ESPN producer Jamie Horowitz, the “genius” behind Sportsnation and First Take, revealed his essential philosophy to Newsday’s Neil Best: Ratings, ratings, ratings.
“‘So don’t sit there and say my coffee is great. It’s not great. If it was great, they would be buying it. Don’t sit there and say, this show is great and nobody watches it. If it was great then people would watch – generally.’
“The other side also is true: The ratings continue to go up on a show, I still hear the critics say they have concerns. I hear it. But I watch the ratings constantly go up and that tells me viewers are voting with their eyeballs. They’re saying they want to watch more or longer. That means they want to buy more coffee. If we’re selling more coffee than we ever have before, we must be doing something right.'”
What Horowitz says about audience demand is true, to an extent. His problem is catering to that exclusively rather than as part of a balancing process. You need a show to attract young men in the afternoons? Let’s throw together a perky blonde, a snarky sensibility, viral videos, some fast-pacing to cater to short attentions and a healthy dollop of trolling. Call it Sportsnation. You want to boost ESPN 2’s daytime ratings? Who is home at midday? Use race baiting to fuel First Take’s ratings.
Horowitz attributes this philosophy to Erik Rydholm. Rydholm produces debate shows, but his genius is not so much the format as a knack for finding compelling people and relationships to put on television. PTI worked because of Kornheiser and Wilbon have great chemistry together. Around the Horn has outlasted its critics and the Jay Mariotti experience because Rydholm found a charming host in Tony Reali and panelists such as Bomani Jones.
If viewers “voting with their eye balls” was the only concern, ESPN (and every other network) would splice together hardcore pornography, car wrecks and cat videos. (That might be Sportsnation if there was no FCC to step in.) A high-minded, critically acclaimed concept that fails to attract an audience is a failure. So is the inverse, if you expect your brand to be well regarded by serious people.
E.L. James sells an absurdly large number of books. There’s a clear audience for crap. That’s not an argument for Zadie Smith to insert schlocky sex scenes.