ESPN chief: You'll never guess what our viewers want to hear nothing about

Ooooohhhhh, yes we can. The Los Angeles Times profiles ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro and his fight to keep cord-cutters from cutting off his channel, but buries one big reason why it might have become a problem in the first place. After watching viewers drain away from the sports giant in their effort to “get woke,” the Times notes far after the jump the lesson that Pitaro and ESPN parent Disney learned:

Pitaro has also satisfied ESPN’s more traditional fans by steering commentators away from political discussions on-air and on social media, which heightened during President Trump’s criticism of NFL player protests against social injustice during the playing of the national anthem.

“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” Pitaro said. “My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.”

Pitaro’s boss seems pleased with the change — pleased enough to brag about it to shareholders:

So far, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger is happy with Pitaro’s progress. Appearing at a recent investors conference, Iger credited Pitaro with dialing down the political discourse on ESPN’s debate shows and its signature program “SportsCenter,” as well as lifting ratings.

That’s quite a change from the activist strategy ESPN pursued for the last few years. The network treated politics like a sport in itself, or maybe even worse than a sport. Most ESPN commentators don’t choose teams and act like homers with them, after all, but had no problem adopting the progressive agenda as if it was their home-team playbook.

Jim Geraghty originally found the buried lede at the LAT, but reminds people that politics won’t be completely gone from ESPN. Geraghty believes that the trend away from political activism goes beyond ESPN, though:

This does not mean that political controversies are gone completely, or will never return to the sports world. Some members of championship teams choose to not attend ceremonies at the White House. The political comments or Tweets of collegiate or pro athletes will continue to generate controversy for content-hungry sports media. But some of the most politically-active sports commentators have moved on to other things.

Jamele Hill has moved from anchoring the 6 p.m. SportsCenter to writing for The Atlantic. Bob Costas departed NBC Sports after 40 years. And Keith Olbermann is not the media force he once was; he’s now grumbling that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki haven’t shown enough gratitude towards him.

That’s a relief for sports fans, who have had to endure political lectures briefly interrupted by sports news for the last few years. And when they complained about having to endure political diatribes, sports fans got accused of being uncaring and insufficiently compassionate towards the professional athletes and star broadcasters, and those were the most mild of the accusations over the complaints. The economic impact of viewers tuning out finally put the incentives back in their proper direction — where consumers set the agenda rather than providers.

Still, it’s difficult to blame sportscasters from believing that Americans see politics as sport. So much of the former gets practiced as team events and so little of it is conducted on principle these days that it’s a wonder we don’t have a SportsCenter-like program for politics.