‘Those Guys have all the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”; By Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller; Little-Brown; 2011; 748 pages; $27.99.
After almost 750 pages, “Those Guys have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” doesn’t really conclude. It stops.
In most cases that would seem anticlimactic. Not so here. After all, ESPN at age 30 is only really getting started. From a tiny dream of less-than-visionary founders to create an all-sports station for a strictly Connecticut audience, a cultural phenomenon that mirrors America’s dependence on television, sports and entertainment emerged as the bona fide giant of a new world order created by cable TV. Indeed, it can be said that cable TV didn’t create ESPN. ESPN launched cable TV into something nearly all wanted in their homes.
The saga of ESPN and its rise from the unlikeliest of media outposts in Bristol, Conn. isn’t so much a story of the often startling fascination with sports in America — although that’s a huge chunk of it. In a larger sense, it’s an examination of the popular culture cultivated in a cablesphere that embraced a crew of snarky broadcasters who delivered information in ways rich — or in some cases poor — with commentary. Indeed, the way ESPN anchors and analysts interacted with the audience from the start is the forerunner of how cable news broadcasters engage viewers. Along the way it’s created a reactionary breed of information consumers, perhaps to the detriment forever of news production.
“Those Guys have All the Fun” refrains from such judgments, it merely tells what the authors call the story of ESPN, not the history. Still, there are facts aplenty as the book chronicles what the writers call the network’s climb to “global domination.” It’s a fascinating read and a compelling story that allows readers to frame their own opinions.
With 30 years of anecdotes from a colorful cast of characters, there is no shortage of rich territory to mine for writers Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. The two collaborated on the equally engaging and lively look at entertainment, comedy and culture in “Live from New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live.’” Shales, a Pulitzer Prize winner formerly of the Washington Post, is perhaps the top television critic in America. Miller, author of “Running in Place Inside the Senate” is nearly his equal in gleaning information from subjects who aren’t always the easiest to interview. Think bombastic and bullying former basketball coach Bob Knight, who is among the hundreds of ESPN’ers who agreed to sit and be questioned.
Shales and Miller use the oral history format put in place for their work about “Saturday Night Live” to also tell the story of ESPN. The narrative is driven largely — almost entirely — by quotes from nearly anyone affiliated with the network from its rather timid beginning (Australian Rules Football, anyone?) to last year with its triumphant broadcast of the World Cup.
And at the start, absolutely no one thought it had a chance of succeeding, much less overtaking the big three major networks that dominated the sports broadcasting landscape for decades.
While the background players may not be names those who watch ESPN recognize, they comprise the core information about ESPN’s creation, its early stumbles and the exceptional successes with college basketball that helped turn the network into a sought after service rather than a passing joke on “The Tonight Show.” To be sure, ESPN’s rise to cable goliath was built upon gaining the rights to the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, but those things were obtained through shrewd business maneuvering, a work ethic bordering on the insane and the phenomenal success of SportsCenter, a show that cost nearly nothing to produce but built the network’s early and very loyal audience. SportsCenter is the foundation upon which ESPN successfully constructed its future.
A litany of producers, directors and executives who made pivotal and sometimes controversial decisions are interwoven with the anchors and analysts most viewers more easily recognize. From George Grande and Chris Berman to Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann to Stu Scott, Hannah Storm, Erin Andrews and Scott Van Pelt the book crackles with anecdotes about missteps; triumphs; creative differences; a work-hard, party-hard culture; and a rather troubling history of workplace issues related to mistreatment of women. For example, it wasn’t uncommon in the 1980s for the Playboy channel to be on in the newsroom.
Ultimately, ESPN grew because it learned from its mistakes — like launching a trendy and hip ESPN2 with Olbermann, its resident bad boy, wearing a leather jacket even Fonzie wouldn’t find cool during the first broadcast. The network now operates on a myriad of cable stations and on platforms that include print and online reporting. It’s most visible successes include the award-winning Sports Century series or the more recent 30 for 30 sports documentaries.
As it’s grown, ESPN has become a target for criticism — much of it justified. It was, after all, the network that brought America the horrid LeBron James program “The Decision” last summer, a show emblematic of the self-absorbed athlete the ESPN culture has created. It’s a highlight-driven and opinionated world where winning is all that truly matters.
In that way, “Those Guys have all the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” is the story of modern America.