The Los Angeles Times released an extensive profile of new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro over the weekend, cataloging Pitaro’s rise to the top of the sports-focused network and his plans to make big changes to ESPN’s coverage.
Buried deep in the profile — caught by National Review Online’s Jim Geraghty — is some welcome news for fans of ESPN who have turned off or turned down the network over its sudden and dramatic plunge into politics. Pitaro says he recognizes that ESPN viewers want sports coverage, not political commentary.
“Pitaro has also satisfied ESPN’s more traditional fans by steering commentators away from political discussions on-air and on social media, which heightened during President Trump’s criticism of NFL player protests against social injustice during the playing of the national anthem,” the LA Times reports.
“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” Pitaro told the outlet. “My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.”
This isn’t really news for fans of the network, or of Pitaro. It was clear as early as December of 2017 that ESPN’s bottom line was being affected by its newfound love of social justice. Forbes reported at the time that ESPN’s online consumer sentiment tanked from 62% to 41% with the network’s coverage of that year’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and subsequent commentary from some of its major anchors, including Jemele Hill.
Hill, who has left on-air sports journalism and now writes for The Atlantic, tweeted regularly about President Donald Trump’s “white supremacy.” Some of her co-anchors shared the sentiment, and many also embraced Colin Kaepernick and his ongoing protests during the national anthem.
The network lost an estimated 15 million subscribers.
Viewership and ad revenue tanked and the network was on the brink when Pitaro took over, but they weren’t willing to admit that politics had had such a dramatic impact. “The official party line was that the ratings crash was due to bad games, increased entertainment options, the concussion crisis and the dog eating Roger Goodell’s homework,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.
In December of 2018, though, the network finally told media that it had “miscalculated” by tolerating excessive political commentary.
“I think we miscalculated a little bit,” Williamson said. “The perception became that you could just roll a talent out there and it doesn’t matter what he or she is saying — that the content didn’t matter. I just never believed that.”
Pitaro had similar sentiments: “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”
The network’s coverage is still occasionally peppered with political commentary (Tiger Woods’ recent Masters win elicited a little bit of anger on the part of at least one host), but the changes are significant enough to be noticed by viewers and, apparently, by management.