James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ followup to their excellent 2002 Saturday Night Live book, Live From New York, is an oral history of ESPN, and its contents have been a closely guarded secret (GQ recently posted some of the book’s juiciest Olbermann sections). Until today, that is. Publisher Little, Brown just lifted their embargo, meaning that we can now reveal some details of the much-anticipated project. So what’s the big secret? The book is enormous — 700-plus pages of interviews with big names like Keith Olbermann, Chris Berman, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Eisner, Erin Andrews, and many, many more. The authors talked to more than 550 people and cover an amazing amount of ground. It’s a serious, impressive piece of work, if a little too long and padded out with less-interesting material. The book offers a nuanced look at ESPN, does some top-notch TV-biz reporting on the early days of the cable industry, and offers compelling behind-the-scenes stories about a number of big events (ESPN’s botched takeover of Monday Night Football, the creation of the X Games, the Rush Limbaugh-Donovan McNabb blowup). But what everyone will probably want to talk about, at least for now, is the dirt. And there’s a bunch of it: the book is packed with huge egos and bad behavior. Here are just a few highlights:
– “The company would have Christmas parties up at some horrible place in Bristol [Conn., where ESPN is based],” says former general counsel Andy Brilliant. “A couple of them were drunken orgies…. It became like a big frat party. There were a lot of drugs being done in the bathroom. There was quite a bit of screwing going on afterward, a lot of it extramarital. But everybody went back to business the next workday.”
– “There was screwing in the hallways,” says onetime reporter Sal Marchiano of ESPN’s early days. “Okay, maybe not in the hallways, but there were a couple of stairwell stories…. There were drugs in the building, that I knew. There was one guy who dealt pot.”
– At one point in the ’80s ESPN kept an apartment in New York City. “I remember [an ESPN exec] coming in and saying, ‘We gotta get rid of this apartment…because the mail boys got a couple of our secretaries hooking over there,’” says former ESPN CEO Bill Grimes. “Hooking! That’s what he said…. ‘They’re making money after work when no one’s there. It’s getting out of control.’”
– Sexual harassment was an ongoing issue. In the late ’80s the problem got so bad that anchor Karie Ross actually stood up in front of 200 or so people in the cafeteria and demanded that it stop. Her plea didn’t have much impact. “No fewer than fifty cases of sexual harassment were reported by women on the staff to ESPN management in the first half of the 1990s,” the authors write.
– Keith Olbermann is hardly the network’s only cranky anchor. “I was introduced to [Chris Berman], and my title was mentioned,” recalls marketing senior VP Lee Ann Daly. “He was like, ‘Oh, goddammit, do we need another vice president?’ And I just said, ‘Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Berman.’ ….there was really no need to be a jerk. But that kind of stuck with me. I noticed that Chris Berman was rarely happy. He was always very difficult to please.”
– The biggest villain in the book? Quite possibly the town of Bristol, Conn., which is apparently so isolated and dull that it drives ESPN execs who work there to all sorts of boorish behavior. “I think part of the sexual harassment stuff was location,” says former ESPN chairman Steve Bornstein. “It’s one hundred miles from real civilization, and you got the kind of testosterone, jock mentality, frat house approach that’s pretty much a recipe for stupid decisions being made.” Or as another exec, Bill Creasy, puts it, “What a s—hole. I mean, what were they thinking [locating ESPN HQ there]?”
That’s just a small sampling of what’s in this huge book, which hits stores on May 24. So are you excited to read when it hits stores on Tuesday? What are you most looking forward to finding out?