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After Early Stumble, ESPN’s ‘Get Up’ Did Just That

Executives at ESPN had high hopes in the Spring of 2018 when they launched a new morning program called “Get Up!” Within weeks, they were wondering whether they ought to put the show down.

The Disney-owned sports network saw the new program as a way to give viewers something other than another hour of its near-ubiquitous “SportsCenter,” and as a bid to offer colorful analysis and opinion in an era when sports facts and stats can be called up on a smart phone at a moment’s notice.  The network even took up space in a waterfront studio in New York’s South Street Seaport; mounted cameras outside to get shots of the rolling surf; and set up little studio nooks where hosts and guests could hold one-on-one conversations. And then ESPN dispatched three top prospects – popular radio host Mike Greenberg; outspoken and unflappable Michelle Beadle; and former Indiana Pacer Jalen Rose to mix it up for three hours each A.M.

Early broadcasts of this morning show were received about as well as early episodes of Apple’s “The Morning Show.”

Critics felt the hosts’ chemistry was off.  Internal research showed that viewers felt the program moved too slowly. “Yeah, there were some folks both internally and externally that felt out of the gate it was not delivering against the initial promise, and so maybe we should move on,” recalls Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, in an interview. The one-on-ones with visitors distracted from the sports and viewers were confused by some lighthearted banter between the hosts and a producer who would turn up from time to time, much like Michael Gelman does on the syndicated program “Live With Kelly and Ryan.”

But ESPN stuck with the program, if not its original premise. Today, “Get Up” has done just that: As of January, viewership for the show has increased in each month since last March. In its early weeks, “Get Up” had trouble gathering as many as 300,000 viewers. In November, with fans buzzing after Cleveland Brown player Myles Garrett took a helmet from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and hit him over the head with it, the show captured more than 590,000. “Get Up” lured an average audience of 411,000 in the fourth quarter, according to Nielsen, and notched a gain of 4% in the audience that advertisers pay for, people between 18 and 49.

“If you come back six months from now, I’d like to think we will evolve into something entirely different,” says Greenberg, holding forth after a recent show in his office at the New York studio.

ESPN could have just ordered up more “SportsCenter,” but in TV, sometimes it’s easier to fix a problem while the vehicle is in motion than it is to let it veer off the road.  “You’ve got to push a lot of levers and try a lot of different things and get in the lane where you see audience growth,” says Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of event and studio production.  “You can’t sit or stand pat. You’ve got to continue to tweak.”

The history of TV is filled with examples of programs that started out as one thing, and then quickly pivoted to another. Indeed, ESPN’s popular “First Take” with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim  Rose came about as the result of tinkering with a previous ESPN morning program, “Cold Pizza.” Seth Meyers launched his tenure at NBC’s “Late Night” with a show that was less focused on headlines and politics than it is now (Greenberg says he once asked Meyers – both are alumni of Northwestern – how long it took him to find his footing, and the late-night host told him, “Two years.” Through an NBC spokesperson, Meyers confirmed that conversation).

ESPN first described “Get Up” as a morning show about sports. As it turns out, viewers just wanted an interesting sports show in the morning.

“We had celebrities in here that had nothing to with sports. Maybe we thought they would be appealing to sports fans, but really, we were just promoting a movie that had nothing to do with sports, that, probably in retrospect, didn’t make a lot of sense,” says Greenberg. “We did a segment every day about who won the internet. We would pick out three fun videos and show them, and the reality is that stuff you can get anywhere.”

By August, executives had decided to retool the show – and not with a light touch. The three hours “Get Up” had enjoyed were pared to two. ESPN announced Beadle was going to leave the program – just days after she announced on air she would no longer watch football due to the way the sport treated women. ESPN had been in the midst of an effort to boost its relationship with the NFL.

“I think that comment gets way too much play. It gets way overblown,” says Williamson. “We know she’s a great TV presence” but “you sign up for certain things, and when those things change a little, you have to ask yourself as an individual, and we have to ask ourselves as running a business, ‘Do we have the right players in the right place?’” Greenberg says he learned a lot from working with Beadle and believes the two “would have evolved into a place that would have worked, no matter what. Circumstances changed. It isn’t what we planned.” Beadle could not be reached for comment through a representative.

Executives determined “Get Up” had drifted too far from what fans wanted. Viewers during that time frame remained eager to know what had happened in the sports world overnight. An hour of “SportsCenter” was installed at 7 a.m., while the “Get Up’ team was counseled to keep in mind they were helping ESPN fans bridge the gap between the core info delivered by the venerable highlights show and the hot takes from Smith and Kellerman.

“When fans come to ESPN in the morning, they want to know what happened, why it happened, what it means and what other fans will be talking about that day,” says Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content.  But “SportsCenter” can focus more on the way and “First Take” on the broader chatter. “Get Up” has to do a little bit of everything.

At the time, the changes seemed radical. Even Greenberg was taken aback by the move to two hours from three. “The people I work for will tell you that I fought like crazy against it, but in retrospect, they were probably right. We probably had bitten off more than we could chew. We are much more efficient now,” he says. “Sometimes in life, you have to admit when you were wrong. I was wrong. I thought we could handle it.”

The host felt some pressure. “This was a big deal. The company put a lot into this, and they put a lot of faith in me, and I wanted them to feel good about it,” he recalls. “I would never want to be in a position where they’ve given me an opportunity and it didn’t work.”

There had been interest for years in making Greenberg a bigger part of the morning media portfolio of ESPN’s parent, Walt Disney. In 2015, ESPN and its Disney sibling, ABC, announced that Greenberg and his longtime radio partner, Mike Golic, would move their long-running radio program to New York and share resources with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The two networks planned to sell joint ad packages involving both programs. ESPN executives changed their minds a few months later. Costs were suspected to be at issue.

Today’s “Get Up” (the exclamation point is gone) usually centers on Greenberg and a rotating cast of analysts and co-hosts (Laura Rutledge often serves as a co-anchor). That group has become a key element of the show, Greenberg says. Dan Orlovsky and Ryan Clark have carved out places for themselves each week. “It’s not part of their job. ESPN isn’t telling them ‘Not only do you have ti show up on this show on Wednesday, but you have to put a whole bunch of thought into it,’” says Greenberg.”They want to do it.”

With that feature, “Get Up” may be doing more for ESPN than some of the other programs on its schedule, suggests William Mao, vice president of media consulting for Octagon, a sports and entertainment agency that is part of Interpublic Group. “They are finding a way to bring in a variety of talent from the ESPN stable to bear on this show in a more natural way,” he says. The show’s flexible format “gives an opportunity for different types of talent to come to the fore.” Mao wonders if ESPN could transplant a “Get Up”-type show to the late afternoon as the day comes to a close and call it “Get Down.”

“Get Up” spends a lot of time on football, and Greenberg makes no excuses for that. “If you are looking to be of interest to the largest possible number of people, it doesn’t take a genius to look at the ratings of professional football now. People are interested. It’s just the reality,” he says. “To not tailor your show around that is just a mistake. It would be nonsensical.” Still, he adds, “We will begin with whatever the most interesting and impactful stories of the day are.”

“Get Up” could stretch to accommodate other topics, particularly after the Super Bowl. Producers suggest Jay Williams and Richard Jefferson will be offering features on  basketball. And ESPN’s Pitaro hopes to find ways to make the show relevant to younger viewers. “We want to protect our core audience, and we want to also expand,” he says. Over time, he hopes the show can find ways to nod to” different sports, different topics, different sports leagues” and can “bring in category experts that resonate with the younger audience.”

That said, “Get Up” isn’t moving away from football. You can expect Greenberg and company to examine Free Agency Week in mid-March and keep tabs on Tom Brady’s future, Tua Tagovailoa’s recovery and the looming NFL Draft.

Greenberg, who was 50 when “Get Up” launched, sees himself staying in his current seat for the foreseeable future. He has given himself a decade to enjoy the experience. “I have a tough time seeing it as less than that,” he says. And while “Get Up” has changed from its first day on air, the host recognizes that sort of rolling transformation is probably inevitable.

“You start by making a series of educated guesses That’s all you’re doing. And you go on the air and you start figuring it out,” he says. “You start hearing the audience. At the end of the day, you’re working for them.”

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