Can ad sales save ESPN?

This is why you can’t let “content” people run a media business. From one of my favorite sites,Sports By Brooks:

“If you’ve ever worked in media, you know of the eternal battle between sales and programming. Sales wants to dumb down content to make it a more palatable commodity for advertisers, while programming wants to produce provocative content that will draw viewers/listeners/readers. … Before Bodenheimer came along, you didn’t have the obscene number of ad placements across all ESPN platforms. … It’s clear that the primary focus of ESPN’s upper management is making money by selling advertising – and hitting their numbers every quarter.”

No shit Sherlock. ESPN is a business. Newspapers are a business. Radio is a business. Your salary doesn’t get paid unless some ad guy sells advertisers on your product. As someone who worked on the “content” side of things and irritated more advertisers than you can imagine, I understand the tension between sales and the newsroom. You cannot subordinate editorial independence to the whims of advertisers. However, you cannot neglect the feedback you receive through advertisers—they vote with their wallet. Too often the media’s content does not represent the values or concerns of its consumers. The editorial side of the business is usually out-of-touch with the public. How else can you explain the decline of CNN and the rise of Fox News?

CNN’s content creators were full of themselves. Their view was the only legitimate view. Such hubris is not a recipe for success in a competitive environment. Sports By Brooks attacks ESPN’s “blander-by-the-day programming.” But that is what ESPN needed. Sportscenter of the last decade had become unwatchable thanks to the smartass presenters. Fortunately, Keith Olbermann is on some other network that most people don’t watch (MSNBC) instead of ESPN. Personalities are useful, but they should never overpower the product—in the case of media, that is reporting the story. The best ESPN shows were roundtable discussions like the Sports Reporters with Dick Schaap. This show provided reasoned commentary without the mugging for the camera.

If ESPN’s advertising leaders gain control of loudmouth content people, ESPN will get better. I may watch more than the ballgames on the World Wide Leader.