Media Scholar Speaks On ESPN’s Meteoric Cultural Rise
Travis Vogan, a media scholar and assistant communications professor at the University of Iowa, presented a lecture titled “ESPN Culture” on Monday afternoon in Paterno Library’s Foster Auditorium. The Robert M. Pockrass Memorial Lecture, named after the late Penn State journalism professor, focused more on the efforts ESPN has taken to appear increasingly cultured to viewers than on the specific culture and attitude at ESPN’s headquarters itself.
Vogan, who published “Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media” in 2014, based the majority of his talk on his upcoming novel, “ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire.”
“I wanted to include the word culture, but my publisher said the word might alienate some readers,” Vogan joked.
Vogan traced the evolution of ESPN in American culture, from its humble beginnings in 1978, to its first satellite launch into outer space (“truly making it the worldwide leader in sports”), to the first child named after the network, and to its failed ESPN Mobile platform that was taken off of the market after less than a year. Vogan argued that ESPN has quietly crept into the anatomy of popular culture — not because it’s so inherently different, but because it’s so familiar.
“ESPN is pervasive, primarily,” he said. “But secondly, it is entirely ordinary. We live in an ESPN culture.”
Vogan spent much of his lecture establishing that ESPN’s success can be attributed to its efforts to distance itself from the less-than-highbrow nature of sports programming. “While sports media are inarguably part of culture, they are not necessarily cultured,” he said.
By publishing books, employing Pulitzer-winning journalists, and funding documentaries and writing awards, ESPN has made a cognizant effort to become cultured. Of particular interest to Vogan was the rise of ESPN Films, from ESPN Original Entertainment to the creation of the “30 for 30” film series that airs on the network today.
Vogan cited an abundance of examples of original, feature-based works from renowned filmmakers that separated ESPN from other sports channels, including a made-for-television adaption of “A Season on the Brink,” John Feinstein’s award-winning chronicle of a season with Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. Seven years later, in 2009, ESPN partnered with Spike Lee to produce “Kobe Doin’ Work,” an ambitious project that tracked Bryant over the course of one day, employing 30 cameras. The movie debuted on ESPN with few commercials and no Bottomline, the oft-annoying ticker that runs along the bottom of most of ESPN’s programming. According to Vogan, these projects not only separated ESPN from other sports channels, but rivaled it with more cultured networks like HBO.
That all paved the way for “30 for 30,” the brainchild of Bill Simmons after the multimedia celebrity “wondered how ESPN, with its large archives, could reasonably claim to be the worldwide leader in sports without its own consistent original documentaries,” according to Vogan. The project first began as a series of 30 films to celebrate ESPN’s first 30 years, but transformed into a permanent fixture.
“[ESPN] is saying, ‘do it in your style,’ which is exactly what you wouldn’t expect from a corporate sports network,” he said.
“30 for 30,” Vogan argued, allowed ESPN to surpass HBO in the realm of sports documentaries because the latter’s projects, while they assumed different formats, were produced with the same style, making them “trite.” ESPN, meanwhile, dared its directors to experiment. And while they were “historical, creative ventures, unmotivated by commercial endeavors,” Vogan suggested that ESPN programmed these films into primetime slots in an effort to appeal to a wealthier, more cultured crowd.
This has all allowed ESPN to charge an estimated $6.04 per month per viewer, more than four times that of TNT, its next highest competitor. Additionally, it has inserted ESPN into the psyche of sports fans everywhere.
“ESPN situates itself as a site of cultural production by associating with powerful signifiers,” said Vogan. “These activities position itself as a recognizable brand like Apple or Nike that sports fans associate with themselves.”