Eight days ago, I predicted that pro athletes would soon be banned from taking part in Twitter. And thanks to more than one Twitter-related reprimand during the first week of NFL training camp, some sort of formal embargo appears to be right around the corner.
(’Guys, would you be cool with putting a washing machine on the desk?’)
But the draconian policy ESPN recently dropped on its staff, forbidding them all from Tweeting anything sports-related, surprised even the cynic in me.
But then I remembered 1998.
It was in 1998 that George Bodenheimer, a career ESPN ad sales guy, began overseeing all programming at Bristol. Not coincidentally, Disney gave Bodenheimer the reins after Fox Sports launched a rival national sports network that same year - the first (and only) true competition ever lodged against ESPN.
Previously, ESPN had exploded in popularity under the guidance of Steve Bornstein, whose background was in programming. So why did Bodenheimer suddenly take over from Bornstein, who to that point had steered ESPN to wild success? Disney saw that Fox Sports Net was coming after ESPN’s advertisers, and wanted to have a salesman running the entire operation in order to best protect profits.
If you’ve ever worked in media, you know of the eternal battle between sales and programming. Sales wants to dumb down content to make it a more palatable commodity for advertisers, while programming wants to produce provocative content that will draw viewers/listeners/readers. I worked at innumerable radio and TV stations doing sports over 16 years, and I saw this fight play out at every single one of my stops.
So what does that all have to do with Twitter? A whole lot.
Before Bodenheimer came along, you didn’t have the obscene number of ad placements across all ESPN platforms. The content was what drove the shows. But now, it’s the opposite. ESPN sales comes up with concepts for advertisers, and if the advertisers agree, you get “THE BUDWEISER HOT SEAT!!!”.
Mind you, that regular interview segment on SportsCenter mostly likely would never have existed if sales hadn’t gotten Bud to sign off on the concept.
In other words, the tail is wagging the dog at ESPN.
That’s precisely the reason why after Bodenheimer took over, you saw the network reposition what it promoted. During Bornstein’s reign, SportsCenter and its anchors were the focus - and they were presented as celebrities. But when Bodenheimer came in, he knew that there was more ad revenue to be made from ESPN’s broadcast properties, like the NFL, MLB and the NBA, so the network reversed its programming course dramatically.
The guys who made ESPN the wildly-popular property that it was under Bornstein, Craig Kilborn, Rich Eisen, Keith Olbermann and even Dan Patrick were treated like cogs in a machine by Bodenheimer - and eventually were nudged out the door.
But what about Chris Berman, how did he surive? As he was cloaked in ESPN’s top ad revenue-generating property, the NFL, he was left alone.
Now what do you see on SportsCenter? The same guy, over and over and over again. Back in the mid-to-late ’90s, every dude I knew could name all the SportsCenter anchors, easy. Now? Forget it.
It’s clear that the primary focus of ESPN’s upper management is making money by selling advertising - and hitting their numbers every quarter. Sales trumps programming, which is why you see the network with a much more vanilla presentation today than it had 10-15 years ago. And why the games, which produce a huge portion of the net’s overall ad revenue, take precedent over ESPN-originated properties like SportsCenter.
With that in mind, since ESPN’s broadcast properties are the most valuable asset Bristol has, you can bet the network is very careful not to report negative news about its broadcast partners (see Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL and 2003 steroid list and MLB.)
This all dovetails into ESPN’s seemingly absurd approach to Twitter. You would think that the network would want on-air staff to get breaking sports news out there as soon as possible. But if you are managing with a sales perspective, you know that individual personalities don’t drive revenue at ESPN anymore. All you want to do is keep your clients happy, so why chance having a Tweet go out that, though true, could be damaging to one of ESPN’s broadcast partners and/or advertisers? Not to mention if an ESPN on-air person gets a Tweet wrong, and Maytag cancels its pro bowling ad deal!
The scariest part of all this is Bodenheimer has in many cases indoctrinated ESPN editorial with that mindset. And those who believe that programming is what’s most important are clearly now in the minority at Bristol. It’s all about the sale, not breaking the story.
Of course, the only thing that will change all this is if a legitimate competitor emerges to challenge ESPN’s blander-by-the-day programming. If that happens, you can bet Bristol will go back to serving its viewers/listeners/readers first, and advertisers second.