In a fascinating new book, New York Times reporter Michael Freeman details the meteoric rise of cable channel ESPN which, since its inception in 1979, has been rightly recognized as one of the true success stories of media, popular culture, and savvy marketing.
Freeman aptly details ESPN's humble beginnings, ridiculed by the networks and skeptical would-be investors. Bill Rasmussen, the entrepreneur who came up with the idea, tirelessly pitched it to anyone who would listen. Eventually, executives at Getty Oil took Rasmussen up on his idea, and the fledgling network gained instant credibility with the hiring of NBC's Chet Simmons, who had built NBC Sports into a juggernaut.
But with this quick, intense rise to success came professional and personal crises at every turn. Within a year, Rasmussen was essentially shown the door by the executives who saw him as an amateur.
More disturbing is the pattern of sexual harassment in ESPN's male-dominated, high-stress work environment. Interestingly, it was one of the female SportsCenter anchors, Karie Ross, who initially brought up the subject of harassment at a company meeting. Most of the harassment was directed at female production assistants whose complaints to management, Freeman asserts, were generally ignored or half-heartedly dealt with.
Another interesting topic in the book is the rise of SportsCenter, the network's primary news-and-highlights show, as the king of the sports junkie programs. Specifically, the teaming of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick was, from an entertainment point of view, the network's finest moment.
Olbermann, as fans of the network know, left ESPN for MSNBC and later Fox. The author has extensive interviews from Olbermann (whose candidness is surprising), Patrick, and many members of the show's production team.
ESPN, interestingly, tried to rebuff Freeman's efforts to interview current and former ESPN employees. Yet Freeman gained access to a thorough cross-section of those whose stories might make you watch ESPN in a whole new way.
Shelton Clark watches TV and writes in Nashville.