"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 July 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Dew X Machina



Two weeks ago, over 250,000

ratings wreckers missed the

point - not to mention the

slo-mo replays and

videogame-style graphics - and

attended the X Games in person.

But while each sun-blocked,

arm-waving bleacher blonde

represented a tiny breach in the

show's overall Nielsen stats,

their attendance was ultimately

necessary: All marginally

entertaining TV programming,

from America's Funniest Home

Videos to The Tonight Show,

benefits from the exaggerated

enthusiasm of a studio audience.


Not that their Mountain Dew-fueled

fist-pumping helped that



Indeed, ESPN's latest command

performance of youth marketing,

now in its fourth season,

exhibited all the volatile

daredeviltry of a corporate

accountant - which is what its

creator Ron Semiao used to be

before becoming a programming

executive. Instead of taking a

radical, two-and-a-half twist

backflip away from the

overproduced pomp of the

Olympics, the X Games simply

dresses up in Gen-X drag and

employs the same old tricks.

"Eye of the Tiger" soundtracks

set the mood, obscure has-beens

brainfart endless gusts of

informed banalysis, and stunt

bicyclists and aggressive

in-line skaters perform their

lookalike recitals. Viewers are

even forced to endure treacly

biomercials designed to turn the

next generation of obscure

has-beens into Someone Worth

Rooting For.


Do we judge the X Games too

harshly? If we do, it's only

because its simple substitution

of anchordudes for anchormen and

Fatboy Slim for Teshonica

represents but a fraction of

what it might accomplish.


Still, you have to give ESPN

credit for trying. At a time

when every cash-talking arena

pimp is well-versed in the

platitude that sports are

mainstream entertainment,

surprisingly few

televisionaries have actually

done much to exploit that

sentiment. Instead of creating

entirely new sports-oriented

programming, they try to

retrofit out-of-the-pastimes to

the rhythms and necessities of

TV. But even here they're

lagging. While plastic-headed

marketing executives turn the

nation's hallowed ballparks into

all-purpose leisure portals - in

concession to the fact that no

one really wants to watch three

hours of listless

butt-scratching and

tobacco-spitting without a few

shopping, restaurant, and

video-arcade breaks - TV

broadcasters continue to

televise every dull ball and




What the X Games acknowledges,

of course, is that modern sports

programming is about pitching,

not pitches. In creating his

homage to early '90s Mountain

Dew commercials, Semiao set out

to capture a demographic rather

than invent a metaphor for

slumming wonks. As a

consequence, the X Games is free

from the constraints of sacred

tradition and captious league

commissioners. Because its

content has no purpose outside

its televisual context, Semiao

and company are able to tinker

with Littlefieldian caprice.

Must-flee channel-changers, like

Kiteskiing and the Eco-challenge

endurance race, were dropped

faster than a skysurfer wearing

cement Etnies; other events have

been overhauled more often than

Cher's ass; and even the

program's original name - the

Extreme Games - was revised "for

increased brand identity."


Thanks to its aggressive,

search-and-employ harvesting of

every marketable aspect of the

mallternative nation, the X

Games is already profitable,

advertising time sells out

months in advance, and this

year's model featured 15

official sponsors. In addition,

extreme consumers can now

purchase X Games hats, X Games

T-shirts, X Games music CDs, and

even Deep Powder, Deep Trouble, the

first in a series of X Games

Xtreme Mysteries books.


ESPN has received abundant praise

- and also a little mild

skepticism - regarding the skill

with which it sells its version

of corporate-sponsored rebellion

and convinces credulous teens

that they can affect a cool,

anti-establishment persona via

chronic Dew and Gorditas

consumption. But anyone with the

right equipment and a little

perseverance can eventually do

it. What's really compelling

about the X Games is its

potential to help overcome the

two major obstacles thwarting

ESPN's dream of worldwide

domination via cable channels,

radio, books, magazines, videos,

sports bars, theme parks, and

retail stores: the rapidly

escalating cost of sports

programming and the sudden

prominence of the Fox Sports




With the cost of traditional

sports broadcasting growing so

excessive that NBC and Turner

Sports are planning to create

their own football league

(Veronica's Closet, with burly

Kirstie Alley running

interference for ex-jock Dan

Cortese, is the new league's

early, odds-on favorite), ESPN is

once again a step ahead of the

pack with the X Games. Instead

of underwriting second-down

fumbles and one-yard gains for

US$10,000 a pop, it awards a

modest $5,000 to $10,000 to

gold-medal streetlugers and

wakeboarders. As a result of

such favorable economies, ESPN

is able to produce the X Games,

which generates approximately 40

hours of original programming,

plus another 120 hours of

reruns, for what's estimated to

be around $10 million. (ESPN

doesn't release financial

information about the X Games.)

In comparison, it pays

approximately $600 million a

year to the NFL to broadcast one

game a week, for a total of

roughly 50 hours of programming.

Given that the X Games

supposedly attracts more "12- to

34-year-old male viewers per

household than any other sport

on television," it's somewhat

gridironic that ESPN's paying so

dearly to keep aging armchair

Maddens brewed to their couches

three extra hours every Sunday.

Don't the network's big swinging

dicks read their own press



In addition to remarkably cheap

labor - the Taco Bell chihuahua

probably earns more than the

entire North American

streetluger population - the

other advantage of the X Games

is its geographic transcendence.

As Forbes recently noted, the

decentralized nature of the Fox

Sports Network, which Rupert

Murdoch Frankensteined out of 22

regional channels, allows it to

broadcast 10 baseball games on

any given Sunday night. In

comparison, ESPN reaches

capacity at two. Because fans

are more likely to watch games

that involve their hometown

teams, Fox often attracts more

viewers than ESPN, even though

it trails its rival in cathode

hegemony by 14 million

households. The importance of

the X Games in such a context is

obvious. Like golf, tennis, and

Fishing with John, it's one more

form of sports entertainment

whose potential appeal resonates

equally with every citizen of

the TV Nation. While X Games

competitors are identified by

their country of origin, there's

no sense of international

competition as there is with the

Olympics or even professional

wrestling. No medal totals are

kept, no native costumes are

paraded around a central X Games

village. The whole thing is as

removed from geography as a



And yet, after watching even

just a half hour of monotonously

spectacular wheelies and

backflips, one can't help but

ask: Are cheap labor and

geographic transcendence enough?

The X Games offers abundant

fodder for highlight reels and

almost none of the dramatic

tension that makes traditional

sports compelling. If the NBA

went X, for example, it would

forsake its usual 48-minute

five-on-five format for endless

slam dunk contests and

three-point shootouts. And how

entertaining in the long run

would that be?



While nothing short of BMX Rugby

and Full-Contact Kick-Skating

seems destined to inject the X

Games with the sort of

mano-a-mano gamesmanship that's

crucial for spectator sports, a

solution for the X Games' lack

of regional-based rivalries is

readily at hand. We're

referring, of course, to

sponsorship, with which the X

Games is already rife. Single

athletes sport more logos than

the entire Wu Tang Clan, huge

Taco Bell insignias are

emblazoned on the asphalt the

streetlugers race across, and

even the anchordudes manage to

work the occasional Truman

Show-like product placement into

their freestyle narratives.

None of this, however, enhances

the Games in the way that

sponsorship of entire teams

could. Drop category

exclusivity, and let natural

enemies like Coca Cola and Pepsi

compete against each other, and

the glorious lock-step

fantagonism of the Cold War-era

Olympics would blossom once


courtesy of St. Huck