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ESPN boss' take on 'First Take'

ESPN president John Skipper.

ESPN president John Skipper. Credit: AP, 2010

ESPN produces thousands of hours of programming across many channels, but nothing seems to get critics quite as worked up as "First Take," a debate show on ESPN2 on which Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith yell at each other about Tim Tebow, LeBron James and whatever other sports celebrities might goose the ratings.

The show recently came under fire for some racially inflammatory remarks by former Newsday columnist Rob Parker aimed at Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Parker eventually did not have his contract renewed and left the network.

So I said to myself, "Self, I wonder what ESPN president John Skipper has to say about the show and its many detractors, myself included."

So I asked him Wednesday night before the Raptors-Knicks tilt at the Garden. Here goes:

"My guess would be that for people who are critical of it it's somewhat symbolic of a general dislike of that genre. For us it's slightly puzzling, because we're doing 50, 60, 70,000 hours of live TV. We're trying to do a bunch of different kinds of TV. This kind of TV works, to some extent.

"We've gone over the line a couple of times, which I didn't like. But as long as we can sort of be smart about it, it's just a nuance relative to what the difference is between 'First Take' and 'PTI.' And I think it also gets attention because it's a big block of programming. But it's been a show that has helped us solidify the morning on ESPN2.

"We've been working on this show since 'Cold Pizza' back in about 2003 or 2004. So we finally have a formula where people are actually tuning in."

So Skipper is prepared to live with the criticism given the show does have a measurable following?

"Look, people think of ESPN, because of a business strategy we've employed to have one brand, everything ESPN, they tend to think of us as monolithic. People ask me, 'Aren't the guys at 'SportsCenter' ashamed?'

"I don't know. Are the guys at CBS News ashamed of their prime time lineup? Nobody suggests when there's some ridiculous reality show on that the news guys or the fine drama writers are ashamed to be on the same network, because they’re not monolithic. We're not monolithic."

New York Sports