The upcoming launch of the SEC Network, a partnership between ESPN and the power conference, faces a challenge in credibility when controversial subjects arise. The network will allow the members of the Southeast Conference to keep more of the revenues derived from the seemingly unquenchable thirst for its football broadcasts. Following on the heels of the Big Ten and Pac 12, the SEC will broadcast its own games as well as provide related news reports. The new sports network is set to air on August 14 with a potential reach of 90 million viewers. The network has reached broadcast agreements with DirecTV, Time Warner, Comcast, Charter and Dish Network cable and satellite broadcast networks.
To show the fledgling network’s desire not to shy away from controversy, one of the network’s first talent hires was Paul Finebaum. He will host an afternoon radio show simulcast on the network. Finebaum’s previous radio broadcasts have been known to rankle some SEC feathers as he and his callers commentated on various conference matters. Finebaum has said he is not sure how much pushback he will receive if he discusses controversial material, which could cause the SEC Network credibility challenge to arise soon after its launch if commentary appears to be squelched. SEC football coaches, athletic directors and college presidents are accustomed to getting their way and their own network discussing less than flattering program news could irritate those in high places.
Another area of potential difficulty lies with the conference’s coaches. Coaching heavyweights often have difficult relations with media members. While South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier is unusual in the coaching ranks for speaking his mind and offering up tasty quotes at news conferences, most of the others attempt to limit access and engage in “coach speak” when they do present themselves for questioning. Others, such as Nick Saban, are generally not fans of media opportunities. These coaches may find themselves at odds with their college presidents if they fail to welcome SEC Network talent with open arms.
Justin Conolly, an ESPN senior vice president, has confirmed that the new network will report all news with respect to the conference, but the network will not engage in investigative reporting. The compromise appears to be that news stories generally out in the open and covered elsewhere will be pursued. Without any type of investigative reporting, the SEC Network will not be reporting any kind of negative school information which its activities initially uncover. Most subscribers are likely uninterested in those types of reports anyway. They will want more game coverage and the network will happily provide the games.
Each Saturday, the SEC Network will broadcast three games, an early game, an afternoon game at 3:30 and an evening game. The first games will be shown on August 28 and will include Texas A & M vs South Carolina and Vanderbilt vs Temple. Over the course of each year the network expects to broadcast 45 football games, 100 men’s basketball games, 60 women’s basketball games and 75 baseball games. On air talent will include Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer, who will team up to broadcast the lead game every week. SEC legend Tim Tebow has also been hired by ESPN as a color commentator and will appear on SEC Nation. While the potential for internal conflict over coverage of controversial news is evident, the parties involved will soon be faced with a challenge to their credibility as the SEC Network launches and stories develop. Most subscribers will revel in the negative stories about other schools and hope that anything negative about their favored team is watered down by SEC leadership.
Commentary by William Costolo