Most television networks would not take time out of their own broadcasting schedules to air formal-dress jerk-off awards, for obvious reasons. But if the network in question was an all-sports network trying to figure out what to do with a weekday night...
This is in no way to say that it won't happen before we die, and perhaps immediately at the moment before we die. But it seems unlikely that there may ever be an award show called the CEEBIES, in which CBS rents out a theater in Los Angeles, has its interns shampoo a red carpet and sets David Caruso up with a white tux and a garbage bag full of prescription meds so he'll host the thing, and then hands out some sort of barf-trophy to the saddest ostensibly comic moment in Two and a Half Men or the most surveillance-positive episode of CSI: Miami. This is only in part because CBS just cancelled CSI: Miami, and because Caruso won't wear anything but linen due to what he claims are legitimate allergies; it's mostly because a network hosting a meta-award show for itself, in prime time, is an awful idea. So awful, in fact, that ESPN has been doing it for two decades now.
Most television networks would not take time out of their own broadcasting schedules to air formal-dress jerk-off awards, for obvious reasons. But if the network in question was an all-sports network trying to figure out what to do with a weekday night during the Major League Baseball All-Star break, at a time when the only other active professional or collegiate sport is the WNBA, then it might—might—be an idea that is not instantly laughed/wept out of the room. That may be the most convincing explanation for why ESPN created the ESPY Awards, but how the ESPYs—the worst idea in sports, and the least essential award show in a world that already has the People's Choice Awards—have now lasted for twenty years is a considerably harder thing to explain.
In recent years, ESPN's programming has made a loud, silly, but mostly seamless transition to a doofily hetero-male sports analogue to Entertainment Tonight. This is good in that ESPN lacks the actual sociopathic anti-humanity edges of something like TMZ, but bad insofar as most things on ESPN which are not actual sporting events have played as Tebow-obsessed takes on the ghoulish, chiclet-toothed Pre-Pre-Red Carpet Preview Pre-Shows that choke non-sports television before entertainment award shows—lite bickering and flimsy speculation, and dad-grade japery, familiar faces in pancake makeup mouthing familiar words they don't quite seem to mean. To the extent that the ESPYs pre-show felt different from the programming that would ordinarily have filled this space, it was only insofar as the Pardon the Interruption team was pretending to disagree about LeBron James out of doors, in Los Angeles.
The show itself was, of course, pretty awful. For the most part, it was awful in the ways you'd expect: dazed-looking players honored with awards used the word "unbelievable" a lot and thanked God, and their owners. Highlight reels were scored to the worst music in the world, ranging from Flo Rida motivational raps to a nu-metal cover of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up;" selected dunks and touchdowns spun backwards and forwards during gassy dubstep bass drops. The usual mayonnaise-y Teleprompter'ed award-show jokes were not terribly improved when read aloud by nervous hockey players and snowboarders with seventh-grade educations. Kenny Chesney was present. The camera cut often to shots of Tebow, the popular evangelical meat-nugget who appeared to be taking in every one of host Rob Riggle’s jokes on a seven-second delay. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski seemed particularly flustered by human speech; he came off like the Incredible Hulk being played by Michael Cera. Around the two-hour mark, the show took a break for something very much like a highlight montage of the previous two hours.
All of which was clearly not good, if not quite unbearable. The highlight reels of highlight reels were, of course, ridiculous—a self-administered proctological exam with weepy, strummy bro-pop song under it and applause at the end. There's something inherently funny about the idea of "20 Years of Moments," which seemed to be the theme of most of this—inherently funny in the way that "Two Decades of Weather" or "A Quarter Century of Breakfast" is both vague enough and clearly meaningless enough to seem like a satire of something, or everything.
But ESPN is not into satire, especially where ESPN is involved. Each moment—out of context, out of time, cut to the beat of a bloodless autotuned Fergie chorus or some strummy bro's feelings—had been reduced to nonsense, but had been simultaneously taken very, very seriously. Halfway through, Chris Berman, the network's eminent anthropomorphized roast beef and punmaster emeritus, toddled onstage to single out various athletes in attendance for the moments they had given us. "Mike Piazza, where's Michael?" Berman asked, sounding like a Canadian Club-ed high school football coach at an awards banquet. The camera found what was either Mike Piazza or a marzipan rendering of Mike Piazza; it was difficult to tell. "Days after 9/11, you helped a bewildered nation to begin to heal, thank you." Berman was talking about a home run that Piazza had hit in baseball’s first game back, back in 2001. Piazza, to his credit, looked somewhat bewildered. And then Berman moved on, and the silly, if deeply heartfelt applause washed things forward.