Facing gravest threat in more than four decades of broadcasting, ESPN must chart path forward in era of worldwide pandemic that’s forcing delays, suspensions and outright cancellations of college and professional sports — its programming bread and butter. What’s a network to do? Get creative. Bring back the legends. Go old school. And pray to God the kids go for it.
March 17, 2020
By Andrew Squibley and Arthur Bushwhacker, These Statements Have Not Been Evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration
“Democracy Dies in Darkness…Getting a Little Cloudy Out There, America?”
BRISTOL, CT (Rueters) — With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting daily life across the country and reaching far into the sports world — forcing the shutdown of virtually all games and matches from coast to coast — ESPN managers are mining television’s archives and resurrecting its heroes, and pursuing other strategies, to retain fickle viewers, they told Rueters in an exclusive interview.
Cable and satellite dish “cord-cutting has made it tough enough to keep our audience,” complained one network programmer. “But without at least college and professional sports, we’ve got nothing.”
The answer — if there is one that can save ESPN from gameless oblivion — could be a combination of popular 1960s sports features, aided by long silenced but familiar voices of the broadcast booth, plus quirky British competitions and even something to gin up the kids’ interest in Las Vegas.
“We’ll stop at nothing to keep this franchise on the air,” one manager said on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized — or all that helpful, in reality — to speak to Rueters.
“HOLY COW!” — “WHOA, NELLY!” — “WHAT’S THIS BUTTON DO?“
Among network planners’ riskiest moves in the new era of “pandemic programming,” they said, was bringing back legendary talents that haven’t been heard or seen in decades.
Announcers Harry Caray and Keith Jackson and producer Roone Arledge, who launched “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” in the early 1960s, were top of ESPN’s list of returning talent, it turns out, even though each is a bit rusty and dusty.
“We’ve got hold of some old Cubs and Cardinals baseball games. Can’t you imagine the impact of Harry broadcasting those games as if they were being played today?” a network planner said.
“Keith Jackson. Synonymous with college football. Can’t you just hear him talking up Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes?” said the planner. “And Roone Arledge? Who better to help us get through this challenge than the man who invented instant replay?”
ROCKIN’ TO THE OLDIES
Network planners are looking back in time to resurrect some of the most intriguing sports programming of the 20th Century. Among their choices for hooking an audience of millennial sports fans: Old-time wrestling (“when fake was really fake,” one director told Rueters) and “Bowling for Dollars.” Bowling is little known to the current generation of 18-to-34-year-olds, a key television demographic, an ESPN manger said. “We think it has potential outside the traditional ethnic communities, you know, Polish, Italian and Ukrainian. We’re hoping the Mexicans will like it.”
During the heyday of Arnold Palmer, the early 1960s, the PGA tour was fledgling, but some of the competition was compelling. The “Big Three” of the tour, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Palmer, saved the sport from oblivion. They were aided by an innovative marketing approach: staged matches between some of the best known players of the day broadcast in a weekly presentation called “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.”
ESPN has its eye on rebroadcasting some of the most engaging matches with a contemporary flair, adding color commentary by famed after-dinner speaker Andrew “Mr. 150” Nibley (or as he’s known throughout Europe, “Mr. 137”).
A network spokesman said, “We know Nibley will be great. He’s played many of the courses that Shell featured 50-plus years ago and, based on his play, he got to see virtually every tree, bunker and out-of-bounds on every hole.”
“WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS” – SORT OF
Not all hours can be filled with re-runs of once-popular American sporting events, ESPN programmers told Rueters. “We’ve had to look beyond our borders, keeping in mind the events we wanted to feature should be in English.”
Enter Art-Bob, a six-year-old border collie with early-onset dementia who’s still reigning champion of the East Watford Sheepdog Field Trials north of London. “We’re not sure what keeps Art-Bob motivated,” an ESPN researcher told Rueters, “Maybe he thinks the sheep are treats — or immigrants. Either way, he goes after them. We’ll tell Americans to imagine Art-Bob chasing Mexicans. At least Trump’s crowd will watch.”
And then there’s cricket. “The head of cricket leagues around the world would love to expose American audiences to the best of cricket,” an ESPN producer told Rueters. But, he added, “Who the fuck understands it?”
“I think we’d be better off with that Scottish competition, carrying your wife through an obstacle course without dropping her on her head — or ass. Now that’s something Americans can understand,” the network producer said.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT….
Without one of its most popular programs, the “World Series of Poker,” the network has had to scramble for a substitute that would provide the likes of former journalist Norman Chad and other hard-core gamblers the kind of thrills and surprises they craved from watching WSOP competition. And the marketing kids in Bristol think they have the answer: The “Junior World Series of Poker,” featuring the next generation of Phil Iveys and Qui Nguyens. “They’re cute, adorable and will steal your heart — and your chips,” the network spokesman said. “Coronavirus has really got us thinking outside the box.”
But will America’s mothers thank them?