ESPN laid off roughly 100 staffers at the end of last month, including many well known on-air TV and radio commentators. Personally, I was surprised (and sad) to see long-time college basketball analyst Len Elmore let go.
We all know about ESPN’s struggles in retaining subscribers, but what else do these lay-offs suggest about the future of sports content delivery? Two thoughts.
1. FM Radio Survived By Getting Rid Of (Most Of) The Humans — Is ESPN Next?
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, human DJs were the backbone of the FM radio industry. DJs were the MacGyvers of the broadcast booth, choosing the playlists, providing entertaining patter between songs, and taking calls from listeners. The late great Robin Williams immortalized this era in his role as an army DJ in Good Morning Vietnam.
Today, DJs are a dying breed. Sure, a few morning hosts soldier on, but most stations are computer-generated most of the time. Jack FM launched its DJ-free format in the US back in 2004 (having successfully launched in Canada two years earlier), and proved that stations no longer needed humans to be successful. Much of the industry followed. iHeartMedia (formerly ClearChannel) slashed its cost structure in 2009, laying off thousands of station employees and moving to centralized programming by computer. The lower cost structure of such stations is a significant reason why FM radio weathered the Internet onslaught much better than newspapers in most communities. Whether there is a lot of value for the local community in stations that are run by an algorithm in a data center somewhere is an open question.
Ironically, one of the last (and best) human-run FM radio stations is arguably KMIH (The Bridge), which is owned and operated on a volunteer basis by the students of Mercer Island High School. Once you get past the shock of listening to two 15-year-old DJs talking about Twilight, the listening experience is surprisingly old school (pun intended). Thanks to the Internet, and the dearth of human DJs elsewhere, this station now has fans all over the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough, but also can’t help wonder what future these talented kids will find in radio once they graduate.
The point here is obvious. ESPN’s latest layoffs come straight out of the FM radio cost-cutting playbook, which brings us to our second point.
2. Automated Sports Highlights Are Already Here. Algorithms 1, Humans 0.
We live in a time-compressed society. As TDG has long reported, quantum viewers want their video packaged, personalized, and convenient. Vis-à-vis sports, this means that, while people still like sports, what they really like are sports highlights. (Just skip to the good stuff, please).
ESPN itself once benefitted from this trend with its pioneering Sportscenter format that allowed viewers to consume an entire day’s worth of sports in 30 minutes of non-stop highlights. Unfortunately for ESPN (and its on-air hosts), 30 minutes is now way too long for many people. Smartphones and social networking apps (i.e., Snapchat) certainly play a big role in this, reducing attention spans from minutes to seconds and using AI to generate an endless clip feed.
The challenges for traditional sports providers are (1) speed and (2) cost. Viewers demand highlight clips in near real-time, but they are unwilling (in most cases) to pay for the privilege. Automation is the obvious (and only) answer. The sports leagues are actually way out in front of ESPN on this.
MLB (via its BAMTech affiliate) provides near real-term highlights from every game that are simply cut-and-posted from the traditional linear TV feed. No special editing. No voiceovers or graphics. Just a 10-15-second clip showing the home run or strike out. Simple, but surprisingly effective. Perhaps more importantly, this is dirt cheap to do with modern software automation tools and scales beautifully. NFL.com does something very similar during regular season NFL games.
The NBA has a little bit harder task, in that basketball consists of many more individual plays of interest than the other major sports, making it harder to understand a game from individual game clips. As a result, the league still produces its own in-house game recaps, but the process is still very fast and very low budget. The voice-overs are anonymous (you never see a face and don’t know the name of the person doing it) and very basic. With a little tweaking, they could probably auto-generate a script and have a text-to-speech program read it. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
Layoffs are never fun, and our well wishes go out to those affected. ESPN is not unique, however. Automation is here to stay in the sports TV business, and more humans will see their jobs replaced by code.
Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.
Joel Espelien is Senior Advisor for TDG and VP of Client Services for the Corum Group doing sell-side technology acquisitions. He lives near Seattle, WA.