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ESPN president wants less politics at network: ‘It is not our jobs’

ESPN’s new president, Jimmy Pitaro, says the network is trying to improve relations with the NFL. (KRISTOFFER TRIPPLAAR/SIPA USA)

BRISTOL, Conn. — Jimmy Pitaro has been president of ESPN for a little more than five months and made clear Friday that he wants the network to focus more on sports and less on politics.

Pitaro said one of his top priorities has been to improve relations with the NFL. Those ties have been strained by ESPN investigations into player concussions and the sports network’s coverage of players protesting racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem — issues that sometimes painted the league in an unflattering light.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with league executives,” Pitaro said Friday. “The relationship is incredibly important to us. That programming cuts across everything we’re doing on the studio side, on the original content side. And we’ve made that very clear to the NFL.”

The sports behemoth has battled the head winds of an all-consuming political climate. Prominent personality Jemele Hill was suspended from the network last year for calling President Trump a white supremacist. The White House responded by calling the tweet “a fireable offense,” which fueled conservative critics of the network.

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Pitaro said he prioritizes limiting political commentary. “If you ask me is there a false narrative out there, I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false,” he said. “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”

Pitaro also has told the league that ESPN does not plan to air the national anthem ahead of its Monday night telecasts. The policy is not a change from previous seasons, but the network articulated its plans directly to the league for the first time.

“They have not asked,” Pitaro said. “But we have proactively just as a courtesy and as good partners let them know what our plans are.”

Asked about Pitaro’s comments about the national anthem, Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s senior vice president for event and studio production, noted that the policy could be adjusted if news warranted, but said, “We’ve seen data — fans want the game. That’s where we will keep our focus.”

Pitaro, 48, was named ESPN’s president in March just a few months after the sudden resignation of John Skipper, who had led ESPN since 2011. Before being named to the position, Pitaro was chairman of consumer products and interactive media at Disney, ESPN’s parent company.

Pitaro also made clear that, as part of the network’s relationship with the NFL, he wants better games for its “Monday Night Football” schedule. ESPN, which pays $2 billion annually for the broadcast rights, has chafed at having to air ho-hum matchups.

Pitaro said he is pleased with the slate of Monday night games ESPN will broadcast this season. In Week 1, ESPN has the Oakland Raiders vs. the Los Angeles Rams in Raiders Coach Jon Gruden’s return to the sideline. Later in the season, it will broadcast the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rams from Mexico City.

“We have 11 out of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last year,” Pitaro said. “We are very pleased with the schedule.”

The NFL has aired on ESPN since 1987, and the league helped the network grow into the cable giant it has become. But the tensions, along with the future business model of cable TV, have led some to wonder whether ESPN and the NFL would not renew their “Monday Night Football” deal, which expires in 2021. Pitaro said he has not engaged in day-to-day negotiations but neither has he imagined ESPN’s future without the NFL.

“I believe they want to be in business with us,” he said. “We’re optimistic not just about the next four years but about the long-term viability of this partnership.”

Pitaro spoke for nearly an hour with reporters at ESPN’s sprawling Bristol campus. The discussion comes at a moment of transition for ESPN and the rest of the cable industry. ESPN has seen subscribers drop from more than 100 million in 2011 to fewer than 87 million, and the company laid off about 100 employees last year. Cord-cutting is particularly painful for ESPN because the network receives around $8 for each cable subscriber, the most of any cable channel.

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