Just like the NFL’s, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” ratings have tanked because viewers were turned off by programs that replaced sports content with political preaching and social issue commentaries – a harsh reality that even the far-left Washington Post has acknowledged.
But, unlike the National Football League (NFL), ESPN appears to have seen the light and devised a new gameplan designed to win back lost audience.
As the Post notes in its December 5, 2018 article, “ESPN wants to make ‘SportsCenter’ great again,” “SportsCenter’s” on-air fight against the policies of President Donald Trump has hurt ratings:
“By last year, the show was suffering from slumping ratings as the company fought against the business climate of cord-cutting and the divisive politics of the Trump era.”
“The 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” struggled to build an audience, and ESPN faced heavy fire from the right for being both too political and too liberal.”
Instead of discussing sports and showing game highlights, the show had turned its focus to producing personality-driven, one-sided political content. For example:
- Host Jemele Hill called Trump a white supremacist: on ESPN’s personality-driven 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” program.
- “Outside the Lines,” an unpopular news magazine format program, focused on social issues in sports.
- A strategic decision was made that highlights had become less valuable.
Then, in November of last year, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and Disney CEO Bob Iger named Norby Williamson executive vice president of studio production, charging him with the task of revitalizing “SportsCenter” by returning it to its original, winning formula.
First, ESPN needed to recognize that it had been wrong to think that “content didn’t matter” as long as you have strong on-air personalities, Williamson says in the Post piece:
“I think we miscalculated a little bit. The perception became that you could just roll a talent out there and it doesn’t matter what he or she is saying – that the content didn’t matter. I just never believed that.”
ESPN “fell into that trap a little bit” by deemphasizing video and storytelling, Williamson said.
ESPN’s two-fold solution:
- End personality-driven “SportsCenter” programing and refocus on its core product of providing sports news and highlights (Jemele Hill, who called Trump a white supremacist, is no longer at ESPN),
- Less commentary on political issues, like those of activist ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Pres. Trump.
The results have been promising, as the 6 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter” enjoyed eight consecutive months of audience growth, and the segment taking over the timeslot of “Outside the Lines” garnered 10% higher audience.
The key, Williamson concluded, is to reject the temptation to “overthink” the program’s gameplan and simply realize that ‘The goal is to get more people to watch.”