In a Flyover State: Bad News for Bristol BashersThose interested less in digesting tabloid fare and more in the history of the television business can find plenty to be satisfied with the new ESPN book. 6/06/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
People whose hobbies include trying to trash ESPN for sport had to be pretty
disappointed when the long-awaited book about the Bristol Behemoth finally came out. Because after reading ‘Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside
the World of ESPN’ by Jim Miller and Tom Shales, The Worldwide Leader really doesn’t come away looking that bad in
the grand scheme of things.
As excerpts of the book drizzled out leading
up to its recent release date, ESPN-bashers
licked their lips over the coming tales of
debauchery, internal infighting and countless
scandals. And while there was plenty of
rehashing of well-known stories of staffers
behaving badly, as a whole the behavior is unremarkable
when put in perspective.
The most tabloid-friendly of the
stories were simple first-person
retellings of previously reported
events, ranging from anchors getting
in trouble for assorted sexual
harassment-type issues to allegations
of gambling and even prostitution
in the early days of the
But put it in the context of the
culture of working in sports (as I
used to) and the fact that the company
has been around for 30 years,
what place doesn’t have skeletons
after three decades? Now toss in the
fact that it is made up (like every
media company) of many massive egos and
was born to a start-up mentality, and you
have a cauldron for shenanigans.
The tales of prostitution didn’t seem that
crazy compared to what went on anywhere
in certain times, and the stories of gambling
made me laugh about fond memories. When
I worked for a pro sports team once, we used
to get so bored flying around the country or
the world most of the year that we would sit
in the back of the plane and literally bet on
how long a passenger entering the bathroom
was going to be in the can.
The best result was the time a guy didn’t
come out for about 30 minutes and we finally
told the flight attendant because we were
worried he had died. The flight attendant of
course asked us how we knew he was in there
so long. No one had the heart to say we knew
because Grossman had 20 bucks at 3-1 odds he was going to be in longer than 15 minutes
because he looked especially gassy.
That said, as someone who now works in
the TV business, there were still some interesting
take-aways for me. One of them was a
reminder of the size of the egos of people like
Jim Gray, who lacked the irony gene when he
said in the book he once did an interview that
put ESPN on the map as a news-gathering organization.
The punch line, of course, being
that Gray also did the interview with LeBron
James years later that trashed said reputation.
Former ESPN programming whiz Mark
Shapiro also comes across as in no need of
a confidence boost, though I actually always
enjoyed my dealings with him when he was
at the network. And Chris Berman predictably
has a couple of moments of incredibly
inflated self-worth, though I find those easier
to stomach while recalling that he patiently
sat for an interview with me at last year’s MLB
All-Star Game and talked about why so many
people rip him all the time.
For business geeks like me, there is great
inside-baseball chatter on the starting up
of the network, the decision to name every
brand extension they did ESPN-something
(an idea that actually came from cable operators),
the recent NFL TV deals and the failed
ESPN mobile phone experiment.
If you are into programming, it’s fun to hear
first-hand accounts of the genesis of one of
the best and most landscape-changing television
shows launched on any network in recent
years, Pardon the Interruption (and conversely,
its equally painful offspring, Around
The biggest downside of the book is that
it is just way too long, at something like 750
pages. When I heard how long it was, I actually
just downloaded it on my iPad to avoid
schlepping that brick around.
But if, like me, you don’t care about the
played-out details of the Sean Salisbury or
Harold Reynolds flare-ups, or an endless
amount of ink devoted to Tony
Kornheiser, the book is actually organized
for easy skimability.
And if you love media rivalries,
there is plenty for you to pick over.
There are lots of internal shots fired
within ESPN, but also ample mortars
delivered from the outside. Perhaps
the most outspoken voice in the book
is former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol,
who compared much of ESPN’s
quality to a local cable operation,
ironically in an interview done before
a company actually born out of a local
cable operation decided to make
Ebersol an offer they knew he would refuse.
For many, trashing ESPN is a sport—for
reasons not dissimilar to those who rip anything
from the New York Yankees to American
Idol. Like it or not, they are the gold standard,
which comes with that big, bright target on
their back. But avid hobbyists in this realm—
at least those who work in the media business—
will probably come away disappointed
by this new tome.
However, those interested less in digesting
tabloid fare and more in the history of the
television business can find plenty to be satisfied with—even if reading the book cover
to cover might take longer than Playmakers
stayed on the air.
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