Hours after the White House called for her to be fired Wednesday, Jemele Hill was in her regular seat on the 6 p.m. ET edition of ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” She made no reference to the controversy that a day earlier had compelled her own network to publicly censure her. She and co-host Michael Smith led off the show with a report on the Cleveland Indians’ 21-game winning streak.
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
That Hill was on the air with Smith as usual was an indicator of the line that ESPN is attempting to walk after the host took to Twitter Monday to call President Donald Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” Right-leaning critics have become increasingly outspoken about a perceived liberal bias at the cable channel at the same time that ESPN faces significant declines in ratings and subscriber numbers. Those losses have far more to do with shifts in television viewing habits than with ESPN employees’ Twitter accounts. But the channel’s handling of the Hill controversy indicates that it is wary of alienating viewers anywhere on the cultural spectrum as it attempts to evolve.
Hill and Smith haven’t helped reverse those weak ratings. In February, the hosts of ESPN2’s “His and Hers” migrated to the core channel, taking over the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” broadcast and reinventing it as a hybrid news-debate show in which the hosts argue sports opinions and the occasional non-sports opinion. Sports Media Watch reported in March that viewership three months after the launch of “SC6” — as the 6 p.m. show was rebranded — was down 4%.
“They are in a state of decline,” Dees says of ESPN. “So any situation that happens in the future, whether it’s the Jemele Hill situation or something else, is going to have its impact magnified.”
Hill and Smith have not provided ESPN the same ratings boost that colleague Scott Van Pelt has since being installed in the 12 a.m. ET “SportsCenter” last year, but they have seen their profiles increase dramatically. They have become frequent targets on social media and in the conservative press of complaints (often on Twitter employing vulgar or offensive language) that ESPN has allowed a left-leaning social and political stance to creep into its programming. Being interviewed in April on WABC New York — shortly after ESPN initiated a round of job cuts that affected more than 100 employees — veteran “SportsCenter” anchor Linda Cohn was asked if the injection of non-sports issues into ESPN’s coverage had negatively affected ratings.