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"Fun," revealing read about ESPN, is major accomplishment

By Andy Lewis
/ Source: Reuters

By Andy Lewis

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - ESPN was founded by Bill Rasmussen in 1978 with $9,000 on his credit card. Today, it encompasses six U.S. networks, 46 international ones, a radio network, websites, a magazine, even a restaurant chain. It is worth more than the entire NFL, or more than the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball combined.

The subject of "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" by Tom Shales, the Pulitzer-winning former Washington Post TV critic, and James Miller, a former journalist and cable executive, is the "mystery of ESPN's rise to stratospheric heights from subterranean depths."

The authors' answer -- pulling out seven key moments in the network's history -- is less compelling than just enjoying the whole story. And oh what a story: larger-than-life personalities, salacious gossip, backstabbing and corporate intrigue set against the backdrop of the rise of cable television as an economic and cultural force.

The authors employ the same oral-history formula they used so effectively in their best-seller "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live." Except for italicized transitions between sections, the story is told through block quotes from one of the 550 people interviewed -- ranging from cameramen to President Obama. This is much harder to pull off than it sounds, probably harder than just writing the damn thing yourself.

The quotes flow seamlessly, and the voices are fresh and vibrant, but there are moments you wish the authors would referee competing stories directly, and the book could use a stronger organizational hand: the seven lessons get buried in the middle of sections, making them seem like an afterthought. Still, the oral-history formula certainly makes the book more fun to read (and great for the beach because it's easy to skip around).

Familiar figures are sketched out brilliantly. Keith Olbermann is praised as the brightest SportsCenter anchor and described as "dark" and "a tortured genius." (Sound familiar, MSNBC?) Chris Berman comes across as a pompous blowhard, yelling at Tony Kornheiser and dressing down junior employees. Rising star Bill Simmons is by turns rebellious (criticizing his corporate bosses), loyal (defending Kornheiser for Monday Night Football) and petulant (refusing all editorial advice on his column).

But ESPN could be a tough place to work. Many of the on-air talent complain bitterly that the owners dismiss their contribution to the network's success; one exec told an anchor, "In a perfect world, we would have SportsCenter with robots."

Off-air, female employees say ESPN struggled to address rampant sexual harassment. Many African-American employees think it handles racial issues poorly, with reporter Jason Whitlock going so far as to say, "It's almost like you have to be cartoonish to be black and have success at ESPN."

The off-air execs are as colorful as the on-air talent. Stuart Evey, ESPN's first chairman, was an alcoholic who treated the fledgling network like his personal toy. Managing editor John Walsh had such poor vision that he had to press his face to the screen to see the picture. Mark Shapiro, the polarizing head of programming from 2002 to 2005, is alternatively praised for the celebrated SportsCentury documentaries and mocked for hiring Rush Limbaugh. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner brags that he started ESPN: The Magazine to crush Time Warner's Sports Illustrated after Ted Turner, TW's largest shareholder, said: "I'm going to bury you. ESPN is s---. I know cable; you guys don't know cable!"

"Embedded in Fun" is the story of the transition from a network-dominated world to a cable-dominated one. More than any other cable network, ESPN perfected the formula of combining cable's dual-revenue stream (subscriber fees and advertising) with marquee programming to reap huge profits. But as Turner pointed out, ESPN's owners did not always see what they had. As late as 1987, Cap Cities/ABC shopped ESPN to Fox. Not until ESPN used the acquisition of a full season of NFL games in 1998 to extract 20 percent annual subscriber-rate increases did business legends Eisner and Warren Buffett (a longtime investor in Disney, ESPN's current owner) fully grasp ESPN's immense profitability. Eisner calls the deal "the most important thing done in broadcasting since Bill Paley stole all NBC's stars [in 1948]."

Although only the successes relate to the seven lessons, the network's failures are just as interesting. The way ESPN gutted ABC Sports -- which created MNF, "Wide World of Sports" and Olympics coverage as we know it -- is presented as a tragedy. And as network president George Bodenheimer said about ESPN's ill-fated foray into a branded mobile phone, "ESPN isn't bulletproof, and the day we start thinking we are will be a bad day."

"Fun" is a major accomplishment. The depth and breadth of the interviews make it not only the definitive account of ESPN's first three decades but one of the best books yet on how cable shaped American culture.