Can John McCain Take Down ESPN’s Big Blowhards?

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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The Walt Disney Company announced yesterday it is eliminating 300 to 400 jobs at ESPN, the network that brings us "Sunday Night Baseball," "Monday Night Football" and five other nights of chubby sportswriters arguing loudly over who loves golf the most.

It's a curious cutback considering just how central the division has been to Disney's soaring fortunes of late. The House of the Mouse announced on May 8 that profits were up 32 percent in the second quarter, on net income of $1.15 billion. While booming business at the company's theme parks earned the headlines, earnings from cable networks such as ESPN and the Disney Channel were up 15 percent, with the sports channel's advertising on track to jump by 10 percent in the current quarter.

ESPN has the cable industry in a headlock: It's in such high demand among sports-loving males that providers have to pay far more than they would with a typical network to add it to their lineups. Forbes calls it "the world's most valuable media property," valuing it at $40 billion.

Who would begrudge the network its success? Senator John McCain, for one. The Arizona Republican is angry that people who never watch expensive channels end up subsidizing their cost for those who do. He's pushing a bill that would end "channel bundling" and let customers pay for only what they watch. "The most egregious of all is ESPN," he told Bloomberg TV. "There are many, many people, unlike me, that don't like to watch ESPN and yet they're faced with the prospect of paying about $5 more in their cable bill."

The senator's economic assumptions are questionable -- the Atlantic's Derek Thompson has a pretty good takedown of the idea. But if McCain is able to sway his congressional colleagues to pass the bill, one suspects there will be more layoffs on the way at the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports." As such, McCain's effort could potentially do American culture immense good if, instead of firing lowly producers and support staff, ESPN got rid of some of its biggest on-air blowhards. And it just so happens one of the greatest offenders, commentator Stephen A. Smith, may have again opened the door to his own exit this week.

Smith, whose rambling incoherence and moral confusion have earned him repeated mockery on this season's "Saturday Night Live," guest-hosted ESPN's "Mike and Mike" radio show on Monday, and became outraged that Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and his fiancee, Rebecca Liddicoat, had made their wedding registry public. Or rather, Smith declared, Liddicoat's wedding preparations were bringing her man down. Here is a transcript, courtesy of the Washington Post's Sarah Kogod:

You know who I think the problem is? His fiancee is the problem. It's her fault. "I know people [are going to say] Steven A. needs to calm down. No, y'all calm down. I'm not being misogynistic in any way, shape, form or fashion. ...

But let me throw a little bit of the love doctor in here. Understand something. You're a woman, you're messing with a high-profile -- I shouldn't say messing -- you're involved with a high-profile dude. He has no business being a part of the wedding registry. Handle it yourself. He's RGIII. No, to you he's Robert. Whatever it is that you call him. It's cute, it's nice. But it's none of our business. Don't make it everybody's business. You, I believe her name is Jennifer? Is it? Whatever her name is, what I'm saying is, you handle that."

If McCain's dream of a la carte cable programming becomes reality, the What's-Her-Name-Jennifers of America may well alter the balance of the TV industry's economic power, and they may do some "messing" with any network that looks the other way at this sort of casual misogyny.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Toby Harshaw at