Despite its popularity, pervasiveness, and value, ESPN’s programming is not typically recognized as sophisticated or artful. To give its brand identity greater prestige within the increasingly competitive world of cable sports television, in 2008 ESPN created ESPN Films, a subsidiary film production unit that specializes in documentaries. ESPN Films’ most ambitious project thus far is 30 for 30 (2009–2010), a series of 30 documentaries made by 30 commissioned filmmakers to celebrate ESPN’s 30th anniversary. ESPN markets 30 for 30 through emphasizing three primary qualities that distinguish the series, and, by extension, ESPN, from other sports television: the use of the documentary form, the productions’ status as films, and the commissioned filmmakers’ position as renowned artists. This essay uses ESPN Films and 30 for 30 to examine ESPN’s efforts to add refinement to its institutional identity and to illustrate the economic and industrial functions this shift in cultural status serves.
The author is with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Dept. of American Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA.