View Full Version : New-and-improved "SportsCenter" throws ombudsman curveball

04-14-2008, 01:39 PM

In a column last summer, posted in response to the insipid, monthlong Who's Now competition on "SportsCenter," I broached the notion of ESPN's producing a crisp, clean half-hour evening edition of "SportsCenter," focused on news and highlights, minus cross-promotions, gimmicks and miscellaneous fluff.

The chorus of amens that I received from readers was one of the year's largest outpourings, exceeded only in volume by the precolumn mail from viewers who felt Who's Now represented the final step in the devolution of "SportsCenter" from must-see to can't-watch TV.

Six months have passed, and I recently noticed something I am hesitant to write about for fear of jinxing it. "SportsCenter" has changed.

While on vacation last month, I recorded 10 day's worth of 9 a.m. "SportsCenters," beginning Feb. 15, so I could catch up on the sports news upon my return. I approached the task of review reluctantly, regarding it as punishment for taking time off. Once I plunged in, though, I was amazed to find myself enjoying hour after hour of "SportsCenter."

They were not crisp, clean half-hours, but far more often than not, they were crisp, clean hours dominated by highlights and news, with remarkably few gimmicks, sponsored segments, cross-promotions or padding of any kind.

Prominent credit was given to other news sources for breaking stories when appropriate. Most surprisingly, there were almost no opinion segments, even after news updates on the kind of off-the-field scandals that normally become occasions for commentator overkill. Analyst segments were few and short, usually a single analyst giving a pithy 30-second answer to a single focused question rather than a whole crew of studio analysts repeating each other for several minutes, or pairs getting into snarly dogfights for our presumed entertainment.

The time saved went to more highlights of more teams and more sports, including hockey and NASCAR, as well as to more interviews and reporting. Relatively speaking, especially compared to my first months in this job last spring and summer, these "SportsCenters" seemed too good to be true. Perhaps I had soaked up too much sun on vacation. Perhaps it was some kind of seasonal fluke.

I checked my mailbag for complaints about "SportsCenter," but the only steady drumbeat I found for the second half of February was directed at the month's gimmick, The Greatest Highlight competition, in which viewers chose "the best all-time highlight" from a tournament-style bracket of 16. Viewers actually liked the concept, but they wished the archival footage had been played with the original audio instead of voice-overs by Chris Berman. As one wise viewer put it, "The original emotion of the moment is integral to the highlight."

Even those complaints represented progress. Viewers who thought the Who's Now competition was all wrong thought "SportsCenter" had gotten The Greatest Highlight competition at least half-right.

After extending my scrutiny of the 9 a.m. "SportsCenter" for another week, it was time to ask ESPN if the changes I noticed were real, intentional, a sign of things to come or a temporary aberration. I called senior coordinating producer Craig Bengtson, who came to ESPN from ABC News in August 2006 and who in August 2007 was charged with overseeing all editions of "SportsCenter."

Were the faster, crisper, newsier "SportsCenters" with reduced use of analysts and shorter sponsored segments a fluke? "No," Bengtson said. "it is deliberate."

"We are always looking to make segments more concise," Bengtson said, identifying the "we" as himself; Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating producer for the 6 p.m. and weekend morning "SportsCenters"; and Michael Shiffman, coordinating producer for the 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. editions that are re-aired from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next day.

"We certainly are hitting news stories hard," Bengtson said. "We have cut back on the use of analysts and try to use them only when it makes sense to use them. We have also made sponsored segments shorter, sometimes split them in half. When I first got here, they used to have 5-6 minute sponsored segments. Now we've cut them into maybe a 2-minute segment in the first half of the show and a 2-minute or less segment in the second half of the show. The point in all of this is to have more and shorter segments. And smarter ones.

"We are also making a concerted effort right now to give anchors a little more time to develop chemistry and to engage viewers."

A little alarm bell went off at that last point about anchors, but I focused my next questions on analysts, because more selective use of them had seemed the key aspect of the changed "SportsCenter" to me, making other enhancements possible. What was Bengtson's take on the role of analysts?

"My expectation is, if they are the so-called experts, they should tell me something I would not have thought of on my own," he said. "When we don't get that, it is usually not their fault. It's the questions we ask them. We need to be smarter with our questions, and we should only offer analysis when it is needed. Sports fans are smart. They don't need analysis after every story."

Reassured by that, I asked Bengtson what he meant by giving anchors more time.

"The shows have not been personality-driven," he said. "In fact, we often cover up our anchors with video. A viewer can watch an entire segment sometimes without knowing who is talking to them. So we are looking to do less of that, and give our anchors opportunities to display a little more personality on air."

I know many readers of this column will fear, as I do, that more "personality" will mean more schtick, more imposition of anchor ego onto the news. Perhaps, though, it will mean anchor teams who have more of a stake in guiding us reliably though the news, providing context, perspective and the tone that best matches the content. Bengtson, who spent 12 years of working with the Peter Jennings at ABC News, surely knows the difference.

"A lot of this is just common sense," Bengtson said of the recent efforts to improve 'SportsCenter.' Yes, and the consistent exercise of common sense is all that most of those who write me ask of ESPN.

I understand that 1,000 words of praise for "SportsCenter" is going to make some readers think their ombudsman has jumped the shark. All I can say is that I still recognize what drives viewers crazy even in the best of "SportsCenter" months.

I too groaned at the overplay of Yankees owner Hank Steinbrenner's disparaging comments about "Red Sox Nation," taking it as the opening salvo in the annual hyping of the great East Coast rivalry. I, too, was appalled at the shameless cross-promotion that is ESPN The Weekend, especially when athletes were asked to name their favorite Disney rides. And I don't understand how a sponsored segment called Coors Light Cold Hard Facts can feature anchors asking analysts to be fortune tellers on such questions as, "Are you convinced Brett Favre will stay retired?"

There's more to the article, but I can't post all of it.

I encourage folks who have issues with ESPN to read the whole article

04-14-2008, 02:22 PM
I did read that article before and I have actually started to read all of her (the ombudsman's) older opeds. I tend to agree with her more often than not. I actually stopped watching anything ESPN TV/Internet, during the whole "who's now" fiasco. It wasn't so much as a protest as it was just nauseating. It would not have been bad as a two day fan poll, but a month long or more - and the fact that they actually brought on experts.

Just horrible.

04-14-2008, 02:24 PM
I don't think it's a coincidence that SportsCenter got better after they "borrowed" the current format from FSN's Final Score.