ESPN Shows They Are Very Sensitive to the Narrative that They Have a Liberal Bias

Ryan Glasspiegel

ESPN made two announcements this morning — the return of Hank Williams Jr. to Monday Night Football, and the revelation of a survey about how viewers feel about the network’s political leanings — that were overt reactions to the growing narrative from the last two years that the network has a liberal bias.

The fact that ESPN is even publicizing this — and, no, I do not believe it was a coincidence that it came within hours, on a Monday morning, of the Hank Williams Jr. announcement — shows they are very sensitive to the narrative. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they just keep it to themselves and keep churning out a product that they feel audience data shows is sufficiently neutral?

It has not been shown definitively one way or the other whether the perception that ESPN has a liberal bias has had one iota of impact on the network’s business. If it has, it’s been of a far less dramatic effect than rising live rights fees and cord-cutting, both of which have been exhaustively analyzed. The idea that political ideology has driven subscriber losses is farfetched; not one person calls up Comcast or DirecTV and cancels the whole bundle and explains to the operator that the reason is outrage over Michael Smith and Jemele Hill being on television.

Nevertheless, the chatter has reached critical mass and — rightly or wrongly — a portion of ESPN’s audience believes that the network is ideologically opposed to their interests. The narrative hasn’t quite snowballed into an avalanche, but it festers on in the media, on Twitter, and on message boards in a way that you can induct that that ESPN’s brand has lost goodwill in the last two years.

Anecdotally, the MSESPN narrative began when Caitlyn Jenner was presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in July of 2015, and reached its pinnacle when a segment of viewers became very vocal in their opposition to Smith and Hill taking over the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. In between, the Colin Kaepernick story has been a big lightning rod.

Of ESPN’s ascending studio personalities — Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain, Kate Fagan, Mina Kimes, Dominique Foxworth, and Will Cain — Cain is seen as the conservative outlier. Smith and Hill have borne the biggest brunt of backlash on social media. SC6 is encroaching on territory that previously served as a politically neutral pregame show for the evening in sports. It went from a traditional anchor in Lindsay Czarniak to two personalities.

That being said, I honestly don’t know what ESPN could put in this spot that would work, without creating a hole somewhere else. The conversation has been thoroughly digested all day online, on radio, and on television, and there isn’t a whole lot left to do or say. The traditional SportsCenter wasn’t working there, or they wouldn’t have blown it up. But, SC6 has not been successful as of yet.

It is true that ESPN daytime studio show ratings are down pretty much across the board in the past two years, but there are some significant variables you can point to beyond purported liberal politics. About 100,000 viewers tune in daily to Undisputed and The Herd, and that number was effectively zero at the time of the Jenner speech. You can point to how Undisputed gets outdrawn significantly by children’s programming and dated syndicated reruns, but those viewers almost certainly came directly from ESPN or ESPN2, and there may not be many other talents that Jamie Horowitz could have found beyond Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless that would have had that effect.

Furthermore, cable news talk has become a substitute product on the margins of sports television viewership as Donald Trump emerged out of nowhere and the story weaved from publicity stunt to Republican frontrunner to nominee to unelectable underdog to President and beyond. It’s presumable that almost all of the audience ESPN lost went to FS1, who spent big on two major talents that ESPN had tried to keep and then built a cast of recognizable names behind them, and the rest is watching Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. It’s not just conservatives who are watching more news; MSNBC just had its best quarter of all-time.

ESPN’s tentpole events remain politically neutral. Nighttime SportsCenter, which often comes right after big games, is anchored by old-guard hosts like Steve Levy, John Buccigross, John Anderson, Kenny Mayne, Scott Van Pelt (whose midnight program has been a successful template), Neil Everett, and Stan Verrett. College football and NFL studio programming skew conservative. NFL Live hasn’t been any better at heading off viewership losses than anything else, and it largely gets beaten in the ratings by Highly Questionable, which is one of the shows that gets complained about on social media.

Today, in the middle of the NBA finals, ESPN announced, through a southern newspaper, that they are bringing back Hank Williams Jr. for the Monday Night Football theme. “It was the original,” ESPN’s senior vice president of events and studio production Stephanie Druley told The USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee. “It belongs to Monday Night Football. It really is about returning to what fans know. It’s a Monday night party and that’s what we’re all hoping to get back to.”

Williams was removed from the show in 2011 after he went on Fox News and compared then-President Barack Obama to Hitler. (And the only way to make Monday Night Football the premier weekly event it once was would be if the NFL reversed course and began giving it the best games again.)

Right after that announcement, ESPN put out a press release noting that a research survey they commissioned concluded that the network’s political opinions do not impact aggregate viewership “in any material way.”

Said ESPN: “Approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents believe ESPN is getting it right in terms of mixing sports news and political issues. Another 10 percent had no opinion … and 8 percent said ESPN does not do enough politics in its programming … Of those who see a bias, 30 percent actually believe ESPN expresses a conservative viewpoint. Most importantly, even those who identify as conservative (or Republican) actually rate ESPN’s overall performance higher than those groups had in October.”

ESPN almost looks reactionary with today’s releases. They’re broadcasting the NBA Finals on ABC. These things couldn’t wait a week or two? Whether or not the belief that they are too liberal has thus far hurt their business, ESPN has clearly been sufficiently bothered by the MSESPN narrative to worry that if they don’t go on the offensive to combat it immediately that it could have a tangible effect.