The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday published a well-sourced look at the “political divide” inside ESPN, portraying the company as desperate to move past the claim that it possesses a “liberal bias.” Much of the drama in the piece, unsurprisingly, surrounded SC6, the short-lived SportsCenter show featuring Jemele Hill and Michael Smith that was often accused of wading into politics and quickly picked up the derisive nickname “WokeCenter.”
Per THR’s Marisa Guthrie, ESPN executive VP Norby Williamson actively celebrated when Hill quit the show, while VP of content Dave Roberts, who is African American, dinged the show as “too black.”
When Hill, who became a lightning rod with critics dubbing the show “WokeCenter,” left in February, Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vp and executive editor of studio production, quipped in front of a room full of people: “One down, one to go.” Four ESPN employees tell THR that Dave Roberts, ESPN’s vp content, was heard characterizing the show as “too black.” (Through a spokesperson, Roberts, who is African-American, vehemently denies saying this.)
Roberts’ alleged quote was followed by an anonymous exec offering something closer to ESPN’s party line.
“It’s not that they were too woke, or too black, the problem was they were too new,” says a veteran senior executive. “They were too unfamiliar to the 6 p.m. audience. From the second they started they were up against internal crap, the traditionalists shitting on them, and they faced harsh criticism externally. It was panic from moment one. And the network didn’t do a good job of defending and supporting them.”
It’s no secret that ESPN executives grew wary of the SC6 model over the show’s final months. Williamson told Awful Announcing in March that the show “got away from us a bit with Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele,” explaining that he wanted the 6 p.m. show to return to its news-and-highlights roots. Weeks after Hill left SC6, ESPN pulled Smith off the program, which is now hosted by the relatively uncontroversial (on air, at least) duo of Sage Steele and Kevin Neghandi.
Still, Roberts’ reported comment that SC6 was “too black” supports the popular idea that much of the backlash to the show was motivated by resentment toward the hosts. Hill herself told AA last year that she wondered whether accusations of liberal bias at ESPN had to do with the race and gender of the people on air.
“I notice those accusations seem to become more intense as you’ve seen more people of color, more women, more diversity in our network in very key positions,” Hill said. “Some people, when they accuse us of that, they’re really saying that ESPN has become this liberal network because they’re promoting more black people and more people of color.”
Now, Hill is a columnist for The Undefeated, Smith has been largely invisible for months, the 6 p.m. SportsCenter is a highlight show with no hint of political bent, and ESPN is kinda–sorta–maybe taking shots at the previous hosts in press releases. So it seems that Roberts and Williamson have very much gotten their way.