In TV, a smart, bawdy new novel about the highly charged world of network sports, Caesar Fortunato proves impossible to work with, as he's an unfaithful, lying, gambling, drug-addicted hothead.
And Fortunato is the good guy.
Author Brian Brown based the character not-so-loosely on the late ABC Sports producer Chet Forte. Through his innovations, Forte was a force in shaping how sports were rendered on television - whether an amateur track meet or a Super Bowl.
But his type - deeply flawed, passionate and headstrong about holding off ratings-obsessed corporate executives - has all but disappeared, Brown argued. And so he took up his pen in focused anger.
"I'd like to think that some of these larger-than-life people are missed," said Brown, himself an Emmy Award-winning sports journalist who has most recently worked for NBC and HBO. "At the very least, they defended their product with a zeal that we could use more of."
Now, he said, there is a clarity of mission to maximize audiences to draw in advertisers. It's that kind of no-risk philosophy that can make for a blander broadcast.
With the proliferation of cable stations and remote controls, for example, the networks no longer feel they can dwell on Greco-Roman wrestling or javelin tosses during the Olympics, even though those meets are part of the texture of the games. And the fear of channel-surfing has led networks to cram advertising into the shows themselves.
During one Super Bowl broadcast on which he served as a producer, Brown recalled that almost every feature - the instant replay, the two-minute warning - had its own sponsor.
"It reached a point of absurdity with the injury report," Brown said. "There were no injuries to report, but we had to have an injury report because it was sponsored. So we were telling viewers about banged-up pinkies and bruised shins."
There has always been a tension between those who manage the networks and those who work to create their shows. But that tension has been resolved, said Brown: "The business people have won, and it's a rout."
In the book, a character clearly based on the late Howard Cosell defends Muhammad Ali's controversial decision not to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. In 1970, ABC's Monday Night Football made its debut only a few weeks before Cosell's remarks, and some sponsors sought his dismissal. Roone Arledge, then the head of ABC Sports, resisted.
"That demonstrated courage," Brown said. "I don't think there are too many who would do that today."
That's not to say there are no oases in the desert.
Brown has found a haven at HBO Sports with Bob Costas, the NBC broadcaster who does a periodic special for the cable channel. CBS morning news anchor Bryant Gumbel appears on a savvy sports show for HBO, as well.
Costas shares much of Brown's concerns about the big broadcasters. "I'm pretty sure that you have network executives putting programs on the air that, if they were at home, they wouldn't watch themselves," he said.
"All of us have to make compromises," Costas said. "What you hope is that you can slip enough in there, between the cracks, that reflects what you really care about."
ESPN has been the home for much of the worthwhile sports reporting that appears on the air. The cable channel's trademark irreverence on SportsCenter - its nightly newscast - is a welcome acknowledgment that, after all, we are just talking about sports here.
But ESPN is losing market share, too. And the impulse to draw in new viewers leads to strange things - some of which may be welcome. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, columnists with the Washington Post, are both in deep negotiations with the cable network to appear on a daily sports version of CNN's Crossfire.
An ESPN spokesman confirmed the talks, but neither Wilbon nor Kornheiser returned calls seeking comment. Two people knowledgeable about the outlines of the preliminary deal said Kornheiser would be taking a leave from the newspaper to try the TV show.
New ESPN senior vice president Mark Shapiro has commissioned original movies and miniseries to air. And maybe it was inevitable, then, that on some Sunday night soon, viewers would see teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. on SportsCenter. But Prinze's fawning interview of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter - largely a chance for the actor to promote his new baseball movie - was as schlocky as television gets.
"SportsCenter is going to remain the same," said ESPN spokesman Rob Tobias. "It's our mission to inform, and secondly to entertain. We're trying some new things to appeal to some more casual fans."
I'm not sure that the subscribers of Tiger Beat magazine are ESPN's best bet for new converts.
In TV, Brown writes an Emmy acceptance speech for Fortunato inspired by Arledge's real words. The television veteran is talking about a new record set at an international track meet. But he is really explaining how sports sometimes can transcend athletic competition - or an obvious play for ratings.
"There were these old men, Russians and Americans, hugging each other, jumping up and down and screaming," the fictional producer recounted.
"They were enemies who spoke different languages and couldn't even agree on a way to prevent the world from blowing itself up. Yet, there they were, embracing like brothers on world television at the simple act of a man jumping over a bar."
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folken firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 410-332-6923.