ESPN becoming “less political”

New president wants less politics, more sports

As Chicago reels from yet another year of deadly gun violence, don’t look for anymore ESPN specials on the matter, if the new head of the network has his way.

As reported by the Washington Post, new ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro said he wants less of a focus on politics and social issues and more on the sports themselves.

“If you ask me is there a false narrative out there”, Pitaro said last Friday. “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”

Much of the criticism surrounding the network revolved around the national anthem protests in the NFL as ratings for the league have declined in the past year, affecting the bottom lines of ESPN and the broadcast networks. Moreover, ESPN has lost viewership in part due to cord-cutting, costing it subscribers. Once at over 100 million homes, ESPN’s reach is now estimated to be around 85 million.

A former chairman of the consumer products division at Disney, Pitaro wants ESPN to return what it was known for – coverage of sports and literally nothing else. On Friday, he announced ESPN will not air the national anthem before Monday Night Football – thus avoid showing any players kneeling. The move was criticized by President Trump at a West Virginia rally Tuesday night, not surprising given ESPN has been a frequent target of his.

In contrast, WGN-TV and NBC Sports Chicago show the national anthem played before most games they carry.

Not surprisingly, the comments Pitaro made were received negatively, with many accusing the network of further promoting their political narrative by… announcing they were becoming “less political”.

Fueling more angst against the network was the controversy surrounding former SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill, whose critical comments of President Trump earned her a suspension. Hill has since left the early evening edition of Sportscenter and has taken an off-camera role at The Undefeated, a sports website targeting African-American readers. Had Hill been fired, ESPN could have lost black viewers – similar to what happened with CBS-owned WBBM-TV in 1985 after they let Harry Porterfield go.

The new edict means it is less likely you’ll see ESPN deal with social issues and how it relates to sports as viewers and sports talk radio listeners have demanded they don’t want to hear about any social issues tied to sports. Approximately two years ago, ESPN’s First Take came to the YMCA in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood for two shows to discuss the city’s gun violence epidemic, in a move widely criticized by conservatives and gun-rights advocates. This and another Chicago “town hall” meeting on gun violence (MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes) were basically useless, mostly featuring residents and publicity-seeking activists complaining in front of the camera.

The edict has even reached local sports talk radio as WSCR-AM shook up its daytime lineup a few months ago and replaced Jason Goff, who often touched on race and social issues, which did not go well with its majority-white audience. As a result, ratings in the daypart actually increased.

Pitaro’s comments Friday made it clear: steer clear of politics as viewership clearly doesn’t want sports mixing with them. But as a few NFL players continue to kneel during the anthem, and President Trump continuing to make it an issue – especially with midterm elections coming up, it will be hard to ignore – no matter how hard they try. And while you might see some social issues like gun violence as it relates to sports on a SC Featured segment or Outside The Lines from time to time, it looks like those opportunities to tell those stories will be far and few between under the new ESPN regime.

(Updated August 21 at 11:53 p.m.)