Thursday, September 10, 2015

ESPN's Hype Machine is Going Too Far

By Kevin Beane

Yeah, I know, that headline isn't going to make anyone scratch their heads; I'm not exactly going out on a limb here.

But, the thing is, I've defended ESPN. I've defended their right to promote their brand, and pointed out that where they annoy us in presentation, they make up for in content. Besides the bajillion games and matches ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SECNetwork, The Longhorn Network, and ESPNNews will give us in a week, that content is multiplied a hundredfold by all the new offerings available on WatchESPN each week. It's worth enduring their bloviation.

But on Tuesday, during the U.S. Open quarterfinal between Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the producers didn't do any keen watchers of the match any favors, but they did everything the focus groups told them to do.

Most of their transgressions had to to with their ceaseless promotion of the Serena vs. Venus match, which was following the Cilic/Tsonga one. Listen, I like Serena. I hope she wins the calendar year grand slam this weekend. It's very clear that a lot of people care about the match (it turned out to be the second-best ratings ESPN has ever received for tennis). And I don't mind them promoting that and reminding us that it's coming up next.

But they went so very much further than that. For starters, they twice gave us a split screen and took audio away from the Cilic/Tsonga match to bring us an interview with Serena's hitting coach. Even worse, though, they would play one of several long promo pieces for the upcoming Serena match instead of the Cilic/Tsonga match. By which I mean to say, they would have a promo, go back to the Cilic/Tsonga match, and it'd be 40-30. So they missed six points.

It gets worse still. Between games (and this would also cut in to actual points in the Cilic/Tsonga match) they would spend time showing the grounds around Arthur Ashe stadium and do a little celebrity spotting. Look, Oprah's here! Even worse, the Kardashians showed up, and the poor ESPN tennis announcing crew (Brad Gilbert, I think, and a couple others) had to pretend to be excited about the Kardashians showing up. They really earned their paychecks this week.

It makes me wonder why they didn't just dispense entirely of the Cilic/Tsonga match to instead bring up a three-hour Serena preview show. Once you start thinking that way, it's not hard to make the leap to the MTV model. It's an old chestnut by now that Music Television doesn't broadcast music anymore, but neither does MTV2, even. Why should ESPN even bother with actual sports? Just give all hype, all the time a try.

I'm tempted to say it doesn't have to be this way. I used to receive a glorious channel called Setanta USA. They broadcast mostly soccer, rugby, and that sort of global thing. Their interstitials were simply a chill melody accompanies by a pastiche of abstract sports photography: a cricket ball, and row of stands, etc. They had more energetic promos and commercials too, but still extremely understated compared to what we are used to in the US.

So what happened to Setanta USA? It doesn't exist anymore. Their channels for Canada, England, and Australia also don't exist anymore. They are down to channels in South and East Asia, Turkey, Ireland/Northern Ireland (where the network began), and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

You see, it's not by accident that we suffer this over-the-top hype given to us by ESPN (and other outlets, like FOX Sports). They do that because it works. I mentioned focus groups. They focus group everything to death, study it all, figure out what brings them the most money, how they can present things that make you most likely to give your hard-earned cash to their advertisers. It's the sports version of this, the biggest truth bomb The Onion has ever dropped.

So here's an idea: be the change you want to see. If you're watching something or spending time on a website (especially the latter, except/unless you're a Nielsen family), ask yourself, "Is this the kind of TV show or website that I want to reach saturation levels when my kids are adults?" If the answer is "no," then stop watching, or at least stop patronizing the advertisers of these sites. Make dumb hype and dumb programming unprofitable. It's the only way.

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