television and
ESPN actually stood for, well, only a few hard-core viewers knew
what the acronym meant, but the network represented the idea,
novel at the time, that one should be able to watch sports at
any time of the day or night, much in the same way MTV gave us
the inalienable right to see Billy Joel videos at 3 a.m.
As time passed, MTV unfortunately discarded videos in favor of
reality shows, cartoons and soap operas, but ESPN stayed the
course, remaining a wonderful destination on the dial, where one
could always find a game, even if it was Pinetime State versus
Boondocks U, and where it didn't just seem as if SportsCenter was
on seven times every morning, it really was. Sadly, that may be
changing. Earlier this month ESPN announced a new winter lineup
of original programming that includes a game show called Beg,
Borrow and B.S.; a reality series that will follow the NBA's new
developmental league; a call-in talk show called Pardon the
Interruption; and a made-for-TV movie (set to debut the week of
March Madness) based on A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein's
book about Bob Knight and the 1985-86 Indiana basketball team.
These "original sports entertainment initiatives" follow on the
heels of recent ESPN series such as 2 Minute Drill, The Life and
The Season. The mastermind is Mark Shapiro, the 31-year-old ESPN
vice president and general manager of programming who has
overseen the network's SportsCentury series. Based on Shapiro's
track record, the new shows will be well-done and eye-catching.
"Our mission is to forge new highways of sports entertainment,"
Shapiro said. "I believe we can be all things to all fans."
That is exactly the problem. As fans, we don't want ESPN to be
all things, we want it to be one thing--a place where we can
watch games, highlights of games and discussions of games. ESPN
should stick to sports for the same reason that CNBC shouldn't
make an Alan Greenspan biopic and The Wall Street Journal
shouldn't publish salacious bond-broker-meets-heartbreaker
fiction. Leave the goofy, testosterone-pumped sports shows to Fox
Sports Net (which this week is premiering a roundtable program
featuring comedian Tom Arnold that is modestly titled Best Damn
Sport Show Period); let Mark Burnett take care of the Survivor
crowd; and leave the sports films to Ron Shelton. As the Piano
Man might say: ESPN, we love you just the way you are.
says. That is exactly the problem.