Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Media | Sports

June 7, 2011

Putting Bristol on the Map

James Andrew Miller discusses his controversial new book and how ESPN became synonymous with sports.

Michael Gluckstadt

There aren't many ways to build a multibillion-dollar media company out of nothing. You can invent Facebook, be Michael Bloomberg, or, as ESPN founders did, bring wall-to-wall coverage to what most people consider an organized hobby. With the network's ubiquitous appearance in contemporary culture, it's easy to lose sight of how revolutionary an idea an all-sports channel was back in 1979. And no amount of self-reverential clips of a younger (but strangely, not too much younger) Chris Berman mumbling, bumbling, fumbling around behind a desk could ever re-create the sense of novelty that a viewer must have felt the first time he came across an entire channel devoted to what had previously been the province of some guy with a wacky name at the end of the evening-news broadcast.

James Andrew Miller. Photo by Victoria Will.
"The company was not equal to the challenges of some of the workplace issues they had to deal with at the time."

James Andrew Miller. Photo by Victoria Will.

The new book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, reveals how a small broadcast channel in suburban Connecticut became the most powerful player in the cable-television market. While sordid personal stories and backbiting might grab blog headlines, the real story in the book is how the company came to be synonymous with sports in this country and around the world.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Miller shares whether he thinks ESPN can objectively cover the same leagues it relies on for revenue, how the network in the '80s was like the subject of his and Shales's previous book, Saturday Night Live, and why everyone wants to know about the private lives of Bristol's most visible residents.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think there is so much interest in what goes on in Bristol?

James Andrew Miller: ESPN has become one of the largest brands worldwide, and people spend a lot of time with it. So I think there's a genuine interest in not only how it got to be so big, but also in what these people are like when they're not reading from a prompter or analyzing a game. How do they relate to each other? What kind of fun things happen when the camera's turned off? What competitive pressure are they under?

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to tell the story in the format of an oral history?

James Andrew Miller: There's just no way that any prose could capture the voice of Chris Berman, Bill Simmons, Tony Kornheiser, Linda Cohn, and everyone else. They have unique voices, and the oral-history format enables readers to get a strong sense of connection to them.

Gelf Magazine: Why was this was a story you wanted to research and tell?

James Andrew Miller: I've been watching ESPN for a long time, and I'm just fascinated by it and its success. It's one of the great media triumphs of the last few decades. With all due respect to other books that have been written on the subject, I don't think there's been another one that's looked at ESPN's 30-year history in a comprehensive way.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get so many people to speak to you on the record?

James Andrew Miller: It wasn't easy. ESPN initially decided that they were not going to cooperate, so the first year was particularly difficult. When they changed their mind it was a great boon for the project. Some people were reluctant to talk on the record; others I interviewed nine or ten times and only used a couple paragraphs. It's not like you feed people sodium pentothal and they're blabbing all over the place. I was fortunate people decided to be candid. This book doesn't work if people just sit down and say, "This is a great place to work."

Gelf Magazine: Why did ESPN officials reverse course and decide to grant you access?

James Andrew Miller: They realized that the book was going to go on with or without them. They felt like it would be a better idea for them to represent themselves than have other people represent them. By the time that year was up, I'd already interviewed presidents and chairmen from the company's history, so management knew who was participating.

Gelf Magazine: What's surprised you most about the book so far?

James Andrew Miller: There have been some fun responses, things along the lines of, "I've been working here for over 20 years and had no idea this stuff was happening." People have been pleasantly surprised about how candid everyone was. In the case of something like the Rush Limbaugh episode or the negotiations for Monday Night Football, people knew what happened, but they didn't know what was going on behind the scenes.

Gelf Magazine: Has anyone complained (or worse) to you about how they've been depicted in the book?

James Andrew Miller: A couple of people thought they were portrayed unfairly, but nobody said I took their words out of context or that they didn't know they were recorded. Almost all the responses have been really good. A couple of people said I didn't give them enough credit.

Gelf Magazine: A lot has been made about the personal stories in the book, but the business story is much more remarkable. How was ESPN able to build a multibillion-dollar business out of thin air?

James Andrew Miller: They didn't do it all once, and there was no master plan. One of the great things about reporting that part of the story was to see just how many surprises and dramatic moments there were in the company's history: times when the whole thing almost caved in, or when they were running out of money. Ultimately, they had the right people in the right places at the right time.

Gelf Magazine: Was there a tipping-point moment when it became clear just how big ESPN was going to be?

James Andrew Miller: You first got a sense of it in 1987 when they first got football and were able to go back to the cable operators and charge some significant dollars. But in 1998, when they get the full season, that was game, set, and match. That's what George Bodenheimer allowed Michael Eisner and Steve Bornstein to do.

Gelf Magazine: An area that stuck out to me in the book were the passages about the show Playmakers, which was canceled at the NFL's urging after one season. How would you describe the relationship between ESPN and the NFL?

James Andrew Miller: Playmakers is a great window into that relationship. ESPN had a scripted drama that was receiving critical acclaim and doing well in the ratings, and they canceled it because it upset a rights-holder. It can be said that ESPN has done some very strong enterprise journalism that NFL might not want them to take on—things like concussions and helmet safety. But when it came to something as big as Playmakers, they made it clear that they would not upset a partner to that degree.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think programming decisions at ESPN are based on the network's relationship with the leagues? The anecdote about David Stern insisting on WNBA coverage seems to suggest that they can be.

James Andrew Miller: You have to be realistic. In some ways, ESPN enjoys a considerable amount of autonomy, considering they're in business with these people. On the other hand, there's a recognition that it's bad business to treat a big partner a certain way. They try to keep it church and state, and by and large, they do.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find the environment at ESPN to be at all similar to that of Saturday Night Live?

James Andrew Miller: I would say yes, but only ESPN in the late '70s and '80s. They've done a pretty good job of cleaning up their work environment and culture. That's not to say that problems don't still happen. But when they do, ESPN officials work very quickly and responsively to address them. In the '80s though, it was like the teacher walked out of the room and everyone was throwing erasers at the board.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think the culture was like that?

James Andrew Miller: You had a lot of young people coming to a remote place that didn't have much supervision. The company was not equal to the challenges of some of the workplace issues they had to deal with.

Gelf Magazine: Does that still exist today?

James Andrew Miller: I don't think it does. They have a very low tolerance for that kind of behavior. When it does rear its head, it gets stamped out pretty fast.

Gelf Magazine: What is the general opinion of people at ESPN of blogs like Deadspin that are constantly trying to pick them apart?

James Andrew Miller: Everyone there recognizes that their lives are of great interest to some people outside the company. There's a bigger spotlight on them than there would be if they were working at Xerox or GE or even CBS or NBC.

Related on the web: Read an excerpt of Those Guys Have All the Fun in GQ.

Front-page image of ESPN's NFL draft coverage courtesy of Marianne O'Leary's Flickr via Creative Commons.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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