There’s been a lot of chatter about new ESPN morning show Get Up‘s less-than-stellar opening ratings, which is certainly deserved given how much ESPN has invested in that show with hosting salaries (estimated at a combined $14.5 million for co-hosts Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle, and Jalen Rose alone), new production facilities, breaking up and/or relocating existing shows, promotions, and more.
But a more interesting discussion than just “the ratings haven’t been as good as ESPN hoped” can come from analyzing factors that may have led to those ratings being bad, and the promotional strategy in particular is worth consideration. ESPN has been constantly promoting this show for over a year, and that long-running promotion may have created some problems for it.
Perhaps especially notable is the criticism Get Up has taken for a supposedly “woke” politically-liberal perspective from sites like Outkick The Coverage and Breitbart, which fits into those sites’ larger criticisms of ESPN as “too liberal” and “too political.” Criticism of ESPN from those corners is to be expected, but it’s interesting that Get Up has become a particular target for them, especially as the WokeCenter epithets don’t seem to really align with the sports-focused show that’s actually airing so far, or with Greenberg’s prior-to-launch comments that it would be “exclusively sports” and “all things to all sports fans.”
It’s worth looking at how that came to be, much of which seems to have been spawned by January comments from producer Bill Wolff at the Television Critics of America tour and a March “ESPN Plans to Wake Up Woke With New Morning Show” headline from a The Hollywood Reporter piece.
That THR piece in particular appears to really have boosted the “woke” narrative, but even its subhead sort of disputed that, saying “The network’s ‘Get Up!’ — hosted by Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose — will stick to sports (mostly).” It included lines like “Wolff and the show’s hosts stress that the show’s top mandate is to cover sports as the network pivots away from a broader cultural focus cultivated by former president John Skipper.” And its main discussion of anything political was the following two paragraphs:
Still, “when players take a knee, then it deserves coverage and conversation,” notes Wolff, referring to NFL players’ national anthem protests. “If something political makes itself part of our world, we are dishonest and inauthentic if we don’t discuss it.”
Rose notes that he has “never been muzzled in any way” during his decade at ESPN, he says: “I appreciate the fact that I’m able to talk about more than what happened in last night’s NBA game. And I think fans appreciate that. When our president tweets about sports, now he’s fair game.”
That’s essentially saying that the show would cover politics only if and when they directly intersected with sports, and that’s really been ESPN’s larger approach. But the “woke” narrative really took flight after that THR headline, and Greenberg got mad about it in an interview with Michael McCarthy of The Sporting News:
“I can tell you I was on that call, I was in that interview. What Jalen said was, “If the president tweets something about sports while we’re on the air, then we will talk about it.” Somehow that became a headline that we’re going to be a “woke” talk show. I don’t even know what that means, much less how it relates to what we were talking about. That, in my opinion, was a very misleading headline relative to the intention of the show. . . . If you read the article, we talk at great length about how our plan is to do a sports show. That is 100 percent what we are going to do.”
But there’s an argument that the THR piece in particular and the Get Up politics discussion in general came up not because of any conspiracy, but because of ESPN’s overall approach to promoting this show. There are several factors going on there. For one, there was an insanely long lead-up to Get Up, which was first reported in January 2017 and officially announced in upfronts that May with a January 1, 2018 premiere date, which was then moved to this week thanks to studio construction delays. That’s almost 15 months between initially-reported discussions and the launch of the show.
Compare that to FS1’s First Things First, a morning show in a similar timeslot (6 to 9 a.m. ET versus 7 to 10) that was announced in May 2017 (also at upfronts) and launched in September. Yes, there were discussions about a FS1 morning show before that, and perhaps ESPN’s morning show drew more reporting at an earlier stage thanks to the larger focus on that network (plus the implications for Mike and Mike), but ESPN certainly dragged out the timeline from when people first heard about Greenberg hosting a morning show to when it actually started.
Oh, and it should be noted that First Things First is arguably more “woke” than Get Up, with a co-host in Nick Wright who’s regularly interested in talking about larger societal issues. But that doesn’t really fit a convenient narrative about FS1, and FS1 didn’t spend endless time talking about everything First Things First would and wouldn’t be before actually launching it.
Some of the Get Up delay may have been unavoidable thanks to the construction, but some of it certainly could have been sped up. But the ESPN approach with many new shows has been to go through countless runthroughs and send the hosts on a publicity blitz before actually launching, even if that hasn’t taken quite as long in most cases (for example, SC6 was announced in October 2016, with the media blitz happening in January and February 2017 and the show launching in February 2017). And Get Up in particular perhaps illustrates the pitfalls of that.
What Get Up is actually trying for doesn’t appear to be all that complicated. It’s a sports-focused morning talk show, or the cross-section of SportsCenter and Today. (Or Good Morning America, if we’re going for Disney corporate synergy.) But you can’t get a year-plus worth of media coverage out of just that sentence. And the more you have people talk about what it will be, especially in an abstract sense rather than on specific coverage decisions, the more articles covering it will focus on what’s newsworthy; what’s new, what’s different, what ties into the larger ESPN discussion.
That’s how you get “Wake up woke” as a headline, because nothing else in that article was at all interesting or anything that hadn’t been said a million times before. (And even the “we’ll talk politics if they come up” comments had been made before, at TCA months earlier.) Was it perfectly reflective of the story? No, as the subhead indicates, and THR can take some criticism for that.
But when you’re trying to pump up what’s really a very simple concept for over a year, the media coverage is eventually going to shift to any small details that are even remotely new or interesting, so ESPN’s overall promotional strategy is at least partly to blame there.
And that comes from another central issue with this show and with its promotion. The show is largely focused on Greenberg; he makes the biggest salary (reportedly $6.5 million annually, one of the highest salaries at ESPN), he’s been associated with it the longest, and it was even described as “Greenberg and Friends” in some of the initial reports (even though he’s personally pushed back on that).
But Greenberg is not an interesting personality, or one who says anything newsworthy; Mike and Mike was rightly called “Mickey and Mickey In The Morning” by Colin Cowherd, as its whole point was a safe, non-controversial show that ESPN could book celebrities on. Ty Duffy’s May 2017 description of him following the Get Up announcement was bang on:
Greenberg, in many ways, is a holdover from a previous iteration of ESPN. He’s the straight man who is super-enthusiastic about sports. He’s a relentless professional. He’s remarkably non-incendiary. He’s almost the antithesis of a take artiste. Is he a natural draw for target demographic viewers? Does he draw an audience away from Trey Wingo replacing him on basically the same radio show?
From the ESPN description, the show sounds a lot like the “Mike & Mike” morphing into “Sports GMA” vision ESPN presented in 2015, before nixing it. One could see Greenberg slotting seamlessly into a George Stephanopoulos role, down to the side part.
ESPN knows what they have in Greenberg, and some people like him, and that’s fair enough. But much of the discussion of this show hasn’t been about anything Greenberg has said, but rather about co-hosts Beadle and Rose, both of whom are significantly more outspoken and who actually say newsworthy things from time to time. Or about Wolff, who’s also actually offered some substantive comments.
That further enhances things like the “woke” discussion and has those elements portrayed more extensively than they’ll actually be on the show, because the comments about them are actually notable and headline-worthy.
But much of this show is non-controversial Greenberg talking non-controversially about sports, and it’s impossible to hype that up. That’s especially if you’re trying to do so for a span of over a year, and if you’re trying to do so through outside media that actually want to produce articles with interesting news people want to read. So the smaller elements that are actually worth discussion get play that’s outsized relative to their on-air presence.
It’s also notable that even ESPN’s own promotions (which run constantly on their other shows) have said next to nothing about what Get Up actually is, choosing instead to feature a talking coffee bag and a baby, both making the point that “This is on early in the morning!”
As our Ben Koo pointed out, c’mon, man:
ESPN has always thrived at promos but Get Up! ones are imo missing the mark big time (talking coffee bag and a talking baby). Hosts have millions of fans and there is no audio of them at all. They’re barely in either commercial.https://t.co/j0o74PhOerhttps://t.co/GeGAws9dai
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) April 6, 2018
Beyond the poor promotional decisions, the amount of promotion ESPN has tried to apply to this show can also be questioned. They’ve been talking about it for over a year, and in doing so, have heaped way too many expectations on it and turned many off just with the constant stream of mentions. Our Phillip Bupp made a good point that it’s comparable to Tebowmania; when Tim Tebow is discussed for what he actually was/is (inaccurate NFL starter, brief NFL backup, old and below-average minor league baseball player), that’s one thing. But when he’s anointed as Skip Bayless’ personal hero or described with “no player has been so unnecessarily criticized in our generation,”that bugs a whole lot of people.
Similarly, if ESPN hadn’t overthought this and had just said “We’re doing SportsCenter meets GMA with Greeny, Beadle, and Jalen,” done a few selected media interviews, then rolled it out in a timely fashion with some promos actually featuring the hosts, it’s easy to imagine it going over a lot better. But the world has been hearing about Get Up for over a year, and many were sick of it long before the show ever aired.
It’s hard to picture that this was ever worthy of the “savior of ESPN” angles it sometimes received. And that prolonged run-up and the impossibility of saying anything interesting about Greenberg meant that the later media coverage was always going to shift to discussable topics even if they were more marginal parts of the show, and that’s how you get a WokeCenter narrative.
Get Up may wind up being fine. Thursday’s numbers were better than SportsCenter in that slot a year ago (impressive considering that ESPN has lost over a million subscribers in that span), and the show will probably improve as it goes and figure out what works for it, and if it produces something good, viewers may find it.
Will that be worth what ESPN’s paying for this, both in host salaries and in the other programming they’ve smashed up to put this together? We’ll see. But there’s an argument to be made that their approach to hyping this up hasn’t helped at all, and that it’s actually caused some problems for Get Up so far.