FRIDAY MEDIA COLUMN
In his first 13-plus months as ESPN president, John Skipper has done a little bit of everything, from buying rights to the new college football playoff, to suspending announcers for racially insensitive comments, to forging new deals with Major-League Baseball and several conferences, to changing his NBA studio talent yet again.
In town for Monday’s BCS Championship, Skipper addressed numerous issues in a discussion with a few reporters inside a suite at the Harbor Beach Marriott:
### In the wake of Rob Parker’s racially insensitive comments about Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, Skipper said he’s creating a new checks-and-balances system to prevent this type of embarrassment from happening again on ESPN’s First Take and other studio programs. And he wants the debate among Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to be spirited but thoughtful, not outrageous.
ESPN announced this week that it is not renewing Parker’s contract – after initially suspending him 30 days for suggesting that Griffin is not authentically black.
“I like Rob [but] what he said was clearly inappropriate,” Skipper said. “The fact nobody caught it and re-aired it showed a significant lack of judgment. I met personally with the producers and told them how disappointed I was and we were going to suspend some of them and I expect them to be more careful in the future.”
The problem with First Take is that Bayless often seems hell-bent on making outrageous comments simply to see what reaction it will evoke.
“It’s a debate show and we get a lot of criticism for it,” Skipper said. “I personally don’t have any problem with doing a debate. You just have to figure out where you walk the line [between] being provocative and stepping over it and saying something stupid. We’ve done that once or twice on this show. We’re going to add more checks and balances.”
How tough is it to find that line? “Apparently, pretty tough.”
But Skipper added the segment “shouldn’t be built on people saying outrageous things. It should be built on vigorous discussion and debate. We’ve got a very successful show, Pardon The Interruption, which is a debate show, but it works because of the judgment and the brains of Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon and [producer] Eric Rydholm.”
Skipper added that “Stephen, Skip and [producer] Jamie Horowitz are bright guys. They ought to be able to figure it out. The show has worked. The ratings have gone up.”
### On the fact ESPN pays significantly more than NBC for NFL rights but doesn’t get as many attractive games, Skipper said he “lobbies all the time to get a better schedule” but “stomping your feet doesn’t do a lot of good.”
And he points out the contract allows ESPN to do NFL programming “across multiple networks, mobile and digital. We got more than 500 windows of new studio shows in the deal. Everything else is probably more important than the games for us. We’re not buying the same thing [NBC] is.”
### Skipper remains optimistic Jon Gruden will stick to television long term. Last week, “I reiterated to Jon our commitment to him and he reiterated his commitment to us.” But one of his associates believes he would consider a marquee job.
### Skipper is glad he changed the Monday night booth by moving Ron Jaworski to the studio. “Jon’s personality came through more,” he said. “I always had a slight bit of trouble telling Jon and Ron apart. It made it simpler.”
### Skipper said lead NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who has been mentioned as a candidate to coach the New Jersey Nets next season, is “very happy. He says he’s committed. I think he’s really enjoyed not being stressed every minute of the day.
“We’ve got a good shot to keep the two of them [Van Gundy and Gruden]. Every year they stay, it’s more likely they stay.”
### Skipper explained he didn’t hire outspoken Stan Van Gundy because “Stan walks a line. That’s part of what made him attractive. It ultimately scared us off.”
Skipper heard Van Gundy sharply criticize NBA commissioner David Stern in a September podcast with Jeff Van Gundy and Dan Le Batard. Skipper said that “was a factor” in his decision to pass on Stan.
"The NBA did not make that decision nor did they try to influence it,” Skipper said. “I decided not to do it. Stan has a little bit of a legitimate beef. I think he rightly believed he was going to get offered a job.”
### On his new NBA studio team, which added Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons: “I’m very pleased so far. Jalen has added a lot of personality to it. Magic Johnson has been forceful this year in giving opinions. Bill is exhaustive in his knowledge. He’s a stimulant. [TNT’s] Charles Barkley is a tough act to compete with. What we’re trying to do is let them be the entertaining show. We’ll be the smarty-pants show. Bill is the smarty pants.”
### He said he will eventually “make a little money” on the Longhorn Network but doesn’t believe there’s another school outside the Pac-12 and Big-10 (which have their own conference-run networks) that would generate enough interest for another stand-alone channel.
Though ESPN is expected to be involved in a proposed new SEC network, Skipper said there’s no thought to launching another ESPN domestic network. "I don't think [cable] distributors want another ESPN [television] network," he said.
But ESPN3 (with live Internet streaming) “is a hidden gem,” he said. “We will do 5000 live events on ESPN3 this year. You can eventually show every varsity game of every college in the country on ESPN3."
We’ll have Part Two of our interview later this month, including Skipper addressing common criticisms of his networks.
One significant NFL media change this weekend: Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick will call Seattle-Atlanta on Sunday – not No. 2 team Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa - because Fox felt Brennaman/Billick deserved a playoff game. Lead team Joe Buck and Troy Aikman work Packers-49ers… WINZ-940 said it decided to drop Jim Rome and carry Jay Mohr’s new afternoon show because Rome’s ratings were poor. WINZ said it had the option of continuing to carry Rome even though he moved to CBS Radio…
Dolphins games finished with a 16.3 average rating, down from 17.7 in 2011.