NEW YORK — In its four decades on the air, ESPN has taken charge of many parts of a sports fan’s day, through prime-time games, midday talk shows and even more relaxed after-midnight conversations.
But the network has largely stayed away from one of television’s most watched times: morning.
That changes Monday. At 7 a.m., the network will launch “Get Up!” — a live, three-hour daily talk show. Featuring veteran ESPN personalities Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose, it is an ambitious program that could be a struggling network’s much-needed savior — or offer its own ESPN-worthy lowlight.
“We’re putting together personalities we’ve never put together before, and we’re entertaining audiences we’ve never entertained before,” the show’s executive producer, Bill Wolff, said as he described a show that takes the place primarily of a more traditional “SportsCenter” broadcast. “I think America is ready.”
ESPN sits at a crossroads. A dominant cable operation for most of the platform’s 2000s-era boom period, it has been beset lately by cord-cutting; the abrupt and scandal-shrouded departure of president John Skipper; and a knack for ending up on the political hot seat.
Enter “Get Up!” Expensive like a LeBron James contract — executives won’t discuss numbers, but the talent and Manhattan waterfront set should dispel thoughts of frugality — and clocking in at an eyeball-bursting three hours, the program is among the most ambitious to grace the network in recent memory. “Get Up!” will kick off the kind of live-television cable experiment rarely conducted outside the news networks as ESPN throws itself into the crowded world of morning television. ESPN even hired Wolff, architect of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” as executive producer.
It’s easy to see why “Get Up!” might be viewed as the Answer for ESPN — it does an end run around many of the Disney-owned network’s bedrock problems. Viewing levels are innately high at sunrise; morning shows are watched by older Americans who tend to snip the cord less; and the cozy format is less vulnerable to political controversy. If you put on a nice cross section of A-listers, viewers should naturally follow.
But “all-purpose cure-all to an industry’s fundamental challenges” is a lot to put on any new series, especially given that most ESPN shows enjoy the success rate of a start-up restaurant. Two of the network’s most watched studio programs, “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn,” are at least 15 years old, while the network’s old faithful, “SportsCenter,” has mostly failed to spawn fresh formats.
And “Get Up!” enters a space heavy with very competitive programming. “Today” and “Good Morning America,” on NBC and ABC (ESPN’s sister network), respectively, are the category’s heavyweights, with large numbers of entrenched viewers.
“Today” and GMA have been battling for audience supremacy. After “Today” spent nearly two months on top before and after the holidays, GMA turned the tide in late January, edging its rival with a daily average of 4.51 million viewers to “Today’s” 4.46 million, according to Nielsen. More seesawing has followed.
“Get Up!” hopes to take advantage of generally high TV viewership at the time, but it differentiates itself from those programs with its athletics-related discussions, which the lifestyle-focused broadcast shows rarely engage in.
“We’re not thinking about this as a traditional network show by any means,” said Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “What I think makes us unique is that we can have very comfortable, in-depth conversations about what’s going on in the sports world and serve the audience that isn’t getting that from the [other] morning shows.”
That also represents a challenge, though, since it can also mean repeating a lot of the conversations going on at ESPN the rest of the day.
On a recent morning, over the course of a three-hour production rehearsal observed by The Washington Post, those limits were on display. The hosts ran through potential segments: strait-laced longtime radio personality Greenberg, contrarian ex-University of Michigan and National Basketball Association star Rose and waggy network fixture Beadle, known for her snarky under-the-breath comments (“I guess I’m the inappropriate one here,” she said in an interview). It was clear what they would — and wouldn’t — do.
Some flourishes were added to ESPN’s conventional desk-side gabbing — a “hot take factory,” for instance, mocked and indulged in the culture of instant reactions. And there were playful video bits, like a real-life lacrosse referee telling penalized players to think about what they’ve done.
But mostly it remained the kind of meat-and-potatoes material viewers would immediately recognize — debate about the Golden State Warriors’ postseason chances, the wisdom of the New York Giants trading tabloid fixture Odell Beckham Jr. At a 5 a.m. production meeting, an intense debate did break out between Greenberg and some producers — but it was over what a University of Kansas victory says about the NCAA’s player-eligibility policy.
“I want to do something different, but not for the sake of doing something different,” Greenberg said in an interview with The Post alongside Beadle and Rose. “They’re giving us a blank canvas, so let’s do the best sports show we can. The best sports show. We won’t do cooking segments.”
“I want to do cooking segments,” Beadle said, under her breath. (They won’t do cooking segments.)
On a whiteboard in Wolff’s office are the words, aimed at himself and Beadle and Rose, to “Make Mike Nervous,” a line the host smiles about, semi-anxiously, as he admits he’s rarely been a flamethrower in his two decades at ESPN.
“I wouldn’t mind being made nervous,” he said.
“We want to make you nervous, Greeny,” Rose said.
Though it remains the most-watched cable network outside of Fox News Channel, ESPN has been hit particularly hard by cord-cutting. The onetime Disney jewel lost nearly 1 million subscribers in 2017. (They are more important than, and distinct from, show viewers.) That affects the network’s high ad rates and cable-operator fees — in the fourth quarter of 2017 alone, operating income at the division ESPN is part of dropped 12 percent — and has led to several rounds of layoffs.
Greenberg helped conceive “Get Up!” when he and Skipper sat down to discuss Greenberg’s future after nearly 20 years as co-host of its flagship “Mike & Mike” morning radio program. After arriving at the more elaborate “Today”-style format they hired Wolff; the trio then went and recruited Beadle and Rose.
Skipper’s departure has no bearing on the fate of “Get Up!,” both Schell and Wolff said. His replacement, longtime Disney executive Jimmy Pitaro, was not available to talk about the show, an ESPN spokeswoman said.
Overlooking a sun-speckled East River, the network’s new South Street Seaport headquarters (it will be used for other shows but was built primarily for “Get Up!”) is a gleaming specimen anchored by a warm studio of exposed brick. Yet the building is still pocked with exposed wiring and other unfinished construction. It’s an apt metaphor: “Get Up!” has packed some of the shiniest ESPN talent around into one show, but what they’ll be doing on it is a work in progress. At rehearsal, a number of the segments repeated; others felt familiar from other talk and highlight shows.
“This isn’t something we’re going to get 100 percent right from Day One,” said Schell, the ESPN executive. “This is going to be iterative; it’s going to evolve. We know that, and hopefully the audience knows that.”
Some of that evolution will involve outdoor segments in the heavily visited Seaport area, which mixes tourists and commuters in the manner of NBC’s “Today” home at Rockefeller Center.
How much that expansion entails politics is another matter. ESPN has been thrown into an identity crisis by the emergence of Donald Trump, evidenced by the controversy stirred up when then-“SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill posted an anti-Trump tweet. The network has struggled to find the balance between leaning in to social issues to stay relevant and staying out of them to avoid polarizing viewers.
“We’re certainly not searching for political topics,” Rose said. “But when I hear words like ‘shut up and dribble’ ” — referring to some NBA fans wanting players to stay away from politics — “I feel like I have to say something. I’ve never been muzzled in what I want to say.”
But the show will also tread cautiously, principals say, waiting for a topic to overly intersect with sports.
“You can’t disrespect the incumbent audience,” Wolff said. “They’re coming to us for certain things, and they expect those things.”
“When I want pizza, I don’t go to McDonald’s,” Greenberg added.
Back at the rehearsal session, the cast was trying to find a way into politics — cautiously. The subject of protests by National Football League players during the national anthem had come up because league owners were convening to discuss the topic, and some of the hosts took the bait.
“I have a solution — keep the players in the locker room and instead force the patriotism on the fans,” Rose said wryly.
“How about take the anthem out of the game? It has nothing to do with anything,” Beadle said.
Greenberg had been holding back. But he saw an opening to be more candid. “It’s not like they forget they’re in America,” he said.
“It’s like, ‘Where am I?’ ” Beadle said, encouraging him.
A moment later, a commercial break arrived and Wolff walked up to his hosts.
“That was good,” he said.
“Very good,” Greenberg agreed.