While you may not be familiar with the term “embrace debate,” it is exactly what has taken over sports television entertainment in recent years. Unlike the old days of classic ESPN programs Outside the Lines and The Sports Reporters, shows that identified and professionally investigated major sociological, psychological, and human interest issues in sports, embrace debate is none of those things. In fact, embrace debate is simply about being loud, yelling and screaming, and using facts only when necessary. Nuance has been replaced by “hot takes” designed solely to go viral, and experts are being replaced by personalities only good at being obnoxious. With the recent ESPN layoffs last week, a number of talented reports were released in exchange for more talent-less embrace debate. Apparently this is what America wants based on ESPN and FOX Sports program scheduling, but is this what you want?
Viral takes & clicks
Today, everything is measured by clicks, and clicks increase when people say and do outlandish things. Legitimate sport television programming does not always lead to “viral moments,” especially when the nature of the story lacks a shocking angle or controversy. For example, you might enjoy watching a story about a local little league coach who raised money for charity, but that kind of beneficence doesn’t usually go viral like two talking heads unexpectedly yelling obscenities at each other over a big game last night. Clicks are today’s golden ticket, the kind of evidence that advertisers need to see before dumping big money into future ads.
TV networks like ESPN and FOX Sports need ad revenue to survive, and crazy yelling and screaming has apparently replaced previous solid (and far more tranquil) sport journalism. While this approach may work for ad revenue, what does it do for the overall viewing experience? Where will sports fans go in the future when embrace debate completely dominates the few remaining sport programs that feature human interest stories? Until media decision makers prioritize the importance of real stories against embrace debate yelling and screaming, many amazing people, teams, schools, and communities will continue to go unnoticed in exchange for artificially-created outrageous viral moments.
What is it about embrace debate that has people watching? If these shows are light on facts and nuance, we must assume it’s the yelling and screaming that draws viewers. But delving even deeper, why are people seemingly more interested in yelling than legitimate sport journalism? Is it cathartic? Not only has the change in programming made us revisit the nature of television programming, but it also prompts us to look at ourselves and the types of programs we value these days.
When the goal of a television program is to simply be as artificially crazy as possible so that you watch and forward that story to others, what are we left with when it comes to sports television? Apparently this kind of TV sells, but for how long until more people speak out in favor of a better balance between true human interest stories and hammed up silly debates that often don’t pass the sniff test (thinking Skip Bayless and all the times he has called out LeBron James solely for clicks). For now, embrace debate seems to pay the bills — even if it does compromise the sports viewing experience.