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The Longhorn TV Network: What Kind Of Commentary Do We Want?

There were a number of interesting reactions to Wednesday's news that Texas retains the right to remove ESPN broadcasters for the forthcoming Longhorn Network.  In writing about the provision, I emphasized the limitations of the provision while characterizing as prudent the University's insistence in the matter, given that the interests of ESPN and UT will not always overlap. 

I found interesting and worthy of follow up two other reactions to the news.  The first is the potential for the Longhorn Network to be overwhelmingly -- perhaps exclusively -- UT positive.  As usual, over at Barking Carnival Scipio Tex has poignantly expressed the issue:

During football and basketball season, much of the Longhorn Network's programming and potential appeal will be pre and post game analysis/highlights/player interviews/press conferences rather than actual game broadcasts. There's an opportunity for content and substance well beyond an organized stadium cheer.

Is it good for Texas to control our on-air product? Certainly. I'd like much of our programming to be an extended infomercial.

But does potentially shielding us from objective or even critical commentary serve our long terms interests best when things are rotten in Denmark?

I touched only briefly on this issue in my post, but it's absolutely worth a full discussion.  Even if it is the case that Texas would not, and is not authorized to, remove ESPN broadcasters who offer fairly held criticism, that does not at all mean that those who are hired to deliver content on the Longhorn Network will actually offer fairly held criticisms.  After all, the contract provision will be irrelevant to the extent that the broadcasters do nothing but shower the University and its athletics program with heaps of praise.

Scipio is right: To a degree (maybe even a large degree), as burnt orange partisans we should embrace the propaganda, if not for its broadcast quality, its utility in further bolstering our self-interests.  The most obvious benefit, of course, is recruiting, when round-the-clock illumination of UT's awesomeness incentivizes a recruit to want to step into the spotlight.

The question then arises whether there are compelling reasons to wish the Longhorn Network to serve other purposes.  Perhaps not, insofar as it is possible to argue credibly that -- all things considered -- a school-centric network such as the Longhorn Network is, realistically, ill-suited to serve the other types of interests with potential value. 

But let's at least consider the two most compelling competing values, which are distinct but related.  First, we might wish that some portion of the broadcasters on the network be either neutral with respect to UT athletics, or neutral in the sense that they are equally willing to discuss the good and the bad, as events dictate.  This, as opposed to broadcasters with an unfailing pro-UT bias, like Bill Little when writing about the 'Horns or Sean Elliott when calling a telecast for the Spurs.  On this count, I desperately hope that the Longhorn Network achieves at least a minimal level of balance.  Even to the extent that all of the broadcasters were to be "homers" in the sense of their rooting interest, I pray that we're lucky enough to get homers who aren't shy to talk about what's going wrong, even as they're rooting for things to go right.  For the Giants fans in the audience, think Kuiper and Kruk.

Better still would be to populate the broadcast booth with a mixture of healthy homers and thoughtful, measured objectivists.  Lord knows I don't want some Aggie with Daddy issues spitting venom about the Longhorns, but as a matter of course, I prefer a broadcast in which there's someone offering thoughtful commentary that is detached from an agenda.  And above all else, someone who will talk about what's actually happening on the field/court/etc.  Bob Knight is not a particularly skilled broadcaster, nor an imperfect one with respect to getting everything right, but at least he talks about the basketball game being played. Most clowns in the broadcast booth, for football and basketball alike, spend an overwhelming amount of time talking about everything but what's going on in the game. Whether there should be a playoff, which cookies Sally Brown cooked this week, how firm Manny Diaz's handshake is. It drives me crazy.

Second, and not unrelated, is whether it would also be in our self-interest for the Longhorn Network to purposefully commit resources to the serious, in-depth evaluation of our weaknesses.  To the extent we mean by that the hiring of broadcasters who have the capacity to offer objective criticism, my answer is encapsulated above: absolutely.

More difficult is the question of whether commentators of the Longhorn Network should provide the kind of biting self-assessment that one is prone to find in, say, one of Scipio Tex's post-mortems.  In theory, I think that it could be good if it did.  In practice, I'd ask whether it's realistic to believe that it even could.  And in support of that skepticism I would simply point to the coverage we get from the purportedly detached entities that already exist.  Almost without exception, ESPN broadcasters are tepid -- to put it mildly -- in their willingness to offer serious criticism of likable established powers.  Every critique is watered down and saddled with qualifiers.  "They're struggling right now, but you can see in his eyes that he'll get things turned around."

In other words, thoughtful, high-quality criticism is already a rare commodity. It's hard to imagine that the Longhorn Network is going to break any ground in that regard.  All of which means that I'll be fine when we don't.  We won't, and probably can't, and for what it is I'll be much, much more interested to see if they successfully give us something in between.  A Longhorn Network populated by banal, cheerleading yes-men will make the Longhorn Network something that I endure, my appreciation limited to what it accomplishes in providing revenue and useful propaganda.

And if it is too much to hope that the Longhorn Network provides something revolutionary, within the system we have there is room for compelling commentary, be it from a detached objective source or an unabashed homer who can call it like it is, good or bad.  That can make all the difference in the world.

Post-script: I also wanted to get to the comments related to whether the Longhorn Network has the same responsibilities as an independent media entity. This post is plenty long as is. Next time.