Saturday, August 14, 2010
ESPN is the new MTV
You know The Buggles song, "Video Killed the Radio Star"? That song, and it's subsequent music video, became the first video released by MTV when the television network launched in 1981, forever changing the face of music and musical entertainment. Singers were no longer just listened to, they became a spectacle, eye-candy that blossomed the careers of musicians around the world. MTV loved music, pushed music, and wanted people not to just fall in love with the songs themselves, but with the strange, beautiful, and bizarre characters who created them.
For years, MTV was the beacon of the music industry, showing nothing but music videos pumped out and celebrated by VJs -- like a radio show for your eyes. When a band's video made it to MTV, it signaled an extraordinary up-leveling in their career from indie unknown to pop culture sensation. MTV defined music, and, in turn, defined pop culture (styles, sayings, everything). A simple television show was having a profound impact on the world. Directors started seeing music videos as a global platform to perfect and perform their art, and marketers saw those same videos as a way to reach millions of people with advertising, messages, and commercial branding. MTV was where people went to know what was cool and important to them.
Then the 1990s hit, and as the decade screamed toward Y2K, the focus and purpose of MTV took a monumental shift. Network executives decided to focus less on, well, "music television," and more on exploiting the demographics of the people who watched it: Young, impressionable consumers. MTV launched a host of reality TV series, scripted shows, and rebroadcast movies that gutted the music-centric programming and filled it with brain trash ultimately designed to expand the MTV "brand" deeper and deeper into the lives of its viewers. Goodbye Michael Jackson, hello Jessica Simpson. Goodbye Bruce Springsteen, hello "Jersey Shore." Goodbye Black Sabbath, hello "The Osbournes." Goodbye music, hello reality TV.
With that shift came enormous criticism from people within the music industry and like-minded citizens who wondered where their music videos had gone. The music had become secondary to self-promotion and mindless sensationalism from the network and its sponsors; sounds and songs had been replaced with a sales pitch. Mainstream music changed to match the network; while talent dwindled, the spectacle of celebrity exploded thanks to MTV. Music had lost a major ally, and a huge division formed in the industry between "entertainers" and "musicians," facilitating the uprising of the indie scene and self-publishing for major artists sick of the MTV-perpetuated culture. MTV is still relevant and important, but not for what it was designed and purposed to be. It was meant to bring music into homes across the globe, providing more than the radio experience, but making the artists tangible, vulnerable, amazing. Instead, they became the afterthought. The music wasn't important anymore, just the spectacle.
Two years prior to the formation of MTV, another television network started, a little 24-hour sports network called ESPN. TV executives all destined ESPN for doom, stating there was no interest, no market from the masses, for non-stop sports. People read the newspaper, watched their local teams on local channels, there was no need for tireless, ad nauseum coverage of the sports world. Luckily for sports fans, they were wrong. ESPN grew and grew, gaining credibility on the hard-working backs of transitioned journalists and investigative reporters who took an inside look at sports in a way that had never been done before. This hard news, often tongue-in-cheek approach to sports coverage set ESPN apart from its competitors. Just like MTV initially won over a market by appreciating and sharing music the "right" way, ESPN mirrored that sentiment with SportsCenter and its brilliant coverage of live games and events.
It turned out there was a hungry market for the 24-hour sports news cycle, and as ESPN secured lucrative contracts with all the major professional sports leagues across the country in the 1990s and 2000s, the consumption of ESPN's services became a lesson in exponential mathematics. Their market grew, their coverage grew, and their wallets really grew (over $400 million in ad revenue alone each year), entering into lucrative partnerships with ABC and Disney and expanding overseas with the ESPN brand. ESPN began to consume the sports world and all it contained.
There is no competition for ESPN in sports television, just as there's no real competition in the music industry for MTV. There's no alternative, so the power these companies own is unshielded. The radiation was leaking, but the execs and anchors were too busy counting their money and patting themselves on the back to care. They say with great power comes great responsibility, but for MTV and ESPN, great power came with the opportunity to take advantage of the audience and methodically change the expectations of the consumer. Forget listening to music, watch reality TV instead. Forget watching sports, listen to our anchors talk about themselves instead.
Thirty years later, ESPN has emerged as the self-appointed "Worldwide Leader in Sports" with more than 10 dedicated sports channels, radio presence in nearly every major market, an award-winning magazine, and a handful of global Web sites that all receive millions of viewers, listeners, and hits per day. And, while MTV was defining youth pop culture, ESPN was defining sports pop culture the same way. The ESPN name and its anchors started showing up in sports movies, Saturday Night Live, and late night talk shows. The tough journalists were thinned out for young, beautiful TV hosts who looked better on camera than the grizzled veterans who founded the network. Sports broadcasters replaced writers and reporters, and the network itself lost its once-defining journalistic edge. Gone were the hardcore investigative pieces and critical analysis; in its place arrived sideline Barbies and incessant, blowhard coverage of only the biggest and baddest sports teams in the world. If you weren't a fan of a major market team, sorry, look elsewhere. Oh wait, there's nowhere else to look, so watch this highlight package of the Yankees and LeBron James.
The programming itself changed as well as the network moved into less live sports and focused heavily on self-promoting TV shows, self-promoting anchors, and even scripted dramas and made-for-TV movies. Instead of tuning in to ESPN to watch a game, you had to watch their people tell you their interpretations of games you didn't have the opportunity to watch because they were too busy pushing themselves onto the screen. ESPN had gone to bed with the people and teams it was supposed to be covering objectively, pushing forward promotions designed and orchestrated by the teams and leagues with shameful ignorance. It didn't matter though, they were becoming a financial juggernaut.
They stopped caring about sports and focused on growing their ESPN brand even more, embedding themselves in the world of pop culture and celebrity reporting like immature kids trying to prove they were popular. ESPN was shifting from sports coverage into sports entertainment coverage (which, granted, we should've seen coming from its name alone). Just when it seemed like ESPN couldn't alienate the core it had originally set-out to provide for, it began buddying-up with the biggest athletes, coaches, and executives in professional sports, forever altering its ability to properly and objectively cover them. It all culminated in the last 12 months with the absurd, TMZ-style coverage of the Tiger Woods affairs and the decision to let LeBron James (Inc.) hold the network hostage for an hour to announce his free agency destination.
The MTV path has been followed almost to a T.
And, on top of all that, ESPN began competing with itself to break stories. Screw investigation, screw sources and confirmations (all the stuff the prior journalistic regime vowed by), all that mattered to ESPN anchors and writers, who had basically become self-perpetuated celebrities by the network that featured them as such, was becoming famous. That's what ESPN has become now, a place for the non-famous, non-athlete anchors and "analysts" to become famous. Catch-phrases, commercials, "as reported by ESPN's ..." all come down to a greedy, self-entitled network trying to push itself further into the reaches of mainstream pop culture. And these anchors and reporters don't actually care if they're right, they don't need to be, they just need to be first. That's the network design: Be first. Not be accurate, not be fair, not be smart, not be balanced ... just be first. And as many mistakes and criticisms they've received for inaccurate, morally ambiguous, slanderous coverage, they refuse to change. They refuse to reevaluate their journalistic ethics and integrity ... that just slows down their fame.
For ESPN, being the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" isn't enough anymore. Being in every home, car, and computer from morning to night is what ESPN wants, and the only way they know to do it is through superficial gimmicks, masturbatory coverage, and news prostitution (if it bleeds it leads) that competes with the few remaining strands of trend-setting pop culture that exist today. ESPN's competition is no longer Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, or ABC's Wide World of Sports, it's now TMZ, CNN, and, really, itself.
And just like MTV's abandonment of its fans spawned a generation of indie kids and underground music that reinvigorated the true essence of music and culture, ESPN has spawned popular "indie" sports sites (like Deadspin) and revolutionized sports blogs that essentially sundered the newspaper world into oblivion. More people read blogs and sites dedicated to their specific teams than ESPN because they can't get anything but the upper crust of coverage there. ESPN has pushed true sports fans away in an attempt to win over the hearts and minds of everyone, and true sports fans have responded by latching onto satellite writers and sites who actually care about giving them honest, researched news and analysis.
ESPN was supposed to make watching sports better, just like MTV was supposed to make listening to music better. But, at this point, all they've done is alienate and strangulate the fans they were originally created to serve. Video killed the radio star, and ESPN killed the sports fan.