Judging a television show by its credits isn’t fair, but E:60 dares you to mock it before the show even starts. As New York City traffic whirls, the stars of ESPN’s new magazine show—Jeremy Schaap, Michael Smith, Rachel Nichols—hail cabs and climb subway steps en route to another day of hard-hitting reporting. From the opening seconds, the show seems more focused on showing that ESPN is a legitimate news-gathering operation than on crafting journalism.
In the run-up to the show’s debut episode, I was most excited about this sentence from the network’s publicity department: “To differentiate itself from other newsmagazines … E:60 will feature extensive behind the scenes looks at how the reporters create the stories, from pitching the ideas and creating storylines to interviewing subjects.” I was excited to see a genuine ESPN meeting make it to the screen. The pitch meetings I’ve attended in my years as a TV producer have mostly consisted of people stammering out half-formed thoughts as the other staffers stifle yawns and eat doughnuts. Actual decisions to shoot or not to shoot a piece are usually made via e-mail.
It would be innovative, risky, and potentially extremely boring for ESPN to show viewers how the TV sausage is made. Instead, E:60 thaws out a bunch of premade sausages. These “meetings” are about as realistic as Schaap taking the subway around town—in lieu of using a host, each reporter announces his or her interest in a given topic in a casual-but-rehearsed manner. The whole thing is shot in muted tones that let you know this is serious business. The shaky camera and whip pans popularized by NYPD Blue are also designed to enhance the feel of an off-the-cuff bull session. Of course, at no point do we see any rejected pitches—now that would’ve made for good television.
The show’s first-ever report is a grim but sadly routine tale of a sex scandal being swept under the rug at Northwestern High, a Miami prep football powerhouse. As reporter Tom Farrey sets up the piece, Michael Smith—the former Boston Globe writer who is otherwise unseen in the show’s debut—oddly chimes in from across the table that “statutory rape is common.” It’s hard to tell, though, whether he’s being supportive or critical of the story selection. Either way, there’s never any discussion of how to approach the piece structurally or whom to interview.
Far more damning is what gets left out once the story begins. Farrey mentions briefly in his intro that Northwestern appeared on ESPN this year. There’s more to the story than that: As Robert Andrew Powell wrote in Slate last month, ESPN orchestrated a game this season between No. 2-ranked Northwestern and top-ranked Southlake (Dallas) Carroll. Northwestern earned its high ranking, as E:60 reports, in part because school administrators covered up a sex crime so the team’s star running back could stay eligible for the state championships. In rewarding Northwestern with a nationally televised game, ESPN was arguably complicit in the scandal. But the network’s role in all this never comes up in the piece. Do the ever-increasing coverage and money associated with prep football lead to shady behavior by high-school principals? ESPN doesn’t care to say. By shaking its finger at Northwestern without mentioning the network’s own role, E:60 reveals an alarming capacity for sanctimony. It also proves that, at a time in which ESPN is often the biggest story in the sports world, the network’s newsmagazine has no desire to engage in self-criticism.
My opinion of the show sunk even lower when Schaap “pitched” the second piece, which was about the estrangement between Cecil Fielder and his son Prince, now slugging for the Milwaukee Brewers. A real pitch would have centered on a discussion of whether either Fielder would talk to ESPN—there’s no story without the cooperation of one or the other. As it happens, Fielder père talks about the fractured relations between once-tight father and son. Did Cecil approach ESPN after Prince gave his version of the story to Sports Illustrated? Not if you believe a longer version of the pitch meeting, available on ESPN.com, in which Schaap says he’s unsure if Cecil will discuss the rift. But TV viewers, most of whom won’t be bushwhacking through the wilds of ESPN.com, are left without an explanation of how the story came to pass.
The longest story of the night is a tearjerker about Jason Ray, the North Carolina student mascot who was killed crossing a road before this year’s NCAA Tournament. Ray donated his organs, and the feature unites his parents with the men he saved. The tone then changes drastically with a short vignette showing Bill “Sports Guy” Simmons donning a motion-capture suit and joining NBA stars like Paul Pierce as they go through the paces for the latest NBA Live video game. Simmons is jovial but not a great camera presence, as he admits up front—he doesn’t project his voice, and while joshing with Pierce he opens a crinkly bag of potato chips right next to his microphone. These are issues for his producer, but it adds to the effect that Simmons is being used merely for name value. Still, after 57 minutes of warmed-over reportage and “I think it’s interesting, let’s do it” pitches, it’s a relief to see E:60 try something new.
Clearly, ESPN hopes to show it can pump out a prestige product as its various shout-a-thons have bruised its reputation as the fan’s first and only stop for sports news. Outside the Lines, ESPN’s flagship issues program, does yeoman’s work, but since going to a daily format, it has mostly ceded long-form journalism to HBO and Real Sports.(A light Q&A with Vince Young on E:60 only serves to highlight the recent, more substantive Real Sports interview with Donovan McNabb.) E:60’s phony “making of” style won’t help rehab the network’s reputation as a news organ. The dedication, legwork, and good fortune that go into cracking good stories could be really compelling. But ESPN is only pretending to want the story behind the story. All E:60 really cares about is a marketable finished product.