Bill Simmons and the myth of sports journalism

ESPN and Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons are breaking up. There are probably no good guys in this split since the talented Simmons has come to embody every horrible stereotype of a Boston sports fan over the past 15 years or so (it’s not his fault, they’ve all gotten like that).

But ESPN is just pathetic in its self importance. Even the statement from network head John Skipper dripped with it: “I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract,” he said. It sounds like the person who tells you the end of a relationship was a mutual thing. You know that person is probably the one who got dumped.

ESPN, the “WorldWide Leader” in sports, didn’t rip the lid off the somewhat obvious steroid use in baseball. They aren’t blowing up the out-and-out lie that publicly-funded sports stadiums are a boon for the cities which shell out the money for them. The closest they come to “sports journalism” is the nightly highlight reels of SportsCenter, or the longer-form, incredibly informative 30 for 30 documentaries that were spearheaded by, you guessed it, Bill Simmons.

Otherwise, the ESPN media empire is a wasteland of loud talking heads on TV and radio like Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd and Mike and Mike in the Morning – all personality-driven, somewhat entertaining in doses, and devoid of intellectual heavy lifting. They’ll still talk in reverent tones about hallowed records or greats of the game – as if sports really matters. It doesn’t, at least not the way they cover it.

And they don’t cover it seriously because ESPN is also based around live games. And even paying huge sums of money in broadcast rights, the network can still act like a scared employee, worried that during the next round of negotiations Roger Goodell might decide he would rather have Monday Night Football on TBS. Last year, when Goodell was facing very serious and very legitimate questions about wether the most visible American sport was unwittingly giving cover to domestic abusers, Simmons found out the hard way that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Even if you are the one paying that hand.

The fact is that ESPN probably is better off without Simmons. They can probably replace him with someone cheaper, maybe someone whose pop culture references will be a little fresher. And the content ESPN churns out will be every bit as bad as it used to be.

How SNL became bulletbroof

Last night, Saturday Night Live’s celebration of its 40th season was… odd. The broadcast was not crisp. Most of the jokes fell flat. The cuts from scene to scene were sloppy. Eddie Murphy could have been replaced by Damon Wayans without materially changing anything.

It doesn’t really matter, does it? Watching cast members from different eras collaborate and the self-referential callbacks to the earlier classics, served as a reminder that SNL has undergone more resurrections than the bad guy in a 1980s slasher flick. Even though there were a lot – a LOT – of seasons when the show was less-than-par, there’s a trail of would-be competitors in the show’s wake. Even as the Tonight Show yielded ground to Arsenio and, eventually, Letterman, SNL was never seriously threatened. (MAD TV’s mid-90s debut was probably the best shot anyone took.)

Depending on how you count, SNL has had three excellent cast eras and maybe one or two more very good cast eras. Maybe even more important, SNL has done well at making its content packagable for the social internet age. Topical sketches are very sharable due to relevance and length, and the rise of shorts videos – a presence since the early years but more integrated in the last decade – have only helped. More than any old media property, SNL has been the most clearly adaptable to the modern media environment. While they’ve been slow at times, they’ve generally kept up.)

Because of that evolution – and the continued waves of success – the show has It’s a brand name now.  A bad year (or even three) won’t force NBC to pull the plug. Like Tonight, Today, Dateline, and the nightly news, SNL is more than a series on the network, it’s a block of time. Even if the format changes, 11:30 on Saturday night will have a comedy show on NBC for the forseeable future.

Pity the successors to Lorne Michaels at the helm of the show, though – with the show such a proven commodity, NBC will likely expect success. Saturday night Live may be bullet proof, but the

Mike Pence might have something here

There’s some understandable bristling at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s announcement of a “state-run” news service. called “Just IN.” It sounds like an memo from Vladimir Putin’s desk, not an initiative launch by a erstwhile darling of the conservative movement. The idea of government feeding the media, rather than the institutions having a healthy and mutual skepticism, doesn’t sit well.

But maybe this is where media is going. The other night, I watched reruns of Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary Baseball. It originally aired on PBS, but now it’s home is, appropriately enough, the MLB Network. Last Saturday, the NFL Network aired highlight shows for each Super Bowl up to this year. (I tuned in just as Plaxico Burress was scoring a game winner and not shooting himself in the leg.) The New York Yankees, the NBA, the NHL, and several major college sports conferences have staked out their own spot on the dial; Disney and Oprah Winfrey have done the same. Netflix, Amazon, heck even Overstock produce their own entertainment programming. More and more, those who produce the content want to control the delivery channels as well.

Additionally, Just IN gives Pence a direct conduit to the people outside of the filter of any bias from reporters, producers, or media outlets.

Creating a state-run news agency immediately conjures images of Soviet-style Propaganda. In reality, Pence may simply be ahead of the times in an evolving media landscape.

Hillary Clinton will not be your next President

Way back in the day, then-candidate Barack Obama got a really flattering picture in the paper. Actually, it was the New York Times, and actually it looked like a leaked still from an Airwolf reboot.

When I first saw that picture, I believed that Barack Obama would be the next President of the United States. While that picture always stood out in my mind, just about everyone I knew who paid attention to the campaign that year had a similar moment of clarity where they believed Obama would beat John McCain.

It comes to mind now because, a couple weeks back, this horrible video started making the rounds on YouTube:

Someone thought this was a good idea. It’s not simple to put this together – someone wrote the song, hired a band, scripted the video, and apparently wanted to make something that promoted Hillary Clinton while looking like the result of a drunken one-night stand between crappy pop-country and a third quarter earnings presentation. (“Hi, Rascal Flats? It’s PowerPoint. …Yes, I had a fun night, too, but… Well, we need to talk. I’m pregnant.”) It took work and effort, which means someone actually thought about this a lot. And it still got made, incredibly.

The imagery, from the shattered glass ceiling to the man getting on a motorcycle behind a lady is heavy-handed and condescending. And it shamelessly panders to middle Americans, who may love country music but probably recognize when a former Senator from New York is trying too hard.

Oversimplified, poorly conceived messages delivered with insincerity are nothing new to Clinton’s public appearances this year, from the time she started promoting her book to now. This video subtly underscores every negative she currently has. Clinton’s country music video projects someone going through the motions of a campaign as a formality before a Presidency she feels she is owed.

Is it any wonder why the jibber-jabber around Elizabeth Warren as a potential primary challenger has warmed so significantly in the weeks since this video came out?

CDN: Political Ads Face Brave New (On-Demand) World

Nobody likes commercials, so viewers are finding ways around them – through DVRs and subscription-based on-demand programming.  That will make things tough for political advertisers – but certainly not impossible.  My latest column at Communities Digital News explores how political video advertising will have to adjust.  And they will have to – because video remains the best way to tell a story.

Mitt, we hardly knew ye

Mitt Romney is letting his perfect hair down to promote the Netflix documentary chronicling his White House run.  Predictably, without the pressures and influence of a campaign, people are a bit more receptive to him.

(Bob Dole had a similar tour after losing in 1996, trading jokes with David Letterman and quipping that he didn’t “have anything else to do” but write jokes.)

More than one Republican has bemoaned the fact that, had voters seen such a touching look at the Romney family, the 2012 election may have ended differently.  “If only voters had seen THIS Mitt Romney, Obama would have lost!” they tend to exclaim.  Not always in exactly those words, but you get the picture.

And come to think of it, it’s a good point.  One wonders why the documentary had to come out over a year after all the votes were counted.  If the image of Romney presented in the documentary would have swayed the election, Team Romney have only themselves to blame.

A 2016 Presidential candidate could grant access to a friendly but independent documentary filmmaker and create a Netflix or YouTube miniseries.  The film would not be subject to any campaign approval, which would make the vetting process important.  But it would soften the candidate’s image, and possibly help voters relate to the candidate.  It would humanize a talking head voters see on TV.

Gov. Chris Christie could use such a medium to rebound from scandal.  Sen. Rand Paul could use it to articulate how his small-government ideas will help most Americans.  Sen. Ted Cruz could show that he isn’t as much of an ideologue as the media and Democrats suggest.  The one who needs it the most is Hillary Clinton, who is more a creature of Washington, D.C. than any other prospective candidate in the field.

There is a caveat: this strategy only works if the candidate is genuine.  If the public persona doesn’t match private conversations, then it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

For Romney, a running documentary series could have answered the image of the ruthless CEO with one of the consummate family man.  Even though it probably wouldn’t have pushed him over the hump, those who will chase the White House in 2016 should pay attention.

The NRCC’s new digs: Orange you glad it isn’t red and blue?

The National Journal has a sneak peek at the NRCC’s new, Buzzfeed-esque website, set to launch sometime in the next few days.  Since the dawn of 2013, the NRCC has been quietly and not-so-quietly doing some good things to get House Republicans (and prospective House Republicans) positioned well for 2014 – rootsHQ has a good write-up of that.

On the design side, though, check out the lack of traditional colors:


Contrast that with any of the other alphabet soup committees on either side.  There’s occasional splashes of black and yellow, but mostly red, white, and blue.  The NRCC is trying to stand out from those sites, and the early peek suggests they’re doing it right.

This should especially help drive donations and activism on behalf of Republican candidates.  The cynical analyst might point out that the only people who will visit a party committee website is someone with a keen interest in politics.  The average citizen won’t look to the NRCC as a destination for content, though they might see content in other venues like Pinterest or Facebook.  But those with a keen interest in Republican politics want something different from the party after the previous two Presidential elections when old white guys didn’t do so well.  They want a different tone, and something they can believe in.  By showing a fresh, new look – combined with the more aggressive and pop-culture-influenced messaging strategy they’ve been sharpening for a few months – the NRCC can satisfy the thirst among the activist class for a fresher look and feel.

Twitter predicts the Oscars… sort of

New Media Strategies predicted most of the major Oscar winners looking at social media data.  Brandwatch pulled a similar trick.

America has plenty of elections, from the crucially important annuals like the Oscars or the meaningless Presidential elections that we only bother with every four years.  In many of them, online networks and social media can predict results – winning candidates tend to be mentioned more on Twitter or liked more on Facebook.

While some will jump to the conclusion that online chatter will drive the support that pushes a candidate over the edge, that’s an over-simplistic reading of the situation.  Social media posts are tea leaves of human behavior, but not usually the initial driver.  It’s worth watching data trends and extrapolating results, but trying to create those data trends to ensure a specific outcome is a waste of time.  Daniel Day Lewis didn’t win an Oscar with social buzz, he won by making the legislative posturing surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment interesting and engaging.  He didn’t even have to slay any vampires, so that was good too.  Similarly, online activity follows good political candidates, it doesn’t create them.

(Sidebar: What kind of a sick joke is it that Lincoln Motor Company is a subsidiary of Ford?)

If the correlation between online data and reality was more direct, according to Google we’d all have the flu by now.


Small is huge nowadays

Two seemingly unrelated pieces of patriotism struck me as oddly similar this week.  The first was, obviously, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  The second was the not-quite-safe-for-work homage to George Washington from cartoonist Brad Neely.

Neely’s work is kind of out there, but for those who share his sense of humor it’s spot on.  (A sample line: “And we danced, like those people in the hyper-tight light of fried chicken commercials!”  Seriously, what does that even mean?)  Even with limited exposure in venues like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Neely’s two or three minute videos are especially suited to a YouTube audience.

Obviously, the Navy SEALS who took down bin Laden crafted a much more significant piece of work on Sunday.  Their achievement, though, was a reflection of a changing military environment just as Neely’s videos reflect a changing media environment.

The major military conflicts to stop terrorism after September 11 targeted nations – specifically, Afghanistan and Iraq.  The plan was to smoke out terrorists by pressuring state sponsors of terrorism.  We found that the strength of our armored columns had limited effectiveness confronting the independent contractors who made up Al Qaeda’s network.  We could contain the snake, but we couldn’t do the one thing we set out to do.

It’s significant, then, that the bin Laden kill mission was set up by intelligence and espionage, and executed by a couple dozen elite servicemen.  There was no invasion of Pakistan, simply a precise action focused on a single piece of property within the country.  One can’t help but suspect that had our leaders not announced the mission’s success, the rest of the world might never have known bin Laden was dead.

A small, elite unit was all it took to snuff out the world’s leading terrorist.  George Washington (who crossed the Delaware for a surprise attack) would be proud.

Actually, it’s the Data AND Facebook…

President Obama’s first campaign event kicked off on Facebook this afternoon just a few hours after Micah Sifry at TechPresident did a basic overview of the online landscape of for the 2012 race thus far.

Sifry’s attention-getting headline – “It’s not Facebook, It’s the Data, Stupid” – seems to be an indictment of social networks.  But his key point is that knowing the audience is more important than having thousands (or even millions) of friends, followers, or likes.  It’s a point that many have made since 2008 repeatedly, yet it isn’t repetitive.  There are still folks who believe that online success is measured by the easiest metrics of Facebook and Twitter, and not in the more difficult (and final) measurement of votes on election day.  Ultimately, success or failure of the online campaign is tied to the success or failure of the overall campaign:

Facebook and other third-party social network platforms aren’t the central battlefield. It’s data and targeting and figuring out how to use online strategies to enable motivated volunteers to identify, persuade and get out the vote.

Sifry does miss an important shift in voter engagement, though.  He downplays Facebook, noting that the Obama 2012 effort still has the advantages of the networking infrastructure left over from 2008 (with roots stretching back to the nascent Howard Dean effort in 2003).  But that campaign architecture is outdated if it doesn’t work with Facebook.

Consider that in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, social networking was a varied market.  Friendster, MySpace, AIM, Friendfeed, Twitter, and of course Facebook all had significant shares of the market at one point or another.  Now, Facebook is the unquestioned market leader.  What’s more, Facebook is built as a platform for other services.  For instance, the biggest social network to gain traction since the Obama campaign, Foursquare, allows you to sign up for their service by using your Facebook log in.

There’s no room for in the modern online media and networking environment unless it works seamlessly within the Facebook interface.  If the Obama campaign tries to copy 2008 tactics in 2012 they will fail.

Sifry talks glowingly about the Facebook apps deployed by the Pawlenty and Obama campaigns – and rightly so, because these little programs are monumentally important in bridging the gap between social networking success and data management.  Liking a page is a tangential connection, that can be severed easily and surrenders little information; running followers through an application that allows them to submit contact information and self-identify their interests and issue priorities is much more powerful.

The idea that activity on Facebook is separate from data management is a recipe for a losing campaign; the winner in 2012 will have both working together.  (And despite the attention-grabbing headline, Sifry seems to get that.)