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Executive transitions at ESPN portrayed as progressive, yet media question motives

Whenever media critics hear news as jolting as a change of leadership at ESPN, we ask one question: What does this really mean?

We usually know what the company wants us to think it means. That comes courtesy of official statements or press conferences, with talking points lawyered within an inch of their lives and scrubbed of much that is useful.

In the case of John Skipper’s elevation to president of the Worldwide Leader and co-chair of Disney Media Networks – with current president George Bodenheimer promoted to the newly created transition job of executive chairman – the change is presented as something Bodenheimer wanted.

“I’ve been with ESPN 31 years — my entire professional career. Constant change and consistent growth have marked each of those years, and to me those two themes underscore today’s news,” Bodenheimer said in a statement. “After 13 years as president, I felt it was a good time to step away from the day to day management of ESPN and let others take the lead. I very much appreciate Bob’s support over the years, and look forward to my future role with ESPN.”

Since Bodenheimer, Skipper and Walt Disney Company president Bob Iger aren’t yet talking with the press – even the sports network they lead, ironically – we haven’t heard their answers to all the questions raised by this transition, announced during a holiday week when many journalists are off work and news audiences are gearing up for Turkey Day.

What we do know is that Iger has already set his departure date from Disney’s president and CEO job for 2015, kicking off serious speculation as to who would succeed him in running one of the world’s largest media companies.

Skipper’s elevation puts him in a good position to be one of those candidates, elevated to lead the sprawling company’s most profitable division in a job that makes him co-chair of Disney Media Networks alongside Anne Sweeney.

Sweeney, who oversees the company’s non-sports entertainment platforms such as the ABC Network, ABC Family cable channel and the Disney Channel, was widely considered a top contender to replace Iger when news of his departure was made public.

In contrast, Bodenheimer moves up to an executive job which will take him out of overseeing the day-to-day operations of ESPN at a time when executives will be working overtime to prove they deserve Iger’s job.

Bodenheimer is an ESPN institution, starting work at the Bristol, Conn. headquarters more than 30 years ago as a driver ferrying Fed Ex packages and staff back and forth from the airport, rising to become its top executive in an ultimate example of promotion from within.

But that classic ESPN culture has taken a beating in recent years, with recent controversies over the endorsements allowed celebrities such as Erin Andrews, coverage decisions regarding big names such as Ben Roethlisberger and an exhaustive book which detailed, among many other things, allegations of sexual harassment at the company’s isolated headquarters.

That book, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Those Guys Have all the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, also detailed how Bodenheimer secured the channel’s lucrative future, negotiating deals with cable providers which increase their fees 20 percent each year for the life of the agreement.

“What George Bodenheimer did then is the most important thing done in broadcasting since Bill Paley stole all of NBC’s stars,” said former ABC chief executive officer Michael Eisner in one telling quote from the book.

But ESPN is entering a new media world where such cable deals are not necessarily its entire future. Now, other promising portions on the Worldwide Leader’s plate belong to its online and mobile technology profiles, with the key to any modern media company found in the millions who access its content across these relatively new areas.

ESPN also faces a new challenge from a Comcast-led NBC, which is quite obviously welding its new plethora of sports platforms into a sizable competitor.

Back in June, NBC sealed a $4.3-million deal for the next four Olympic Games across its many cable and broadcast channels, just after losing old school network TV sports head Dick Ebersol in favor of cable-savvy NBC Sports Group leader Mark Lazarus.

And Comcast’s sports channel Versus changes its name to NBC Sports Network on Jan. 2 – one day after Bodenheimer leaves his old ESPN job and Skipper officially becomes, well, the skipper.

For a company that has struggled through so many well-publicized executive transition crises, the Bodenheimer/Skipper handoff looks to be a smooth one. Bodenheimer took a chance on Skipper, hiring the longtime print executive to his first TV job as executive vice president of content for ESPN in 2005, positioning Skipper for his current gig.

For an organization that prides itself on creative conflict and leaps forward through smartly aggressive change, it seems a good move for the start of a new year filled with amped-up competition and new challenges.

Even if that’s what ESPN kinda wants us to think, anyway.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduatYe of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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