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Jemele Hill Controversy Magnifies Troubles at ESPN

UPDATED: Hours after the White House called for her to be fired Wednesday, Jemele Hill was in her regular seat on the 6 p.m. ET edition of ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” She made no reference to the controversy that a day earlier had compelled her own network to publicly censure her. She and co-host Michael Smith led off the show with a report on the Cleveland Indians’ 21-game winning streak.

That Hill was on the air with Smith as usual was an indicator of the line that ESPN is attempting to walk after the host took to Twitter Monday to call President Donald Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” Right-leaning critics have become increasingly outspoken about a perceived liberal bias at the cable channel at the same time that ESPN faces significant declines in ratings and subscriber numbers. Those losses have far more to do with shifts in television viewing habits than with ESPN employees’ Twitter accounts. But the channel’s handling of the Hill controversy indicates that it is wary of alienating viewers anywhere on the cultural spectrum as it attempts to evolve.

“They’re nervous,” says Windy Dees, a sports-administration professor at the University of Miami. “They have to be. They’re hemorrhaging viewers left and right.”

From 2015 to 2017, ESPN has seen its number of subscribers fall 7.4% to fewer than 88 million. Its ratings have faced an even steeper decline, with average total viewers falling 19.2% from 2014 to 2016. Wall Street has noticed. After Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledged this week that affiliate deals covering more than half of ESPN’s subscriber base are set to expire in 2019, analyst Michael Nathanson wrote, “We are concerned about the poor ratings trends at ESPN and ABC,” the company’s broadcast network. John Janedis of Jefferies similarly wrote, “weak ratings at ABC and ESPN’s non-live-sports programming continue to weigh on [advertising].”

Hill and Smith haven’t helped reverse those weak ratings. In February, the hosts of ESPN2’s “His and Hers” migrated to the core channel, taking over the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” broadcast and reinventing it as a hybrid news-debate show in which the hosts argue sports opinions and the occasional non-sports opinion. Sports Media Watch reported in March that viewership three months after the launch of “SC6” — as the 6 p.m. show was rebranded — was down 4%.

“They are in a state of decline,” Dees says of ESPN. “So any situation that happens in the future, whether it’s the Jemele Hill situation or something else, is going to have its impact magnified.”

Hill and Smith have not provided ESPN the same ratings boost that colleague Scott Van Pelt has since being installed in the 12 a.m. ET “SportsCenter” last year, but they have seen their profiles increase dramatically. They have become frequent targets on social media and in the conservative press of complaints (often on Twitter employing vulgar or offensive language) that ESPN has allowed a left-leaning social and political stance to creep into its programming. Being interviewed in April on WABC New York — shortly after ESPN initiated a round of job cuts that affected more than 100 employees — veteran “SportsCenter” anchor Linda Cohn was asked if the injection of non-sports issues into ESPN’s coverage had negatively affected ratings.

“That is definitely a percentage of it,” she said. “I don’t know how big a percentage. But if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”

But in an era in which the President of the United States equates Nazis with the counter-protestors opposing Nazis, and in which athletes from Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James have brought protests of violence against African-Americans into the playing arena, ignoring politics and social issues may not be a reasonable expectation for ESPN or any other sports broadcaster.

“ESPN has been criticized since long before [the Hill incident] for being too political as a sports network,” says Dees. “Sports and politics are always going to intertwine. You’re not going to dissect politics from sports. Sports have been a part of politics since the creation of the Olympics.”

ESPN on Tuesday issued a statement distancing itself from Hill’s tweets and saying that the anchor “recognized that her actions were inappropriate.” But the Trump tweets remain undeleted on Hill’s feed. There is no indication that she faced any discipline from ESPN besides the statement.

An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment on what if any disciplinary action the network had taken. Hill, through a representative, also declined to comment. On Wednesday night, after this story was initially published, Hill issued a statement on Twitter: “My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional.”

If ESPN was attempting to stake out a middle ground on the Hill controversy — one where it could avoid alienating viewers on either side — that is understandable, given its current troubles. But it does not appear to have managed that feat. On Tuesday night, in a Fox News segment devoted to the Hill controversy, Fox Sports’ Clay Travis told Tucker Carlson, “It means that nothing actually happened, because Hill is saying what the higher ups at ESPN believe. I think this goes all the way to the top.” Deadspin hours earlier had posted a report on the ESPN statement headlined, “ESPN Issues Craven Apology For Jemele Hill’s Accurate Descriptions Of Donald Trump.”

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