April 06, 2017
By Lauren Jones
ESPN’s “First Take” is one of the most popular sports shows on television. The show has undergone a major overhaul on all fronts in the last few months, from talent to programming content. At the helm of these efforts are two African-American men - David Roberts, Vice President of Audio Network Content and Antoine Lewis, Coordinating Producer.
“When you bring on new people, it changes the chemistry both on air and off,” said Lewis who has been the coordinating producer for the past three years.
In July, ESPN added Max Kellerman to round out the trio anchored by Stephen A. Smith and host Molly Qerim, following the departure of Skip Bayless to competitor FS1.
“The beauty of First Take is you deal with issues of what is happening in the news each day,” Roberts added. “People have to be interested and entertained and accurately informed.”
Recently the show has seen spikes in ratings surrounding must-see guests like Kobe Bryant and LaVar Ball, father of NBA prospect and former UCLA player Lonzo Ball, who engaged in entertaining and attention grabbing dialog with Stephen A. Smith which has been described as a ‘beautiful disaster.’
“I think right now, it’s a situation where the show has a strong core for us, especially from a daily standpoint,” said Lewis. Roberts posits that just as with news outlets, “People come to sports programming for context, perspective and how it is relevant in their lives.”
First Take has been known to many longtime fans as ESPN2’s mainstay, providing weekday sports news and with a large dose of entertainment that no doubt is a direct product of the back and forth opinion driven format. The show made the transition from ESPN2 to ESPN with Roberts as a major force in the direction of the show. Since then, the show has integrated more coverage of major sporting events on the road including the college football playoffs, Super Bowl LI and the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.
“Those kinds of ideas happen when you have a room of people from different walks of life that underscore the principles of diversity,” said Roberts. “To have the culture to feel open and inclusive to the brainstorming process you will get good ideas from everyone.”
One such idea is Final Take, a new segment where talent offers their commentary on a topic of their choice. Lewis says it is the re-engineering of format such as this that has been one of the most rewarding parts of working with Roberts.
“You need someone to listen to the ideas and give you an opportunity to execute,” said Lewis. Both shared that it is not always such a seamless transition when shows are undergoing changes. There is one unique experience they agree has been a privilege in working together.
“It is a rare opportunity that I get to work with other black men of color in particular,” Roberts said, who has been the leader of First Take for the past six months.
There has been an ongoing discussion and criticism about the lack of people of color in newsrooms in general. Both Roberts and Lewis come from longstanding careers in local television news. Roberts has 25 years of local news under his belt that include being the city of Atlanta’s first African-American news director for WXIA-TV in 1996.
“The key point of my career is recognizing the need for more African-Americans in decision making roles,” said Roberts who joined ESPN in 2004 as a coordinating producer, working on ESPNEWS, SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. In November 2013, Roberts was named Vice President, ESPN Audio Network Content.
ESPN is reflective of the average newsroom in many ways, but the company has shown some level of commitment to placing people from diverse backgrounds in positions of power and leadership.
“No media operation can be successful without diversity, media or otherwise,” remarked Roberts. “Anyone who believes they can succeed without diversity is fooling themselves.”
It is this way of thinking that has led to the ascension of both Roberts and Lewis since joining ESPN. Lewis says when he made the switch from local news to ESPN in 2003 as a coordinating producer on SportsCenter, sports programming was “the domain of what was played on the field.”
He added, “The game changed in terms of social influence, we saw that especially with the stories like Ray Rice, Aaron Hernandez and Jerry Sandusky.” All the while Lewis, coming from local news, had developed the skills necessary to tell a complete story. “It was in my wheelhouse knowing the court system and how to read police reports. I knew storytelling and reporting from that standpoint.”
In the ever-changing landscape of media that lends itself to innovation and forward thinking, both impressed upon the willingness to adapt and be malleable.
“People have multiple choices on how they receive content now, so it is critical that any talent is able to cross over between platforms to make sure that they are reaching consumers at some level,” said Roberts.
Television, digital and mobile have evolved into a new-age form of journalism that is multiplatform and multimedia centric. “You have to stop the conventional thinking that you are producing content for television,” said Lewis. “That’s where I see the industry heading.”
Both Lewis and Roberts emphasized how important and valuable mentorship has been for them. “My advice as a person of color particularly African-Americans is accept the fact that you are going to have to work five times harder and don’t forget to bring other people along as you climb the latter.”
Above all else, Lewis urged people of color seeking any professional career path to “figure out how you’re going to be the best version of yourself in whatever your job that you choose” because the two things you will be judged on is, “how prepared you are when you come to the table and if you produce.”
First Take airs Monday thru Friday from 10a.m. to 12 noon on ESPN.