Neil Best of Newsday ran into ESPN president John Skipper at the Raptors-Knicks game on Wednesday night. Best had a brief discussion with Skipper about (what else?) First Take. Skipper's responses to Best were revealing, to say the least.
"My guess would be that for people who are critical of it it's somewhat symbolic of a general dislike of that genre. For us it's slightly puzzling, because we're doing 50, 60, 70,000 hours of live TV. We're trying to do a bunch of different kinds of TV. This kind of TV works, to some extent.
"We've gone over the line a couple of times, which I didn't like. But as long as we can sort of be smart about it, it's just a nuance relative to what the difference is between 'First Take' and 'PTI.' And I think it also gets attention because it's a big block of programming. But it's been a show that has helped us solidify the morning on ESPN2.
"We've been working on this show since 'Cold Pizza' back in about 2003 or 2004. So we finally have a formula where people are actually tuning in."
Skipper essentially comes out and says "people are watching, and we've been working at this for a while, so who cares about the endless barrage of criticism we're getting about the content?" That's not really a good precedent to set, but Skipper's response to Best's question about those criticisms the show gets is where things get really mind-numbing.
"Look, people think of ESPN, because of a business strategy we've employed to have one brand, everything ESPN, they tend to think of us as monolithic. People ask me, 'Aren't the guys at 'SportsCenter' ashamed?'
"I don't know. Are the guys at CBS News ashamed of their prime time lineup? Nobody suggests when there's some ridiculous reality show on that the news guys or the fine drama writers are ashamed to be on the same network, because theyre not monolithic. We're not monolithic."
Well, here's the issue with Skipper's comments. The anchors at CBS News probably don't care about the network airing CSI, 2 Broke Girls, or whatever the current reality show du jour is… because those shows are fictional and/or manufactured. Someone isn't going to go into a viewing of CSI and suddenly get concerned about a serial killer in Las Vegas who makes miniature replicas of crime scenes. Someone isn't going to sit down to watch 2 Broke Girls and wonder where he or she can donate money to help those poor souls. And hell, someone isn't going to watch Survivor and wonder how these poor people got stranded on this island and why this devious host is making them compete to win prizes.
First Take isn't presented as a fictional comedy or drama. The producers of the show want you to take Skip Bayless, Stephen A Smith, and everyone else seriously as commentators. Yet more often than not, people find themselves smashing their palms into their faces or banging their heads off of their desks while Smith and Bayless rehash the same ridiculous arguments time and time again. First Take isn't a Saturday Night Live sketch, and it's not being presented as such. *That* is the difference between CBS News anchors not being embarrassed about the shows airing on their network in primetime and SportsCenter anchors potentially being embarrassed by First Take. Especially when shows like SportsCenter are taking on more and more elements of the "ridiculous reality show" nature of the program. ESPN has made no distinction between shows like First Take, PTI, SportsNation, Around the Horn, and SportsCenter, due to the numerous crossovers between the shows of hosts, panelists, and analysts. If Jalen Rose is on First Take arguing about something that isn't even worth discussing with Skip Bayless, is that supposed to be taken just as seriously as Rose breaking down why the Arizona Wildcats are struggling?
Skipper can't hide behind the comparison of First Take to a network sitcom or reality show because ESPN isn't presenting it as something different. They're presenting it the same way they present everything else in that genre: as a sports debate show. Maybe if First Take plugged laugh tracks into every pause of the debates, we could have a discussion about it being on a different plane of existence than everything else on ESPN.