Sure, a time traveler from the mid-aughts likely would have been shocked by the news out of Bristol this past week, in which ESPN was revealed to be just another media company struggling to adapt to a scary new world.
It was not that long ago that there was no more powerful brand — and money-generator — in television, hardly a place where dozens of journalists could find themselves abruptly looking for work after a wave of layoffs.
But truth is, the seeds of its mid-2010s discontent were being sown even then, in the form of ever-more-insanely expensive rights fees to pro leagues and college consortiums, and ever-more-bloated cable TV bundles.
ESPN — and other cable outlets — always understood how fragile it all was, as I gleaned from many conversations in which executives all but put fingers in their ears and began humming when I uttered the term “a la carte.”
It turned out it wasn’t so much an a la carte system of choosing channels that changed everything. Rather, as is often the case, it was technology.
The rise of streaming options outside traditional cable bundles enabled people — especially non-sports fans tired of subsidizing expensive national and local sports channels — to rebel and become so-called “cord cutters.”
I’m looking at you, Netflix.
It was fun while it lasted for ESPN, which pioneered double-dipping by getting paid both for advertising and for simply existing among TV channel options — whether or not subscribers had any interest in sports.
Look, ESPN is not going anywhere. Its brand remains potent and it will adapt, because it must. The network already is making itself available outside of customary cable bundles, a notion that used to be anathema.
Rights battles loom against digital behemoths such as Amazon as well as the usual suspects such as Fox, but ESPN and its parent company, Disney, will think of something to survive. It happens. Changing times and all that.
What was more troubling about the 100 or so layoffs in the latest wave is the choices ESPN made.
To make a long story short: Personality is good. Reporting is less good.
In case after case, ESPN let go people whose main purpose is reporting — not debate, commentary and/or ritual yelling.
At least former ESPN executive Jamie Horowitz, now the dark knight of Fox Sports 1, is honest about his priorities, which go something like this:
Information is expensive to gather and has been commoditized in an era when scoops last 10 seconds before becoming fodder for the next Twitter reply or TV chat, and when people rely on their smartphones for highlights.
Sports talk radio caught on to this trick decades ago, with hosts perusing newspaper sports sections, then fashioning careers on discussing what they read. But it all happens much, much faster now.
There were many heartfelt tributes to departing colleagues on ESPN, but the best reality check I heard was Michelle Beadle’s on “SportsNation,” in which she explained the value of many of those laid off this way:
“So important, as a matter of a fact, that they give us the information that fuels not just this show but every show across the network.”
ESPN has not gotten out of the journalism business. But it has made a statement in jettisoning reporters — the TV kind and writer kind — and placing its bets on debate shows and on a “SportsCenter” driven by personality.
Journalists are extra-sensitive to all this because it affects our friends and our profession. But no decent person should be happy about it.
You can say it’s just business, nothing personal. Fair enough. But let’s remember that when ESPN writes its nearly $2 billion-a-year check to carry “Monday Night Football,” and when the NFL cashes it, it comes at a cost.