Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on First Take, ESPN, 2014. Photo credit: ESPN

First Take is one of ESPN’s most polarizing shows, something that draws strong ratings but features such over-the-top commentary that it’s been painted as the key factor in the rise of the Worldwide Leader’s “Embrace Debate” strategy and the reason why other shows (and even other networks) keep morphing into First Take-style arguments. Critics have long blasted the show, but the response from ESPN has generally been limited. That changed this week, though, with SI’s Richard Deitsch gaining an interview with ESPN vice-president of production Marcia Keegan, who oversees First Take and several other shows. Deitsch asked plenty of questions, including some submitted by AA staff, and he published the full interview as a Q+A.

One of the most interesting responses from Keegan? She thinks First Take is only positive for ESPN’s brand: From Matt Yoder [who is also the managing editor of Awful Announcing]: How has “Embrace Debate” positively and negatively affected the ESPN brand?

Keegan: I think it has positively affected it in almost every way you can think of. Why?

Keegan: It has been great for ratings. If you told me five years ago when I first had responsibility for this that we could regularly do a 0.4 [350,000-450,000 or so viewers.] at 10:00 a.m. on ESPN2, I’d say what are you smoking? It is a great for ratings. I will not share with you the financials but it is good for financials. And I think it is good for the brand.

In one, limited sense, Keegan is quite right there. Part of the picture of ESPN as a brand is its ability to serve advertisers, and First Take is terrific on that front. It draws substantial (and demographically solid) numbers regularly, has a significantly dedicated audience, and is at least somewhat DVR-proof (#hotsportstakes need to be served hot, of course). It’s brought impressive viewership to a slot (mid-morning) and a channel that didn’t always have that. That’s an efficiency metric, and that’s a key part of many brands. Toilet cleaners, cockroach sprays and plenty of other products advertise their success rate, and that can be important in consumers’ buying decisions. Similarly, from an advertising numbers-focused approach, First Take is good for ESPN’s brand.

There’s a bigger sense of brand out there, though, and that can be particularly important when it comes to journalism. If ESPN’s chief defense of First Take is ratings, while ignoring the negatives of “Embrace Debate” and the dilemmas of making news instead of covering it, it’s a troubling sign for the network as a whole. Ratings and advertising dollars can’t be the only justification for heavily criticized programming. If that’s the case, what’s to stop ESPN from airing bottom-barrel reality shows?  (Can you imagine an ESPN version of Keeping Up With The Gronkowskis?) What’s to stop them from doing anything integral whatsoever? Was Rob Parker calling Robert Griffin III good for ESPN’s brand because ratings spiked for that 15 minute segment on the replay? According to ESPN, the answer is apparently yes.

When choosing where to get their news, consumers have almost infinite options in an Internet age, and an outlet’s brand perception matters there. That’s why so many wars have been fought on sourcing breaking news; the belief is that scoops and exclusives boost your brand in the eyes of consumers. (Interestingly enough, sourcing is something ESPN has gotten much better at recently after several controversies a while back.) It’s also why ESPN maintains programs like Outside The Lines (even if burying their timeslot, something Deitsch also touches on in his piece); being seen as a place for serious journalism can help drive people to your content on all platforms.

This is the aspect of the ESPN brand that Skip Bayless and First Take hurt, and Keegan’s “Look at the ratings” (or, if you prefer, “Scoreboard!”) misses the point. It’s not about the people who tune in to watch First Take; it’s about the people who have lesser perceptions of ESPN because it airs First Take, which can include consumers avoiding them (there’s a reason Fox Sports 1 has been so focused on being an ESPN alternative; there are plenty of people interested in alternatives to the Worldwide Leader), media outlets blasting them and even potentially athletes, coaches and executives being less willing to talk to them. The damage First Take has done to ESPN’s brand is very real and it’s concerning that the network won’t even publicly acknowledge criticism of the show, and instead hides their head in the sand.

In fact, the company’s decision to pull out of PBS’ “League Of Denial” concussion documentary may have generated more significant backlash than First Take. That was much more closely tied to ESPN’s journalistic efforts and reputation than Bayless et al, so Keegan’s defenses to Deitsch that “A lot of what we do is not journalism per se” and “Is First Take itself a journalistic show? No, not in that sense” have some merit.

Still, she also describes Bayless and Stephen A. Smith as journalists, which must have caused journalism professors around the country to do a spit take. While First Take may not be reporting, it’s not clear why it shouldn’t fall under journalistic standards for commentary pieces. Much of what First Take does comes up very short there, including in particular Bayless’ fiction about his basketball career, and that does have at least some impact on overall perceptions of ESPN’s brand. Is that hurting the bottom line at the moment? If so, it probably isn’t damaging it enough to cancel out the ratings First Take is posting. That doesn’t mean that First Take has been uniformly positive for ESPN or its overall brand, though; embracing debate does have consequences.

What’s interesting is that while Keegan’s response to how First Take impacts ESPN’s brand was all about the ratings, she cited several other elements as her vision for the show. From Deitsch’s piece (in response to a question I asked):

From Andrew Bucholtz [who runs Yahoo! Canada’s CFL blog]: What does ESPN want to see from First Take? Audience numbers? Sports points of view that aren’t expressed elsewhere? Something that inspires conversations elsewhere? What is the actual goal from the show?

Keegan: The answer to that is yes. We want to offer something different and talk about things people are talking about. We try to do it in a way our SportsCenters can’t and don’t have the freedom to, and may not want to. He’s highlighted three things I do want to do with that show.

Again, Keegan is not incorrect here, but it all depends on which sense you consider her answers in. “Points of view that aren’t expressed elsewhere” can be a positive way to bring in diverse perspectives, or they can be “points of view that only Skip Bayless would seriously argue.” “Something that inspires conversations elsewhere” can be “Hey, did you read that great ESPN feature on the problems with concussion treatment?”, or it can be “Man, can you believe what that idiot Stephen A. Smith said now?” There’s certainly a place for shows offering unique sports commentary that creates a cultural buzz, but while First Take does that in one sense, there are other places that do it in a far more brand-enhancing way.

Consider, for example, John Oliver’s destruction of FIFA on HBO. The two shows aren’t directly comparable, of course; it’s ESPN2 versus HBO, daily versus weekly and sports only versus a news show that happens to weigh in on sports. Still, if one’s looking to build an organizational brand on unique, buzzworthy sports takes, hiring insightful commentators like Oliver seems like a way to do that.

If one’s looking to enhance their brand with specific advertisers and pull in a loyal audience who will come for the hot sports take of the day, that’s how you get First Take. The debate has been embraced, and ESPN’s not backing down from it. The question is if the ratings bump from First Take will outweigh the other damage it causes to the company’s brand in the long term.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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