At ESPN, big changes don’t necessarily mean big changesPublished February 20, 2012
• Nothing’s going to change.
• Williamson and Wildhack’s direct reports will ensure that continuity.
• The programming and production departments will continue to work closely together.
But for much of Bristol’s rank-and-file, the changes that new president John Skipper put in place last month are significant.
After overseeing production for seven years, Williamson now will oversee programming, essentially trading talent negotiations for media rights ones. During that time, Wildhack had been overseeing programming. He now will take over the production department.
The differences when you first meet the two executives are stark. Born and bred in Connecticut, Williamson’s outgoing personality has him always quick with a quip. Wildhack is from upstate New York and is much more reserved, playing his cards close to his vest.
Both are ESPN lifers. Wildhack started in 1980 as a production assistant; Williamson started five years later, he too as a production assistant.
At the end of last month, Skipper decided the two should switch roles and continue reporting to him.
In their first interviews since taking on their new responsibilities, both Williamson and Wildhack told SportsBusiness Journal that any changes will be minor and imperceptible to the home viewer.
“We work closely together anyway,” Williamson said of the programming and production departments. “It will be different, but it won’t be that much different.”
For ESPN viewers, Wildhack is taking on the more public job. He will help shape ESPN’s schedule and negotiate with on-air talent.
But Wildhack, who had been part of the programming department since 1994, said he’s not going to change a thing. The move marks a return to production for the executive, where he spent the first 14 years of his ESPN career.
“The amount of content and the quality of content that Norby and his team produce on a daily basis is unparalleled in the industry,” he said.
Specifically, Wildhack said that he will be “patient” with ESPN2’s afternoon programming block, which includes shows like “NFL 32” and “Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable.”
“We’ve seen some growth there,” he said. “If you believe in a show, then you’ve got to give that show every chance to succeed.”
Under Williamson’s reign, ESPN appeared to move away from a star-driven system. Gone were the days when Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick developed into stars on “SportsCenter.” Instead, ESPN’s on-air talent has seemed increasingly interchangeable.
But Williamson disagreed with that notion, pointing to Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic, Jeff Van Gundy and Jon Gruden as examples of home-grown stars that ESPN wants to keep.
“It used to be that ESPN and the networks had more bells and whistles than anything else, so their product on the screen looked better. It’s not the case anymore,” Williamson said. “Look at SNY. When you watch that stuff, Curt Gowdy’s producing that and, man, it looks good. There’s not all that much of a gap anymore.”
The only way to stand out today, Williamson said, is with on-air talent.
“Look at what we’re doing with Le Batard and his father,” he said, referring to Le Batard frequently including his father as a guest on his show. “That vision is star-driven. Whether it succeeds or not is a different discussion, but that is a personality-driven attempt to create a show.”
Williamson said he’s heard the criticism before and understands where it comes from. “There aren’t just two ‘SportsCenter’ anchors. There are 22,” he said.
But he said ESPN has committed to building its talent pool and creating stars, which is an initiative that Wildhack plans to continue to support.
Ever since Skipper was announced as George Bodenheimer’s successor, I’ve been told not to expect any changes. After talking with Wildhack and Williamson, I’m more convinced than ever that the ESPN of tomorrow will look a lot like the ESPN of today.
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.