It’s upfront season for all the major networks, which means they get to put their best foot forward to the advertisers who foot the enormous bills. Upfronts are much like the opening day of the regular season for any sports team – it’s the time where executives, talent, and public relations staffers are at their most positive and most hopeful about their respective network.
Upfronts are a PR department’s dream because the network could try to sell a flaming sack of hot garbage as the next big thing in broadcasting. For some, it means talking themselves into thinking their newest sitcom lineup is going to be the one to finally end their massive slump. Basically, NBC is the Cleveland Browns in this example.
In terms of interesting news to come out of ESPN’s 2014 upfront, there wasn’t much outside the contract extensions of Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. However, ESPN President John Skipper did have a few interesting quotes that were transcribed by The Hollywood Reporter.
Mainly, Skipper presented a window into the current change in philosophy at ESPN where sometimes big, sometimes controversial personalities are more than welcome. In the past, nobody (at least outside Chris Berman and Dick Vitale) was bigger than the four letters and ESPN was happy to let some of its most recognizable talent walk away knowing their spoke in the wheel could be easily replaced.
However, with the rise of competition in the sports media (not just on television but online as well), Skipper has thrown the gates to Bristol open wide to anyone who can draw an audience. This has meant previously unthinkable scenarios playing out like the returns of Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock. It’s also meant the return of Michelle Beadle and the unveiling of Tim Tebow as a college football analyst.
Skipper’s comments on Olby and ESPN’s resident messiah were particularly of interest from the upfronts.
“We wanted to bring Keith back. He’s a unique personality and a unique talent,” he continued. “We wanted to be competitive at 11 o’clock and have the clear No. 1 show [in ESPN's SportsCenter] and the clear No. 2 show. That happened. We have a lot of patience with our shows. It took [Pardon the Interruption] a long time to hit. Other than those Sunday morning countdown shows, people don’t view sports studio shows as appointment viewing. So we’ve got to over time build the audience. And that’s what we’re going to do with it.”
Olbermann made an appearance at the ESPN upfront and he’ll likely be seen on more ESPN shows. And Skipper added that Olbermann, whose show broadcasts from Times Square Studios in Manhattan, “has been on his very best behavior. You saw him here today. He’s been great.”
“We gave him a lot of attention. I’ve said before, we probably overdid it,” admitted Skipper. “And that makes people sort of suspicious of him. It’s not his fault. He is genuinely a very likable guy.”
Tebow — who joined ESPN earlier this year as an analyst for SEC Nation, which migrates to the SEC Network when it launches in August — has surprised many, as he’s quickly grown into the analyst job. “We have been thrilled,” continued Skipper, singling out Tebow’s commentary during last January’s national title game between Florida State and Auburn. “We thought it might take him a little longer to get comfortable. He’s very knowledgeable. It’s beyond our expectations.”
A big plus, added Skipper, “He’s a very nice man. He says, ‘Yes.’ ‘How did I do?’ ‘How can I get better?’ and ‘Thank you.’ You can see why people like him.”
It’s amazing to see John Skipper basically taking the blame for people not liking Tim Tebow. It’s not his fault that people don’t like him, it’s ESPN’s fault for driving him down the throats of the nation on a 24/7 basis. (He’s completely right about that, by the way. As a person, I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Tebow. As a debate point, he’s a monstrous figure that is as frightening as Godzilla.) Also of note is Skipper’s desire to be the #1 and #2 sports network at 11 PM ET with Olbermann doing battle with SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live. Look for that to be a common talking point as the ESPN-ESPN2-FS1-NBCSN battle heats up in the years to come.
The underlying theme here though is that John Skipper and ESPN are aggressively trying to not just stay ahead of the competition, but extend the lead. Skipper saw an opportunity at 11 PM to eat into Fox Sports 1′s market share, so he shocked the world and brought back Keith Olbermann. He saw an opportunity to do the same to Fox’s college football coverage and made Tim Tebow the face of SEC Network. It’s a major change n Bristol’s philosophy. And seeing the success of ESPN in standing up to the rise in competition thus far, it’s one that has worked.