SBD/July 31, 2013/Media

ESPN Ombudsman Talks Olbermann, Silver Joining Net, "Nine For IX" Broadcast



Lipsyte said ESPN's scheduling of "Let Them Wear Towels" was confusing
ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in his most recent column wrote the net scheduling the debut of the "splendid" "Nine for IX" documentary "Let Them Wear Towels" against Fox' broadcast of the MLB All-Star Game was "one of several confusing messages by ESPN in July." ESPN Exec VP/Programming Norby Williamson said that the Tuesday night airing was "part of ESPN’s programming plan to create a consistent schedule to showcase the Nine for IX documentaries throughout the summer." Williamson said, "It was not counterprogramming. It was part of a long-term strategy to create a flight for the marketing of quality shows. ... We wanted a window, almost appointment TV, for documentaries throughout the year. And Tuesday night was the night least likely to have a game." Lipsyte wrote, "I like the idea of 'classy Tuesday,' of a date with quality, but it makes me uneasy, too. ... The word 'marginalizing' still comes to mind." Meanwhile, Lipsyte wrote The ESPYs "offer another message, much like the annual White House Correspondents' dinner: We’re all in this together." It is "fine for news executives, columnists and anchors to party with politicians and lobbyists, to get to know them as human beings, just as it is fine for ESPN executives, columnists and anchors, to party with athletes." But the "concern ... is that viewers might be getting the idea that they are the rubes at these circuses, that the jocks and the pols who show up can expect, in return, access and favors from the media." This "might be why the audience ... sometimes wonders whether ESPN is protecting a pal." It is "hard not to get the impression that certain athletes, like certain politicians, get a pass because members of the media hobnobbed with them and expect to do so again."

WALKING THROUGH THAT DOOR: Lipsyte discussed the recent high-profile hirings by ESPN of Keith Olbermann and Nate Silver. While responses to Olbermann’s return were "predominantly political," Williamson and other ESPN execs "will be tracking age demographics" after Olbermann's self-titled show debuts on ESPN2 Aug. 26. Williamson noted that Olbermann left ESPN 16 years ago, which "means there are viewers who don’t remember when he and Dan Patrick were the reigning stars of 'SportsCenter.'" Meanwhile, watching the Silver hire play out "should be fascinating." Lipsyte: "Will Silver extend the reach of ESPN into politics, weather, education, you name it? Will the Silver site become a duchy within the ESPN kingdom? Will it affect other franchise players?" The two moves "didn’t happen in a Bristol bubble," as Fox is debuting FS1 on Aug. 17. That is the "first potentially serious challenger to ESPN’s hegemony." These will be "interesting times for ESPN viewers, readers and listeners, not to mention the company’s employees" (, 7/30).

SILVER LINING: Silver participated in an online chat at on Monday and wrote he plans to "hire people (whether as full-timers or freelancers) devoted to politics/elections, sports (preferably people who can cover several different sports as opposed to just one), and economics." There might be a couple of people "who can flex between different categories, e.g. sports and politics." Silver: "We'll have people who specialize in sports, I'm sure, as opposed to politics or economics or culture. But I'm not sure that we'll have people who specialize only in (say) baseball or golf, as opposed to sports more broadly." Silver also wrote the "goal is perhaps to have a site where we're publishing 3-4 articles per weekday, plus perhaps some blogs and other quick-hit type stuff." Silver also wrote when he was "negotiating with ESPN, they said 'yes' to an awful lot of things, in terms of our vision for the site." But the "one thing they were firm about is that they had to buy the 538 brand name and the URL." The "basic reason is that they're going to be investing lots of additional resources into 538, and no well-run business is going to be willing to do that and then have the brand yanked away from them at the end of the contract." So it was a "question of either keeping 538 as is (essentially a 2-3 person operation) and perhaps keeping the trade name -- or doing something bigger and bolder and more entrepreneurial, but also selling the 538 name as part of the package" (, 7/29).
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