This Time Slot’s Girl

Embed from Getty Images
Lindsay Czarniak: a bottom line kinda gal

I’ve been watching ESPN’s PTI program basically since its inception. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon cover the world of sports in quick yet surprisingly comprehensive hits that nail down most of the important news of each sports day (or weekend, when it’s a Monday afternoon). For better or worse, PTI serves as my main source for what’s going on in the sporting life.

You may at this point be wondering: why PTI? Isn’t SportsCenter the obvious choice for viewing if you want to stay on top of what’s going on with the games and the players? It is, after all, the Worldwide Leader’s “hip, irreverent daily scrapbook” of the world of sports (as your television provider’s on-screen guide might put it). Shouldn’t I be tuning in to the “flagship” program for my sports info fix?

This is the point where I should insert my standard diatribe about how SportsCenter–which once was indeed must-see TV–has long since become an unwatchable disaster of irrelevant nonsense and product placements populated by smug, arrogant, preening pricks…I think that will suffice. No, I can’t tolerate more than a few minutes of everyone else’s favorite sports program. PTI it is.

But sometimes, SportsCenter bleeds into the programs around it. And, being a faithful PTI viewer, I’ve noticed something interesting about one aspect of that bleed through: the Worldwide Leader is very, very high on one Lindsay Czarniak.

The DFR: MediaYou see, during most episodes of PTI, ESPN’s “Bottom Line” ticker will interrupt its crawl to promo the upcoming early evening (6pm on the East Coast) edition of SportsCenter. And if you pay close attention, you will start to notice an interesting pattern to what those promos tend to promote.

Most days, the viewer is informed that Lindsay Czarniak will “take over” at 6pm with this, that, and some other top story of the day on SportsCenter. Notice, I say “most days”–specifically, the days when Czarniak shows up for work (or, to be more charitable, is not on assignment somewhere outside the Bristol studio); when Czarniak is not going to be on camera, front and center on the upcoming show, it’s usually “SportsCenter takes over” at the top of the hour.

Do fans really need the added inducement of a little sex appeal to get them to tune in?

In sum, Czarniak gets name-checked when she is about to appear on the next show; when she’s not there, it’s…nobody. No anchor name, just a non-personified reference to the show itself. If it’s her hosting, it’s Lindsay Czarniak taking over; if it’s the shlubby, vaguely Middle Eastern-heritage guy hosting, not so much. Then it’s “SportsCenter” doing the taking over, as if the show itself has agency.

This pattern does not hold all the time without fail; once in a while the promo will not mention Czarniak if she’s on set, and once in a blue moon whomever else may happen to be that day’s host will get mentioned by name on the crawl. But the pattern holds often enough that it looks like the exceptions are carefully scheduled to provide a certain amount of “plausible deniablity”; there seems to be just enough consistency to indicate that there’s a conscious campaign at work here.

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, sure they promote Czarniak when she’s on the show; she’s the star of the early edition, and she has that rapport with the show’s audience. What else would you expect?”

Perhaps. It’s worth recognizing that who hosts a show matters. After all, for one example, The Daily Show was The Daily Show with John Stewart before he left; it then became The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. And ESPN has itself seen certain personalities become synonymous with their programs, most notably Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann during their “Big Show” days as hosts of the primetime version of SportsCenter. Why wouldn’t the network specifically make mention of when Czarniak will next appear on what is, for now at least, her program?

Well, that all makes sense–and yet, as noted above, I’ve had my eyes on PTI since the show started. And I simply don’t remember any of the previous hosts of the early SportsCenter–there have been numerous bodies in that space over the years–being quite so much a promotional focus as Czarniak. What’s going on here?

It’s possible that Czarniak is such a selling point because she’s really, really good at her job, that she’s so good as host of SportsCenter that she’s a selling point all on her own. It’s possible–but I haven’t seen any such thing myself. While I don’t bother watching SC, my DVR settings for PTI tend to grab the first minute or two of the following show, and what I’ve seen of those lead-ins informs me that Czarniak is competent–that’s not a given on ESPN these days–and enthusiastic, but nothing spectacular in introducing the show. So her abilities as host are not noticeably cause for her to be exclusively name-checked on the show’s teaser promos.

However, while her skills are not noticeable, Czarniak’s looks certainly are.

Czarniak definitely fits a certain type, one that has been very popular throughout the history of television broadcasting, particularly TV news shows, and remains so even in these consciously ethnically diverse days. She’s young, and blonde, and pretty (if a little too skinny, which actually isn’t a detriment when you’re on TV). That’s always been a potent combination when it comes to selling a show to a viewing audience. And ESPN seems to be determined to take full advantage of that.

So, am I really saying what you think I’m saying? Yes, I’m saying it: ESPN is pimping Lindsay Czarniak.

I bring this up not because I consider there to be any particular injustice here. Czarniak is not being victimized by her employer in Bristol; she’s undoubtedly getting a very good deal from her position as the network’s current golden girl. She may eventually go the way of former network golden girl Erin Andrews and move on to bigger and better things. (Not including the peepshow lawsuit, we hope.) I suspect Czarniak is perfectly happy with her situation as it stands, and with how the network employs her and how she is perceived by the viewers.

But I just wonder: what does this say about ESPN, and the business of sports broadcasting, and about us, the viewers, that we still need to have a piece of pretty meat dangled in front of us in order to encourage us to watch a show?

Sports hold a dominant place in American culture. People feel pretty passionate about their sports, their teams, the games they watch. Do fans really need the added inducement of a little sex appeal to get them to tune in?

Czarniak is not the only example of possible “looks-ism” at work at ESPN. The aforementioned Andrews pretty much owes her whole career to her appearance. Another example caught my eye not that long ago: the difference in on-air appearance that occurred when Jaymee Sire left CSN Bay Area to join ESPN a few years ago. Check out the difference between Sire when she was on CSN in 2010 versus the more dolled up version at ESPN in 2014. (The 2010 photo isn’t the greatest shot of her, but it gives you an idea of how Sire appeared on camera in those days.) One wonders how Linda Cohn–not awful looking by any means, but not particularly magazine cover material–has stayed on the network for so long. Her undeniable sports knowledge certainly helped, but one wonders if she could get hired by ESPN today.

No doubt it’s easy to dismiss this as something that falls below the level of even being worth questioning. We’re all pretty jaded these days; it hardly makes sense to get outraged by a pretty girl being the center of attention. This is, one supposes, just how the TV industry works.

But I’d like to suggest that we should always be on our guard against anything that smacks of manipulation, and that the default position should be to question everything. I’m not wild about anything that tries to manipulate me, whether its trying to get me to watch a TV show, or buy a product, or vote for a candidate for office.

It’s a trivial matter, ultimately, when the question concerns who is “taking over” in a time slot; but if you let your guard down all around and manipulation is allowed to abound, you can find that the takeover may wind up costing you much more than just an hour of viewing time. It may wind up determining what sort of society we live in, and who gets to be what in that world. If you’re a looker like Lindsay, you’re good. If not…well…not so good. Try teasing that idea in a promo.


One thought on “This Time Slot’s Girl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s