Has ESPN finally seen the light?
Yes, this ESPN, the premier sports network that at the height of its power and influence decided to infuse politics into its programming, taking the network politically to the neighborhood of the likes of MSNBC and Al Jazeera. Has this ESPN finally had a change of heart?
What caused media watchers to do a double-take was ESPN’s announcement that it was updating its Political and Social Issues policy statement. At first blush, viewers who just want to watch sports highlights without having to sit through half-witted political dogma along the way will be happy to learn that ESPN appears to be seeking neutral ground. In part, the Political and Social Issues policy statement touts, “Original news reports should not include statements of support, opposition or partisanship to any social issue, political position, candidate or office holder.” And, “We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, when warranted.”
If this is truly a change of direction for ESPN, one can thank consumer pocket books for the new direction. As Americans TV viewing habits have changed and weary conservative viewers have cut the cord, the decline of ESPN’s viewership is shocking. Since 2011, it has lost 12 million subscribers. At $7 per person for a subscription, that’s a loss of $84 million a year in revenue from its peak. ESPN, the once lucrative cash cow of Disney Corporation, has seen its milk run dry. The network’s political bias and animus has become so one-sided it has polluted a once spotless brand. Evidence of this is that no one even flinched or disputed when a new survey of ESPN readers, viewers, and listeners showed that 60% felt that the network was left-leaning, while only 3% felt it was right-leaning. Overall, 46% of its viewers no longer enjoy and support its programs.
Not surprisingly, many aren’t buying that ESPN’s Political and Social Issues policy statement will amount to much, and see it as nothing more than empty talk on a par with Obama’s Red Line in Syria or Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of big government is over.
Critics point out that, just one day after ESPN’s updated policy was announced, news came that the network was demoting Sage Steele, one of its few conservative on-air personalities. Right before the start of the playoffs she had been removed from her coveted role on NBA Countdown. Steele, who is African American and married to a white man, has been blunt about the double-standard she experienced because of this. “There are times that I believe that we, as African-Americans, can be hypocritical, and that is to not look ourselves in the mirror when we are saying certain things and blaming other groups for one thing when we are doing the exact same thing.” In addition Steele had been critical of anti-Trump protesters at airports, and was also against NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.
To try to stop the negative publicity caused by Steele’s apparent demotion, ESPN’s President John Skipper felt the need to clarify that Steele still had a future with the company, issuing a statement saying, “Sage has done a wonderful job for us in a number of important roles. As previously announced, her SportsCenter presence has grown and this week alone she has led our coverage from the men’s Final Four and the Masters. Sage definitively has a bright and long-term future at ESPN and my complete support.”
These words of support will hardly assuage conservatives with even short memories, who remember the shabby treatment of other on-air conservatives such as Curt Shilling, Chris Broussard and Mike Ditka have received for their non-politically correct beliefs. Mr. Skipper hasn’t moved to rehire them, has he?
Watching, or should I say trying to watch, ESPN following all of its on-air personality shakeups and new programming can be a cringe-worthy experience. One gets the sense that the network, confused over why it’s losing viewers so rapidly, is a bit panicked and throwing programming against the wall, hoping something sticks. One also senses it is going for a younger demographic, and the network brass assumes the next generation will be more politically active and left-leaning than previously. In other words, it is doubling-down on the losing hand it is currently playing.
Before betting the farm that millennials are destined to be liberals forever, they may want to recall the old saw, attributed to everyone from Georges Clemenceau to Winston Churchill: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain.” If ESPN doesn’t understand that history shows millennials, like most generations, will drift rightward as they age, the network’s rough times may only be getting started.