Worldwide leader changing its focus to entertainment

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It’s a question 30-somethings like me ponder every once in a while while channel surfing our lives away. Remember when MTV actually played music videos?

In a few years, we could be asking ourselves a similar question – remember when ESPN actually had sports?

American culture is being consumed by celebrity and the wannabes who strive for it, and the Endlessly Self-Promoting Network’s stomach is growling. From the ESPYs to its David Beckham promotional campaign, from the breathless updates whenever Barry Bonds blows his nose to its insipid “Who’s Now” exercise, one can only conclude that the World-Wide Leader has come to the table with knife and fork in hand and is ready to feast. Within a couple of years, it will be indistinguishable from the star-and-scandal-worshipping network down the dial and become E!SPN.

It’s kind of hard to believe it has taken E!SPN this long, actually. Magazines, movies, music and television shows realized a long time ago that substance doesn’t fill the coffers. Find a pretty face, market it to the lowest common denominator, spice it up with regular tabloid rumors involving sex, drugs, alcohol, the occasional arrest, the subsequent stint in rehab and redemptive book tour, and you’ll have millions of suckers waiting in line to give you their money.

E!SPN and Major League Soccer are counting on this with all the Beckham hype. The sport itself isn’t marketable here, as has been proven time and time again, so the media coverage focuses more on Mr. and Mrs. Posh’s latest magazine spread or their chumminess with Tom Cruise, rather than Bend It’s declining soccer skills. You can’t blame the league for taking that angle, because it doesn’t just get them on Sportscenter. It gets them on with Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly and Pat O’Brien. As for E!SPN, it just continues to broaden its viewer base. It’s already got the hard-core sports fan. In order to grow, it needs to attract the casual fan and even non-sports fans.

Remember, this is the same network that not so long ago had a nightly show on ESPN2 (ESPN Hollywood, in case you blinked and missed it) devoted to the relationship between Hollywood and sports. This is the same network that brings guests into the Monday Night Football booth ever week to plug their Walt Disney movie or their ABC series. It’s the same network that plops a Bruce Willis or a Ben Affleck in the Budweiser Hot Seat to plug, plug, plug and makes weak attempts to tie it into sports by showing a clip of them sitting next to the Red Sox dugout or asking them about the time they took John Rocker deep in some charity softball game.

The network probably won’t lose Monday Night Football or college football. But in a few years, that kind of programming could be the exception rather than the rule on E!SPN. The rest of the actual games or races can always go to ESPN2 or ESPNU or ESPNVroom or whatever other arms it grows in the future.

Music Television doesn’t need music anymore. What makes you think the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network is going to need sports?

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