ESPN is moving their star morning debate show, “First Take,” from ESPN2 to ESPN in 2017 in an effort to boost its declining viewership, according to John Ourand of Sports Business Daily.
While this move can be looked at as an effort to revive ESPN’s most controversial show, it is also a sign that ESPN is at a crossroads and a larger shake-up is brewing for the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”
It has been a rough year for ESPN. They laid off more than 300 employees at the end of 2015 — their second wave of lay-offs in two years — and are on pace to lose three million subscribers in 2016. In addition, ratings are down 19.4% for ESPN’s biggest investment, “Monday Night Football,” an enterprise in which ESPN pays $1.9 billion per year for one game per week during the NFL season.
All of that has overshadowed another growing problem for ESPN: “First Take,” one of their marquee daytime shows, is losing viewers in droves at a time when doubt was already being raised about how well strong ratings for debate shows translate to advertising revenue.
The migration of “First Take” to ESPN comes after the show has seen its ratings take a big hit following the defection of co-host Skip Bayless to Fox Sports 1. ESPN replaced Bayless with Max Kellerman who now sits across the table from Stephen A. Smith. While Smith has long been viewed as the star of the show and the new face of ESPN, it is clear that the loss of Bayless hurt the show’s ratings.
Here is a look at how the weekly ratings for “First Take” compare to Bayless’ new show, “Undisputed,” and how both compare to the same nine-week stretch for “First Take” in 2015 (data via Sports TV Ratings; continued below)
Clearly “First Take’s” ratings have been a blow to ESPN, but the scariest part of the above chart for ESPN is that not all of the lost viewers have gone to Bayless’ new show. The two shows have a combined audience that is 10-20% smaller than what “First Take” was pulling in 2015.
Growth for “Undisputed” has been modest, however, its audience has grown since Week 3 when they averaged 80,200 viewers per day. In each of the last four weeks, the show co-hosted by Shannon Sharpe has averaged over 100,000 viewers per day.
Meanwhile, “First Take” has taken a big hit, averaging about 300,000 viewers per day over the last few weeks. During the same period last year, “First Take” was averaging close to 500,000 viewers per day with both Smith and Bayless at the desk.
Things have been so bad, that ESPN has resorted to airing “First Take” at halftime of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” a move that has clearly been made to try to reboost the ratings.
Moving “First Take” is a step to boosting that show’s ratings. But there appears to be more changes coming. In addition to moving two hours of “SportsCenter” to ESPN2 to fill the vacancy, ESPN must decide how much of their daytime programming they want to dedicate to debate-style shows.
Back in 2012, John A. Walsh, ESPN’s then-executive editor, explained that the network was embracing debate because the ratings were strong and that it would lead to other debate shows on ESPN:
“What’s really developed here is that [First Take] has hit a nerve because it has developed a debate personality…it’s hit ratings. And the reason is that these two personalities have clicked…I do think that there are places that debates can go that they haven’t gone so far. It will be something we should be looking at.”
But while the ratings had been strong, it appears they weren’t translating to advertising revenue as well as ESPN hoped.
Richard Deitsch of ESPN recently spoke with Traug Keller of ESPN about another morning staple on ESPN2, “Mike & Mike,” (an ESPN Radio show that is simulcast on ESPN2 prior to “First Take”). Keller admitted that advertisers have started shying away from controversial shows.
“I will tell you that a litmus test of mine for ‘Mike & Mike’ and how it fits in with the brand is I want ‘Mike & Mike’ to be able to be on with the mums driving the kids in the backseat to school. We get feedback on that, and it matters. It matters to our brand. Do we want to have the sports show of record where commissioners want to come to get their point of view across? Yes. All that stuff matters. It actually allows us to deliver an audience that advertisers feel very comfortable in and more and more today advertisers are trying to stay away from controversial talk.”
Nothing on ESPN is more controversial than “First Take,” a show that many feel is sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism and routinely catering to the lowest common denominator.
What is also interesting about Keller’s comment is that it came under the framework of discussions ESPN was having about giving Mike Greenberg of “Mike & Mike” his own morning show on ESPN to replace “SportsCenter,” giving ESPN something more akin to “Good Morning America.”
As controversial as Stephen A. Smith and “First Take” can be, Greenberg is the polar opposite: he is not controversial and does resonate with “the mums driving the kids in the backseat to school.” Commissioners do go on “Mike & Mike” because they know Greenberg is not going to ask any hard-hitting questions and in return ESPN gets to say “we have the commissioners on our network!”
It would be interesting if ESPN still decides to have a morning talk show on ESPN hosted by Greenberg that was then followed by the more controversial “First Take.” Those two shows, back-to-back, on ESPN’s main network might be even more jarring than going from “Mike & Mike” to “First Take” now, and it is hard to imagine how big the overlapping audiences would be.
Still, it is hard to imagine ESPN will stick with the dying “SportsCenter” model as a lead-in for “First Take.” So another change is almost certainly coming, whether it is a Greenberg show or something else.
Whatever ESPN does decide to do, it seems like the wheels are in motion to shake up their daytime lineup and “First Take” is just the start.
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