Tell-All Book Explores ESPN's Success

When ESPN started up in 1979, cable TV was a risky, low-rent frontier. Real TV sports happened at the big networks. You got the scores from your local TV station, the radio or a newspaper. ESPN changed everything, both in substance and in tone: a tone that says, "yes we're obsessed with sports, but no, it really isn't that important. We're having a good time telling you about it." Robert Siegel talks to James Andrew Miller, who co-wrote Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

When ESPN started up in 1979, cable TV was a risky low-rent frontier. Real TV sports happened at the big networks and you got the scores from your local TV station or from the radio or even - and this sounds prehistoric - from a newspaper that you didn't see until the next day.

ESPN changed everything, both in substance and also in tone - a tone that says, yes, we're obsessed with sports, but no, it really isn't that important, we're having a good time telling you about it.

The ESPN story is told by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller in their new book, "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN." And Jim Miller joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES ANDREW MILLER (Co-Author, "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, the most noteworthy thing about your book, it's nearly all presented in oral history style as opposed to narrative, and it is 745 pages long. How long was your book on the mortgage-backed securities crisis be?

Mr. MILLER: Twenty. That was a very simple story. No, I'm just kidding. The good news is that there were 350 pages cut.

SIEGEL: This was originally a thousand-page book.

Mr. MILLER: I'm afraid so, yes.

SIEGEL: Some stars emerge in this story and one of them is a fellow named Chris Berman, who seems to be almost an accidental star. ESPN really didn't set out to do it with big names.

Mr. MILLER: ESPN doesn't like stars, actually. I think that they like the idea that the brand is bigger than any one individual. But Chris is too generous.

Mr. CHRIS BERMAN (Anchor, ESPN): And Nick Toles(ph) is there. And not only is he there a pick, he could go all the way.

Mr. MILLER: He came to the network in its first year of existence, fresh off a degree in history from Brown University. And through the force of his personality and some clever trademark phrases, became rather larger than life on the Bristol campus.

SIEGEL: Now, I want to talk about the team that made "SportsCenter" really come together, remarkable team of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick.

(Soundbite of "SportsCenter")

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Former Co-Host, "Sports Center"): Hello and welcome from world headquarters at the big show, alongside by tag team partner, Dan Patrick, I'm Keith Olbermann.

Mr. DAN PATRICK (Former Co-Host, "Sports Center"): Coming up on "SportsCenter," the rest of the National League is waiting for the Phils to fall from grace. The big unit makes its return for you "Melrose Place" fans, Andrew Shue highlights.

Mr. MILLER: Keith and Dan started in the early 1990s on the 11:00 "SportsCenter." And they were perfectly positioned at that time for two things. One is the way that their personality was able to be on display on the show, I think, was a big eye-opener for a lot of people. And the second thing was that was at a time when ESPN and "SportsCenter" were going through a real change in the way they presented sports journalism.

I'll never forget somebody at CNN said that they looked up one night and Keith and Dan had done a baseball story that was followed by another story in a different sport. And up to then, it was like the first block was like football, then the second block was another sport. And ESPN was basically making it like the front page of a paper. So they were changing the actual dynamics of sports journalism at the time.

And Keith and Dan, they had this kind of Hope-Crosby, you know, Laurel and Hardy whatever you want to call it - one of these magical pairings where their sensibilities and their personalities really didn't duplicate one another, they just kind of fit together really well. They became enormously popular.

SIEGEL: And that idea that you would create a rundown for the show, not sport by sport, but story by story, that's something that a man named John Walsh, we read, brings to ESPN.

Mr. MILLER: John A. Walsh, yes. He's one of the most important characters in the ESPN story. And he came from a journalism background. And, you know, he was hired to kind of develop the journalistic DNA of ESPN. John was one of their first people to recognize that "SportsCenter" should be sacrosanct.

You know, he wanted to be that if it was 11:00 - unless, you know, a game was running late - people could count on seeing "SportsCenter." And he understood and he wanted everyone else to understand just how important that show was to the network.

SIEGEL: There's a funny story that's related here about somebody being sent to go find John A. Walsh, and being told he's unmistakable. He is albino. He looks like Santa Claus.

Mr. MILLER: Yes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: They sent this poor intern who was on his first day, I guess, as a driver. And they said go pick him up at this hotel. And they said, don't worry about it, you'll know who he is 'cause he looks like Santa Claus. He's an albino. And the guy gets there and there is a big sign outside the hotel staying Welcome Albinos. It was an albino convention and the poor guy, I think, it took him 30 minutes, he said, to find John.

SIEGEL: You document the interactions of lots of corporate executives from ESPN, from Getty Oil, ABC Cap Cities, Disney. And while I confess that I'm speaking right now with someone who works on the air, I came away from them thinking, you know, I'm interested in learning more about Chris Berman and Suzy Kolber and Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick.

But ultimately, who really cares about Chet Simmons, Steve Bornstein, John Lichter(ph), George Bodenheimer? I mean, apart from lots of stories about drinking or being slow to come to grips with sexual harassment, who cares about these guys?

Mr. MILLER: Well, they're the guys that made the Chris Bermans and the Suzy Kolbers and everybody else possible. There were six middle-aged white guys who made a lot of big decisions for this company in its 32-year history. And while you may not be as excited or as interested about them as you are about the on-air personalities that you see, the point of this book is to create a book of record, a comprehensive history that answers the central question - how did ESPN get so big? Why is it so successful? And without the work of these men, none of it's possible.

SIEGEL: You know, one reading of the story, though, is that the managers and the owners and executives of ESPN created something in spite of themselves. That is, they wanted people who would work cheap, which meant a lot of young people. They put them up in Bristol, Connecticut.

And the young people, they worked so cheap that they had to make stuff up as they went along. And they got something different because they were starting out. If only they'd had some more money, they would have created something much more conventional.

Mr. MILLER: Well, that's one of the delicious surprises in this story, because even - let's just take tiny examples. The NFL draft, so Chet Simmons, who you just mentioned before, he's president. It's 1980. He's got all this time but they don't have the money to buy things. He goes to NFL commissioner Pete Roselle and says: Can we televise the NFL draft? And the commissioner says, are you crazy, who would want to do that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: And he says, well, I want to. You know, he's primarily concerned with filling up airtime. But meanwhile, its 32 years later and they're still televising the draft. So sometimes this need creates something that winds up being, you know, quite important. And now, of course, is a huge blip on the sports radar screen.

SIEGEL: Well, James Andrew Miller, thank you very much for talking with us about the book.

Mr. MILLER: Well, thank you for your interest. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Jim Miller and Shales are the authors of the new book "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN."

(Soundbite of theme song, ESPN)

Mr. LEE LEONARD (Sports Anchor, ESPN): Yea, verily a sampler of wonders. Hi, I'm Lee Leonard welcoming you to Bristol, Connecticut, 110 miles from New York City. Why Bristol? Because here in Bristol is where all the sports action is as of right now.

And we're just minutes away from the first event on the ESPN schedule. That's the 1979 "NCAA College Football Preview." And then we're going to follow that with a double-header of games. Two of the Professional Slow-Pitch League World Series games will be seen tonight.

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