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August 27, 2014

TV 101: How ESPN controls the world and what the other networks can learn from it

by Jay Black, posted Jul 3rd 2009 11:04AM
ESPN is like the borg, only with more bald people.You're about to become a soccer fan.

I know you don't believe me. Hell, I'm not sure I believe me. After all, America has resisted soccer for going on 150 years. Crapping on soccer ranks right up there with eating horrible chain-restaurant food and producing slobs-versus-snobs camp movies as a quality that define us as Americans.

Further, you've heard this claim before: the "Grab your shin guards, soccer is about to be a hit in the US of A!" column has been written approximately 2.8 million times since the early '70s. Every time a new soccer league starts in this country, everyone rushes to be the first to write that America is about to become Uruguay North.

And yet, those leagues invariably crash and burn, WNBA-style. So what makes this time any different? Why will we finally care about something that we've gone out of our way to not care about for so long? What force is powerful enough to make that happen?

The most powerful force in the universe: ESPN.

Last week, ESPN gobbled up the rights to air the Premier League in England and Ireland. The Premier League is the top soccer division in England and is, arguably, the top soccer league in the world. ESPN acquiring those rights was really big news around the globe.

Well, except in America because we care more about Amateur Roller Hockey than we do about soccer.

But ESPN starting a relationship with the Premier League has an important implication for the American sports fan. See, in 2010 the American rights to the Premier League become available and the rumor is that ESPN is very interested in acquiring them. Right now, those rights are split between Fox and a company called Setanta Sports.

You can find the Fox Soccer Channel right around channel 9000 on your cable box, next to Versus and that religious channel that keeps showing Bibleman reruns. Setanta, to the best of my knowledge, is a mythological channel that only appears once every 100 years, like Brigadoon.

If ESPN becomes a player in that game -- and purchasing the English rights certainly makes it seem like they are -- the story of soccer in America changes dramatically. First, you'll be able to find the matches on TV, always an important step towards actually watching them. Second, and far more importantly, ESPN will bring the entire weight of their promotional machine to bear.

If that happens, you might as well write it on a golden record and save it in an underground vault: America will embrace soccer.

ESPN's promotional machine is unstoppable. It's like Mystery, the noted d-bag pick-up artist: you know what he's doing, you understand how transparent his desires are, and you find yourself laughing at the lengths he'll go to ... and yet, there you are in his bed the next morning with nothing but a pair of aviator goggles and a soul full of shame to show for it.

Once ESPN decides you're going to like something, you will like it. Trust me on this. If they make the investment for the Premier League in America, I give it three years before soccer becomes a part of our daily conversation. It'll never replace football or baseball or the NBA, but it's a fair bet we'll see that fourth slot filled with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Samuel Eto'o.

The power of ESPN's marketing lies in the fact that they disguise their advertisements as "news." ESPN doesn't tell you to watch an event, they have their network report on that event so much, you can't help but want to watch it.

Discussion shows are king at ESPN: when the network isn't showing sports, they're airing shows with guys shouting at each other about sports. Those shows are designed to mimic the way you talk with your friends. Pardon the Interruption, for all its bells and whistles, is basically just like two guys talking sports at your local bar.

The insidious and brilliant thing about this approach is that while it appears that they're reacting to the news of the day, what they're really doing is creating the news. Their editorial decisions go a long way toward defining what the American sports fan cares about. If Michael and Tony are talking about it, it must be important.

Multiply that over the great pulsating entity that is ESPN and you begin to see just how much of our sports culture is decided by the company. ESPN is massive: all the shouting shows, SportsCenter, the radio network, the web site, and the columnists. I imagine Bristol to look less like a campus of TV studios and more like the giant alien heart at the end of Contra, gooey and all-powerful.

All it takes is one editorial memo to quiver down the line and tomorrow, soccer is important in America. You'll watch it, you'll talk about it, you'll be interested in it.

That ESPN's power and reach will be able to create an interest in soccer isn't the question. The real question is this: why don't more networks take the same approach that ESPN does?

As it stands now, the model for creating awareness and buzz for a traditional scripted show is to hit you over the head with commercials, send the stars of the show onto the talk shows, and then pray for the best. Sometimes, if a network is feeling particularly clever, they might hamhand the stars into the other programming:

Oh, look, it's the star of our new show about a doctor/lawyer/cop who plays by his own rules while dealing with a drug addiction/failing marriage/inverted nipples! Isn't it convenient he's here to watch American Idol the same night his show is debuting on this network?! Golly!

That's about it as far as creative advertising goes.

By following the ESPN model, the networks can do a better job of promoting their shows, while, at the same time, creating a new kind of content. Instead of barraging us with advertising, the networks ought to create a series of shows devoted to the discussion, from a fan's perspective, of the happenings of their flagship programs. These shows would be valuable to the producers because they'd build buzz for the major revenue sources, but would also be valuable to us because they'd give us something we've never really had before: a televised validation of our fandom.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean gossip, I mean intelligent discussion. Imagine a PTI-style show devoted to the day's TV news. Did something happen last night on Lost that might be a game changer? Let's discuss it. Has 24 finally jumped the shark? Our panel has the answer. Did the ending of BSG make you want to jump out of a plate glass window? We have a television expert and a plate glass window manufacturer here to give you the tips you need.

The networks want to create water cooler moments. What ESPN has taught us is that you can create the water cooler itself.

We would benefit from this too.

Don't tell me you wouldn't be very interested in watching a show devoted to discussing TV with the same verve and vigor as the average ESPN show. You'd be riveted if a conversation with Matthew Fox wasn't some Leno style bore-fest about a "funny" personal story that no one cares about but was, instead, a fan-centered discussion of what was going on in his show. Go ahead, try to make me believe you wouldn't watch a half hour of some TV host grilling a FOX executive for canceling the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

TV fans are just as devoted (and, some would say, judging from some of the comments I've gotten over the years, just as pathological) as their sports counterparts. If ESPN can fill up 24 hours a day of programming over something like nine hundred channels, it's easy to imagine NBC doing the same.

I don't mind having my opinion manipulated by editorial decisions if the trade-off I get in return is an entertaining couple of hours devoted to analyzing TV.

And if the networks start filling their talking-heads shows with the ranks of TV reporters and bloggers, like ESPN did when it started expanding, don't think I would be so devoted to the high art of opinion-based blogging to turn down a TV offer. No, I don't live in an ivory tower. If TV came a-calling, I would reluctantly give up my TV-blogger salary of a handful of stale Saltines (a big handful) and reluctantly make the transition to being an on-air personality.

It's the least I could do.

(Jay Black is a writer and comedian who is best known for his role as "Pea Soup Supervisor" in the fan-created shot-for-shot remake of the international hit, Osmosis Jones. For more information about Jay or to catch one of his live shows, check out his website www.jayblackcomedy.com.)

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izikavazo

I've never understood why Soccer hasn't caught on in the States. In Canada it's pretty big deal, but we aren't big enough to sustain any huge leagues.

July 06 2009 at 7:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mac

Soccer will never be big in this country simply because you can't show commercials!

July 03 2009 at 7:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brett Alan

When has ESPN ever popularized ANYTHING, other than poker? Bevo mentions Arena football; they've also had the WNBA for some time. What has ESPN done for that? For that matter, they've had MLS soccer for over a decade, and they've also been carrying the major international competitions.

I think this supposed massive power of ESPN is a figment of your imagination.

July 03 2009 at 6:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Brett Alan's comment
jayblack

I'll concede you the WNBA, though I think there's a good argument to be made that ESPN's carrying that league was a favor to Stern who continues to believe in it like he was Eric Gibb from the Boy Who Could Fly, despite it being obvious to everyone that it's a failure. ESPN never had its heart into the WNBA.

Further, I think that the national soccer tournaments in recent years have illustrated precisely my point -- ESPN can make something out of nothing. When was the last time you cared about the Confederations Cup? For that matter, up until last Sunday did you even _know_ what the Confederations Cup was? And yet, at least in my circle of friends, it was discussed like it was a (relatively) big sporting event. I'd put this at the feet of ESPN's power.

(I'd also say that ESPN has been doing an okay job pushing NASCAR on the rest of the country. Again, not that I'd call myself a massive fan, but as a casual-to-serious sports fan, I'm at least aware of the big names in the sport and what's going on each year during the chase for the cup.)

But I'm open to being wrong. I love vigorous debate. Since getting married it's really the only place where I get a vigorous anything anymore.

July 03 2009 at 6:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1iPete

I agree that the ESPN marketing machine clearly will make a difference in accessability in the US but you are ignoring a big factor in what will be a rise in the sport's popularity here (and the La Liga acquisition). The fastest rising demographic group in the US is Hispanic and that means football/soccer fans and more of them as the years go by.

July 03 2009 at 4:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
StillBashr

Wow Jay... you're the single most intelligent person on TVSquad. This mix of both soccer insight and promotional aspects and future outlook is so brilliant it hurts my face because I can't stop grinning.

You are so spot on with this I, the guy who usually has no problem to pick something apart he has insight into, can't add anything.

My father played in the German Bundesliga in the late 70s and 80s, the time when Beckenbauer came over to New York. It's just great to see that there are people over there who can embrace something, get acquainted with it, and write brilliantly about it. Kudos!

July 03 2009 at 4:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brainfish

ESPN along with Sky (Fox) have also acquired the rights to the Scottish Premier League games. Wait until you see an Old Firm game :)

July 03 2009 at 2:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ac

I've liked playing soccer, found it somewhat enjoyable to watch, and yet I have no damn clue what channel its on so how can I embrace it. I had someone say how much they love to watch Manchester United games yet he never tells me what damn channel its on. Must be on that mythical Setanta channel.

However that said just because ESPN shows it means it will be loved: While hockey and golf are not as unpopular as soccer, they are still pretty unpopular for stuff advertised by ESPN by your logic. Or maybe its just me who can't get into either.

July 03 2009 at 12:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ac's comment
Kyle

ESPN hasn't shown a hockey game since the lockout five or so years ago. And it has dropped in popularity significantly.

Uh....Golf is HUGE. Where have you been? Tiger Woods makes $90M/yr in sponsorships alone. And the rest of the PGA isn't hurting for money either.

I know a lot of west coasters who are CONVINCED the Pac10 doesn't get the national respect (outside of USC) specifically because their tv contract is with Fox Sports instead of ESPN.

July 03 2009 at 9:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michael

Zilp: The game is also called soccer in Australia and New Zealnd. Why are jackasses like this guy not banned from commenting?

As to the observation that ESPN will some how makes us all soccer fans, what about Arena Football League? The network bought a stake in the league, beamed the games in prime time, showed highlights on Sports Center, ran scores on the ticker, and even had those two insufferable ass clowns, Mike & Mike, talk about it nonstop. What happened?

A year later, the Arena Football League suspended operations. Now, what was the logic of the argument regarding ESPN and SOCCER?

July 03 2009 at 12:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to michael's comment
jayblack

I'll give you two reasons why it'll be different with soccer than the arena league:

1. Americans are fully aware when they're being served a second hand product. They resist anything but the best -- this is why American soccer leagues fail with such regularity . It's also why we had trouble with the AFL.

2. The AFL was already on shaky financial ground, independent of ESPN's influence. The AFL suspended operations about four seconds after the recession hit because the ESPN money wasn't enough to offset razor thin profit margins dependent on ticket and merch sales. It would take an extinction level meteor strike to suspend play for the Premier League, and even then I still think Britain would find a way to play.

Both of those things said, I still think that ESPN helped tremendously in establishing the AFL as a real sport and not some loopy cousin of American Football. Had it been given enough time and had the AFL been more financially stable to begin with, I fully believe that the three year timetable I mentioned in the article would have been in effect: i.e. the AFL would be in the daily conversation of the average sports fan.

As a counter-example, look what happened to the NHL when it went off of ESPN. Except for a brief blip of interest in the thrilling seven game Stanley Cup final this year, most people only know about hockey as a whispered legend, supposedly played by our brothers to the north but never actually witnessed in this country.

July 03 2009 at 12:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Howard

And what about the WNBA? Despite the article talking about leagues crashing and burning WNBA style, that league is still going, but hasn't gained any great level of popularity due to its affiliation with and promotion by ESPN.

July 13 2009 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Edward

Doesn't E! sort of do it with Talk Soup? MTV used to do it. When Doctor Who airs in England, BBC has a show immediately after going behind scenes.

I turn to After the Catch after each episode of Deadliest Catch. I agree wholeheartedly!

July 03 2009 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Edward's comment
RobynM

Along with Doctor Who Confidential, Torchwood also has Torchwood Declassified.

Big Brother UK has had at least a couple let's-discuss programmes as well.

I think a show based on discussion of scripted programming could work - what does x mean on Lost, how does the latest death affect Harper's Island, is The Corporation deliberately siccing people on Michael Westen - the list is practically endless. It doesn't even have to have the snarky tone we all know and love on The Soup.

July 03 2009 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rich

You forgot to mention that ESPN in the US has acquired the rights to show La Liga games, which will be on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.

July 03 2009 at 11:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Rich's comment
jayblack

You're right, and with Kaka and Ronaldo just transferred to Real Madrid, interest has probably never been higher in the league. I held off on mentioning that because from what I understand, most of the games will be tape delayed when they appear on ESPN. I couldn't shake the feeling that the La Liga purchase was more of an experiment to test the waters before going after the Premier League.

July 03 2009 at 12:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Edward

Tape delay? That sucks. Why not show the games live on ESPN/ESPN2 over in the US? As if anyone would be sad to miss hour 6 of Sportscenter or Best of Mike and Mike.

July 03 2009 at 5:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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