In a Flyover State: Bad News for Bristol Bashers

Those 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.
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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 network.

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 Horn).

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.

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman

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