BRISTOL, CT—Sports broadcasting giant ESPN, whose programming has long been a staple among male television viewers of all ages, made its first foray into women's sports programming with the introduction of the World's Emotionally Strongest Man Competition Monday.
The hour-long weekly show, which will run opposite ABC's Monday Night Football, features an international cast of powerfully caring, emotionally resilient, deeply sensitive men pushing themselves and each other to the limit with astounding feats of inner strength in domestic settings around the country.
During the show's premiere, a two-hour special titled "Manhattan Blowout," competitors put their bodies, minds, and spirits to the test in events ranging from the brutal grind of "Enduring Quietly As She Takes Her Hard Day At Work Out On You," to the agility-straining "Throwing A Last-Minute Surprise Party For A Despised Mother-In-Law," to the ultimate combination of strength and finesse, "Helping Her Over The Death Of The Cat That Always Hated You."
"We've always been interested in expanding our brand to involve fans of every possible stripe," said ESPN president George Bodenheimer at the gala WESMC premiere party at the ESPN Zone restaurant in Times Square Monday. "When we looked at our viewers, it was immediately apparent that—figure skating, cheerleading, and gymnastics aside—women were the largest single group we were missing. This new show was designed from the ground up to give them the kind of deep, meaningful competitive experience they don't get from normal sports-entertainment shows."
Over 13 million viewers tuned in for the premiere, which saw Manhattan photographer Barry Peters pull to a strong early lead in overall points with his artful, complaint-free performance in the "Synchronized Cooking And Consolation" event, during which Peters prepared a near-flawless zucchini-pepper ratatouille while effortlessly lifting the spirits of his partner, the challenging and highly unpredictable Christy Ericsson, by convincing her that she was in fact better off without that long-anticipated promotion.
Other strong overall performances were turned in by Martin "There, There" Richards, a graphic designer who remembered to make his wife's beloved tapioca pudding on the anniversary—not of their marriage—but of their first date; Garth "The Embrace" Josephsen, who maintained some form of reassuring but undemanding physical contact with his fiancée for nine consecutive hours; and Ben "Soulmate" Siegel, who made his girlfriend laugh despite her belief that minor weight gain and childlessness were ruining her life.
"It was perfect, honestly," said tear-prone football coach and WESMC host Dick Vermeil, who taped the show's 13 episodes earlier this summer so that he would be free to lead the Kansas City Chiefs without any heart-rending distractions. "We couldn't have asked for a better debut. Even the guys who didn't do as well as they wanted did their honest best, and we had no breakups or severely hurt feelings, despite some relatively large missteps."
According to Vermeil, one competitor, Patrick "Gusher" Johnson, overcorrected a brief moment of thoughtlessness with a hasty and inappropriate marriage proposal, straining his trust almost to the breaking point. He also noted that "Magnanimous" Ver Magnusson, the lone Icelandic entrant, may have tripped himself up with his longtime companion Marta by compensating for his terse nature with an "almost creepy" overabundance of expensive gifts.
Early reviews of the show have been overwhelmingly positive, with the target audience responding precisely as ESPN had hoped.
"WESMC is exactly the kind of thing I've always wanted in a competitive event," said viewer Emma Michaels, who posted her approval on the show's web site. "The way these talented emotional athletes can be so strong for others, bearing up under the crushing weight of sadness, shouldering the burdens of a fully mature relationship, never taking the cop-out of ‘letting a woman down easy,' and never cheating… This is the way these games are meant to be played."