Anyway you look at it, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ 745-page oral history of sports media giant ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun, was a massive journalistic undertaking.
But it also gave Miller a ready rebuttal when people asked whether he had an agenda in trying to document the journey of the Entertainment and Sports Network from widely lampooned idea to industry-dominating powerhouse.
This story, he said, will be told in your own words.
“It’s like what I told (former NFL commissioner) Pete Tagliabue; we have a lot of people putting words in your mouth here already. Here’s your chance to speak for yourself,” said Miller, speaking from a hotel room in New York. “This tried to be a book of record, and people just wanted to make sure their words were represented.”
Critics are already zeroing in on the many scandals covered in the book: from the persistent questions about sexual harassment at the male-dominated company, to friction with celebrated SportsCenter anchors Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, the company’s aversion to coming down hard on established sports institutions, and the viral video spread of sideline reporter Erin Andrews nude in a hotel room.
But Miller – who is handling most of the interviews instead of notoriously press-shy, Pulitzer-winning TV critic Shales – said one of the book’s goals was to show how so much of what people take for granted regarding ESPN these days, especially its success, was hardly a given when the first channel started on a shoestring in distant Bristol, Conn. in 1979.
“People now look at this and think it was inevitable – of course, an all sports cable channel would work, or they would have more than one,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of how circuitous this route was.”
To help drive that point home, the authors string a list throughout the book of the major decisions that helped ESPN grow into its slogan as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” What started with founders Bill and Scott Rassmussen’s decision to buy a satellite transponder in 1978 grew to the acquisition of rights to air NCAA games early in the channel’s tenure and NFL and Major League Baseball in later years.
The biggest among those moments, according to Miller, was when ESPN got rights in 1998 to air a full season of NFL games, allowing Disney to charge cable companies serious sums to carry the channel.
And what seemed like small potatoes when their research started, often took on different dimensions once they spoke to the people involved.
Miller cites the debut of ESPN2 as one such instance. A former MTV executive conceived ESPN2 as a youth-oriented alternative to the Mothership channel, with a debut program featuring Olbermann in a leather jacket.
Perhaps best-remembered for Olbermann’s opening line, “Welcome to the end of my career,” the channel would later prove to presage the modern cable era, in which big players such as Discovery Networks, Disney and BET all have multiple iterations of their core channel spread across the dial.
“It wasn’t about Keith in a leather jacket, which is what I remembered,” Miller said. “It was about (the significance) of getting another channel called ESPN on cable, keeping the competition from developing a real challenger. Once you understood that, it all took on a different context.”
Miller and Shales had experience assembling 30-year oral histories of big media institutions, thanks to their best-selling Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.
Ask Miller what he learned from that experience and his answer is simple: Persistence.
“You gotta go back a lot,” he said, noting that he interviewed longtime ESPN star anchor Chris Berman a total of 10 hours by the project’s end. “There were lots of people I interviewed several times, and you just had to keep going back until you got something useful. Some people said ‘You’re just after dirt,’ especially the people with something to hide. But if you get to a difficult place, you have to ask the questions and let them know; we’re here to ask about everything.”
Which meant exploring how married star Mike Tirico was suspended for three months in the 1990s for sexual harassment over incidents that included allegations he stuck his hand between the legs of a woman who rebuffed him at a party. Or how early financier and Getty Oil executive Stuart Evey had a reputation for Mad Men-style hard drinking during workdays and a corrosive management style. Or the way former anchor Karie Ross saw her contract expire in 1990 after speaking up during a company meeting about sexual harassment issues.
“There’s a calculus we do – how and when does personal behavior affect the company?” said Miller, acknowledging some may quibble about how they handled the many controversies the company faced in its history. “I have no desire to destroy people’s lives. But if it happened and it’s relevant to the direction of the company, it’s something we had to talk about.”
And although he shrugs it off, Miller does seem a bit annoyed by the fact that one significant person in ESPN’s history – reporter Tom Rinaldi, who conducted the first interview with golf legend Tiger Woods after his adultery scandals broke – decided not to participate in interviews for the book.
It is an omission which only highlights their remarkable access to many others embedded in ESPN’s history, with quotes from late night and ESPYs awards show host Jimmy Kimmel, President Barack Obama, Rush Limbaugh and leading figures at the company such as Berman, Bob Ley and current president George Bodenheimer.
Still, the mention of one who got away fired up Miller a bit.
“(Rinaldi) makes his living asking people if he can interview them, and he says no to being interviewed?” he said, laughing ruefully. “As Jerry Seinfeld might say, ‘That’s a tad askew.’ I wasn’t bitter and I don’t want to make too much of it, but I just thought it was weird.”
If there’s a criticism of the book to be made, it’s that many of the controversies for which ESPN is so infamous – from its tussles with Olbermann in the 1990s to Andrews’ 2009 hotel peephole video scandal and the dismissal of baseball analyst Steve Phillips after an affair with a production assistant – don’t appear until well into the story.
The first few hundred pages are focused on the building of ESPN from the crazy-creative idea of father-son entrepreneurs to a company big enough to become a major part of the Disney/ABC empire.
That means a detailed, blow-by-blow account of business deals and executive machinations, heavy on the relationships between suit-wearing guys who would become masters of the universe in all corners of professional sports.
“I’m not a big fan of talking about meetings, but if it was really critical, I tried to get it in there…and I tried to provide surprises,” said Miller, who thought exposing some of the salaries at ESPN would be big news, until he realized the company’s aversion to having any personality get bigger than the company brand kept pay low.
“CBS positions Jim Nantz as a star, NBC loves Bob Costas, but at ESPN, they want ESPN to be the star,” he said. “It’s a big part of their culture, and probably explains a lot.”
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate 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.