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It Was a Great, Awful Week in ESPN's History

This week, ESPN celebrated a programming success and, days later, apologized for a programming failure. Both were predictable, and both were logical extensions of what the network tries to do. 

On Tuesday night, the 49th film in the network’s “30 for 30” documentary series, You Don’t Know Bo, about former baseball and football star Bo Jackson, garnered more than 3.6 million viewers in its debut—the highest rating of any of the films.

Then, Thursday, on ESPN2’s morning talk show “First Take,” pundit Rob Parker questioned whether the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III is really black or a “cornball brother,” since, after all, the rookie quarterback is rumored to be Republican and has a white fiancée. The segment had already re-aired before a spokesperson called the comments “inappropriate” and added that Parker has been “suspended until further notice.”

This is hardly the first time that ESPN, which encourages pundits to mouth off and places a premium on decibel levels rather than thoughtfulness, has been home to this sort of racial offensiveness. The network broadcast Rush Limbaugh’s famous Donovan McNabb comments nearly a decade ago; just last year, on “First Take,” professional personality Stephen A. Smith used the n-word. Of course, when the subject is sports, a disproportionate number of offensive remarks are bound to be racial. Parker’s comments yesterday were simply the reductio ad absurdum of what these sorts of programs do—anomalous as a matter of degree, perhaps, but not of kind.

Between the unavoidable “SportsCenter” and shows like “First Take,” “Pardon the Interruption,” and “Around the Horn," the network could be said to specialize in two types of programming: sports coverage (highlights and actual live sports) and shouting matches. But “30 for 30,” which debuted in 2009, is different. Initially a series of 30 documentaries by talented, occasionally notable directors (Peter Berg, Barry Levinson, Ice Cube) about events that had occurred during the network's 30 years in business, it was followed by 13 films produced under the rubric “ESPN Films Presents,” and we are now in the midst of season two of “30 for 30.” Conceived by "Sports Guy" columnist Bill Simmons, “30 for 30” is something like the television cousin of Grantland, the ESPN-funded online magazine he edits: Both hire artistic talents not commonly associated with the ESPN factory in Bristol to harvest nostalgia and reap prestige, though not always ratings. (Nostalgia, in fact, is a big part of both operations. What could be more nostalgic than celebrating your own 30-year anniversary by resurrecting old stories? Grantland, meanwhile, is named after legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice.)

Connor Schell, ESPN Films vice president and executive producer, told me that “30 for 30” does best in the highly coveted 18-34 demographic and that “the Bo Jackson rating was a terrific number for the network.” Moreover, because the stories told in the “30 for 30” series are evergreen, they have a long afterlife—in reruns, in DVD box sets, and on Netflix, where most of them are available for streaming.

“It’s a great complementary programming to what is core to the network,” he added.

The problem, of course, is that core. It is difficult to conceive of ESPN abandoning it any time in the near future: talking heads screaming at each other about the news is, comparatively, an incredibly easy and cheap way to fill up the day, and by all accounts is deeply ingrained in Bristol’s culture. (“I need to figure out a way that I can operate in my own sphere and not deal with Bristol as much,” Simmons said, before “30 for 30” or Grantland had been launched, in the oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun.)

For “30 for 30” and similar programming to succeed on a ratings basis will likely some sort of synergy—don’t ever badmouth synergy—with the more populist programming on ESPN. The documentary about Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, enjoyed great ratings in part because it ran right after this year’s Heisman award ceremony—basically the equivalent of a live sporting event. “It was in a great time slot with a great lead-in that was the right kind of lead-in,” said Schell. Well, whatever works. Good ratings for “30 for 30” is good for sports fans, because the alternative is more “First Take.”