And now a few words on First Take, Dana Jacobson and the Skip Bayless-ization of ESPN's mornings.
Amid all the nonsense peddled by ESPN2's First Take -- and it peddles nonsense faster than a vendor peddles circus peanuts at a zoo -- I never lost my admiration for co-host Dana Jacobson. There would be times watching that show (enduring is probably the better description), and Jacobson, even if it was just for a brief moment, would attempt to bring a dose of reality to the situation. She would shake her head at something spawned by Bayless, utter something reasonable, and the moment would quickly pass. Mostly, she was reduced to a background player, which is usually what happens when competing with people who push demagoguery.
On Tuesday Jacobson tweeted that she was leaving First Take for other assignments. I had heard the same news over the weekend. Make no mistake about it: She was pulled from the show, and has been reassigned into the SportsCenter/Outside The Lines/general assignment hosting pool. Under First Take’s new coordinating producer Jamie Horowitz, the show has been redesigned around a 59-year-old man debating and defending his position (whether against real opponents or strawmen) like a modern-day F. Lee Bailey. Except Bailey was much more likeable.
Horowitz is liked by Bristol execs because of his ability to generate ratings and social media buzz, which he did when he helmed SportsNation. That show smartly used Michelle Beadle as a foil for a more palatable Colin Cowherd, and developed a large social media following. If you've noticed, you're starting to see specific hashtags (http://bit.ly/rIEwbj) created for Bayless (i.e #WhenSkipMetTebow) because it's part of the Horowitz playbook. Horowitz is a smart guy, and even though this interview has the all the authenticity of North Korean regime change, it gives you insight into his thinking:
First Take will now be anchored solely by Jay Crawford, who looks good in a suit and won't bother Bayless, and his revolving band of talkies too much. He's considered a stronger anchor by the suits than Jacobson -- and that's probably legit. Crawford was up for the evening SportsCenter gig after Brian Kenny left (that job went to John Anderson) and no one would blame him for trying hard to hold onto the FT gig, which affords him a very nice work week. Jacobson is well-liked and respected by the rank and file in Bristol, so hopefully she gets the opportunity to do some legit reporting again. I imagine bringing something tangible to viewers will be rewarding for her.
The ESPN PR armada has been pumping out stats lately about how First Take's ratings are on the upswing. Nine of the 10 highest-rated shows in the history of First Take have come the last three months and it coincides with Bayless becoming the self-appointed defender of Tim Tebow. In fact, First Take has manipulated the Tebow storyline brilliantly, bringing in Smith, Cris Carter, Rob Parker and other "Tebow disbelievers" to debate Bayless each morning. The show pushes "takes" from other ESPN shows as news, and gets debate segments out of it. It's a brilliant marketing machine, and reminds me of China Central Television.
When Tebow slows down and fades from the sun, Bayless will start the drumbeat on another athlete, most likely a basketball player. Mark my words: He'll challenge some young, likely black, NBA millionaire (read: LeBron James or Chris Bosh), and the circus will start up again, with Eric Mangini magically morphing into Jalen Rose or Tim Legler. As one ESPN-er told me: "Skip and Stephen A generate buzz -- I'd argue 95 percent bad buzz -- but if they deliver ratings, that's all anybody cares about. Which on some level is defensible."
And that's true. I don't discount that First Take has its fans. It reached a high of 586,835 viewers on Dec. 5 and its average viewership is probably around 400K or so. Of course, what takes a hit is quality, and Bayless, as Charles Barkley has been saying hard about him for the past few weeks, comes off as disingenuous.
On this topic, my colleague Jeff Pearlman wrote a terrific book (Boys Will be Boys) on the Cowboys a couple of years ago, which chronicled the drug, ego, and sex-fueled Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s. What always stood out for me in the book was a comment from one of Bayless's ex-bosses. In the 1990s Bayless wrote a best-selling book -- Hell-Bent -- on the Cowboys' championship teams, and in the book, speculated that Troy Aikman might be gay. Regardless of what Aikman's sexuality is -- and I'd bet huge money he is as straight as a 40-yard dash -- it was a despicable act.
You can read the excerpt here: http://bit.ly/tM3HlD
"Skip Bayless could have been one of the really great columnists," former Dallas Morning News sports editor Dave Smith told Pearlman. "But as a columnist, if you are going to beat up on someone, it better be from your heart. You better feel that way. Skip attacked people for the sake of doing it. His gay take on Aikman was the most unfair thing in my 44 years as a journalist."
So when ESPN PR gets on me for over-defending my pal Bruce Feldman, it's worth reminding them that they are selling the soap for someone who tried to out someone's sexuality. You sleep well, PR staff.
What I think bothers me most for Jacobson is that she now returns to the pool of ESPN talent that never gets pushed externally. Why? Because it's not easy sell. Because they deliver news and do their jobs without shtick or screaming. You know the faces. You might not know the names. It's talent such as Steve Berthiaume, Michelle Bonner, Steve Bunin, Kevin Connors, Robert Flores, Michael Kim, Kevin Negandhi, Dari Nowkhah, Anish Shroff, and Adnan Virk. ESPN recently whacked one of these types J.W. Stewart, a class guy, respected by the rank and file in Bristol.
His only fault appeared to be treating viewers like adults.