Norby Williamson Talks ESPN’s Big June — and Stephen A. Smith

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Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN enters the summer of 2019 on a roll.

During June, the Worldwide Leader in Sports grew its audience 12% in the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET window as shows such as Get Up, First Take and SportsCenter posted strong year-over-year growth. That double-digit increase helped power an overall 5% increase over the network’s 24-hour programming period compared to June 2018.

For the month, ESPN topped all full-time cable networks in total viewers and men aged 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54. ESPN averaged slightly over a million viewers in primetime – and led all cable networks among men aged 18-49 and 25-54.

The double-digit increase is good news for Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president & executive editor of production. It’s also a validation for the multiple changes the 30-year ESPN veteran has made to the network’s lineup of studio shows the last 18 months.

During that period, Williamson named Sage Steele and Kevin Negandhi the new co-anchors of the struggling 6 p.m. SportsCenter, replacing Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. Hill later left ESPN; Smith is still with the network. 

A miscast Michelle Beadle was taken off Mike Greenberg’s New York-based morning show, Get Up, and shifted back to NBA Countdown in Los Angeles. Williamson also sliced an hour from Get Up, dropping a new SportsCenter into the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. time slot while adding another SportsCenter after First Take from noon to 1 p.m.

Some of these moves were painful. ESPN had to give Hill an expensive $5 million buyout with more than two years still to go on her contract, according to James Andrew Miller of The Hollywood Reporter.

Greenberg wasn’t crazy about losing an hour from his brand new morning show. But he now says it made Get Up a smarter, faster, funnier show. The other changes are paying dividends too.

This June, Get Up posted a 21% viewership increase in its 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. time slot  compared to 2018. The 7 a.m. SportsCenter was up 9% from the comparable window last year. Both programs have posted four straight months of audience increases.

Meanwhile, First Take with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim continued to be a ratings power. The embrace debate show’s audience grew 6% in June compared to last year. That was its third straight month of year-over-year viewership growth.

First Take also continues to widen its lead over Skip Bayless’ rival Undisputed on FS1. During June, First Take more than doubled Undisputed audience, averaging 472,332 viewers to 180,232.

Meanwhile, the noon SportsCenter grew 10% compared to the comparable 12-1 p.m. window in 2018. Steele and Negandhi’s more traditional 6 p.m. SportsCenter was up 4% in June.

Front Office Sports talked to Williamson while he was in Los Angeles, where ESPN will stage its annual ESPY Awards Wednesday night. 

We asked the veteran Bristol shot-caller about ESPN’s big June — and whether Stephen A’s First Take will follow Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and other NBA stars to the West Coast. Excerpts:


FRONT OFFICE SPORTS: Why do think ESPN had a strong June? Are the changes you made a year or more ago finally paying off?

NORBY WILLIAMSON: I think it’s an ongoing process. When you go back and look at shows from 18 months or so ago, they’re slightly different than they are now. It’s a lot of little things. Pushing and getting our anchors to ask better questions. Being smarter on the positioning of stories and content.

By the way, the biggest thing is the sports world keeps on giving. There’s stuff happening every day. Whether it’s NBA’s free agency or the emergence of Coco [Gauff] coming out of Wimbledon, a 15-year-old phenom. It’s amazing the stuff that just continues to happen. We’ve spent a lot of years working very, very hard to build the brand of SportsCenter and our studio news and information. I think we still have the trust of fans. When these things happen in the world, they’re going to come to us – as long as we deliver and bring them compelling content. I think we’re doing a solid job of doing that right now.

FOS: Mike Greenberg’s Get Up is on a roll, registering four straight months of audience increases? What changed?

WILLIAMSON: Tactically we did a couple of things. For one, we streamlined the conversation, if you will. We took it a little bit off of the host-driven type of conversation and made it more outward-facing in terms of news-makers and information people. You have a little bit of a ying and yang here when you look at First Take vs. Get Up. 

First Take is really about Max [Kellerman] and Stephen A. and their opinions and thoughts on the world. Get Up has really become more so about hearing from the people, hearing from the newsmakers, hearing from information people, more breaking news. We quickened the pace a little bit. We sort of wrapped our arms around video story-telling. There’s much more video in the show in a native and inventive way I would say over the last six or eight months. Really since last September. But we really started to hit our stride in April. To me, it’s a dichotomy between the First Take approach and Get Up approach. It’s a nice little ying and yang. 

READ MORE: Mike Greenberg ‘Getting Up’ In Afternoons Too

When we first launched [Get Up], both of them were under the First Take model. We positioned it around the people on the show. It was about them and their opinions. I think with Get Up, we sort of moved that in other direction. I think it’s paid off.

FOS: And Greeny’s the band leader, directing the music?

WILLIAMSON: He’s doing a really good job. Obviously, that’s not a shock to anybody. But again we’ve had significant contributions from Maria Taylor and Laura Rutledge, who have been consistent co-hosts on Get Up over the past 8-10 months. They bring their expertise, whether its college football or covering the NBA. That adds a very good dynamic. Certainly, over a two-hour show, you have to be cognizant of voices and not just one voice. Not playing just one note. When you have Mike and Laura, or Mike and Maria, it balances things out a little bit. It’s an opportunity to hear different chords over the two hours. 

Jalen [Rose] has done a spectacular job on college hoops, the NBA and big issues. We get to tackle big issues on the show. So when a high school or college coach says no cell phones, we can knock that around for three or four minutes from different perspectives. Basically, how do you treat today’s modern athlete?

We have the breadth and scope to do a lot of different things. If there’s a great game with highlights, like the Home Run Derby, we’ll blow that out. If there’s breaking news, you’re getting Woj [NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski} or [NFL Insider Adam] Schefter . If there’s a thoughtful discussion on something, you’re getting that. Plus, we sort of inserted Stephen A. and Max a little into that show for the last half hour to really make those shows work together. I think we’re doing a decent job of it.

FOS: Were you trying to create a connected four-hour block by adding Stephen A. to Get Up?

WILLIAMSON: Yep, that was the goal. But it starts with SportsCenter at 7. The way I look at it, you have that hour of straightforward SportsCenter highlights and night-before news and information. Get Up is a little bit of a hybrid, outward-facing. Then you’ve got First Take on the back end. So if you look at those five hours it does seem to make sense. So if the viewer surfs in, and surfs out, there’s an expectation level that they know what they’re getting.

FOS: This June, you also added special Stephen A.-hosted SportsCenters and Get Up doubleheaders to capitalize on the NBA Finals and free agency. Will we see more specials like this?

WILLIAMSON: I think so. I’m a big fan of Stephen A. No shock there. He delivers for us. I think hosting SportsCenter in those NBA-driven windows during the NBA Finals is an opportunity for growth for himself, personally and professionally. And for us. 

Again, we’ve had great success with the [Scott] Van Pelt SportsCenter [at midnights ET]. Customer know its SportsCenter. But they know it’s SportsCenter with Van Pelt. We’ve had limited opportunities with [Stephen A.]. I think he’s done about 15 or so of them. It’s still SportsCenter. You’re still getting a preview of the game, you’re still talking to people, you’re talking to newsmakers, the whole deal. But it’s SportsCenter with Stephen A. And I like that dynamic.

FOS: Stephen A. has talked about how much he likes Los Angeles. Are he and First Take following Kawhi to LA?

WILLIAMSON: I’m very excited myself. I want to actually work two days a week [in LA] – but that ain’t going to happen. The LA facility allows us to do a lot of different things. First Take has been out there covering the Lakers. Jamie Foxx came on one time. We’re going to use the LA facility where it makes sense. But right now we have no plans to move First Take to LA – or any other show actually. 

That facility is absolutely jammed. We’ve expanded The Jump; we added an hour to The Jump. SportsCenter is coming out of there. It is a busy, busy facility. We love the position in New York. By the way, what day did you talk to Stephen A. about that? One day he loves the LA life. Another day he loves being in New York. So we have no plans of relocating First Take to LA.

FOS: Will Jeremy Schaap succeed the retiring Bob Ley as host of Outside the Lines?

WILLIAMSON: Ryan Smith has been doing most of that since Bob took a sabbatical. Jeremy is clearly one of our best journalists and anchors and hosts. Obviously on E:60. Jeremy will get involved in that mix more. 

The ultimate goal for OTL is to continue in that daypart. But also to immerse the OTL brand in SportsCenter. I would look for that in the coming months. Because there’s some great work that’s being done with that show and that show unit. I think SportsCenter could benefit from some of the work that’s being created in those daily half hours.

FOS: When you look at First Take’s numbers, is the competition between Stephen A. and his old sparring partner Skip Bayless not really a competition anymore?

WILLIAMSON: I’m a bad one to ask. I think everything’s a competition. You can get crazy worrying about competition. But you have to be aware of it, you have to monitor it. Ultimately, you know what you need to do. You have to take care of business first. 

You have to create compelling content. And give people a reason to watch and to come to your brand. As long as you do that, first and foremost, for the most part, you’ll be OK. But I monitor and look at other competition. So I will never rule out anything or anyone or any show being a competitor to us.