Come Aug. 11, the 9 a.m. SportsCenter will be different.
Not only will ESPN's flagship show feature a new anchor team of Hannah Storm and Josh Elliott, but it will be live, ending more than a dozen years of encore editions in the morning. ESPN has been running a repeat wheel of its 1 a.m. ET show from 6 a.m. to noon since January 1996.
On weekdays, ESPN will go to a six-hour block of live shows as Chris McKendry and Robert Flores, from noon to 3 p.m., will follow Storm/Elliott as anchors. They will be supported by a team of 100 employees, including production personnel and Sage Steele, who will serve as update anchor (and replace Storm as co-anchor on Fridays during football season as the former heads a Sunday morning show).
Relying on more multimedia activity and polls from SportsCenter.com, which also launches Aug. 11, the shows will generally reset every hour, with SportsCenter Right Now updates every 20 minutes throughout the block.
For those involved at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., it's a move that's long overdue. “This will be better service for fans,” says Mark Gross, ESPN senior VP and managing editor of studio production. “There's been a call for live shows for years now.”
SPORTS NEWS AROUND THE CLOCK
Notes SportsCenter senior coordinating producer Craig Bengtson: “All of the news outlets, CNN, MSNBC, they're live 24 hours. This will enable us to do a better job. You never know what's going on or when it's going to happen.”
Sure, but there aren't any games played in North America overnight. ESPN officials, though, pointed to recent developments that justify the new approach.
“[New York Mets manager] Willie Randolph got fired in middle of the night,” Gross says. “If we're live, we do a better job informing our viewers.”
Adds Elliott: “It was a needed step with the expanding news, publicity cycles.”
Storm, who joins ESPN after a five-year run on CBS's The Early Show, echoes her co-host's sentiments. “We can deliver breaking news and now add perspective to stories, like the latest on the Brett Favre situation,” she says. “Otherwise, [SportsCenter] has to wait until 6 p.m.”
What will viewers see? Shows featuring multimedia components will morph throughout their six-hour span.
“The telecast will be a little bit more interactive, more multimedia,” Gross explains. “We'll go to reports from ESPN Radio affiliates, like Michael Kay on ESPN 1050 in New York, to provide a local perspective, say on the Randolph firing. We'll go to poll questions from ESPN.com and SportsCenter.com. We could go to a real-time, 20 minutes of Josh Hamilton at the [All-Star Game] Home Run Derby.”
Bengtson says the show will still be rooted in scores, highlights and interviews: “We'll go to press conferences, and our talent will have access to all of our analysts to provide more perspective and to look ahead.”
Elliott talks about going deeper with highlights, and cutting them differently. “On the show, we can break down [Los Angeles Laker] Kobe's [Bryant] defense in Game 5 of the NBA Finals,” he says. “We can then use that as a jumping-off for strategies for the next game.”
GETTING 'THE WATER COOLER STORIES'
For her part, Storm wants to embrace immediacy. “We want to get to the water cooler stories, get the guy who threw the no-hitter,” she says. “We can debate the Home Run Derby format and why Josh Hamilton didn't win it, or whether the All-Star Game should be used to determine home-field advantage in the World Series.”
While there will no doubt be plenty of tweaking in the weeks and months ahead, ESPN executives do have a goal in mind. “Over the course of the day, the shows will become less about the night before, and more about the night ahead,” Bengtson says. “By the time we get to the 3 p.m., the majority of the show will be fresh.”
There's no guarantee that freshness will equate to higher ratings. Live SportsCenter showings at 6 p.m., 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. have grown 10% to 673,000 viewers on average year-to-date. The 6 p.m. to noon encore wheel holds up pretty well, averaging a 0.5 household rating, with a 0.6 peak in the 10 a.m. ET hour.
“We'd like the ratings to go up, but we'll have to see what the reaction is,” Gross says.
Sports analyst John Mansell is not sure there will be a significant uptick. “I don't think it's really going to matter that much,” he says. “There aren't that many people watching in the morning.”
Run-throughs and rehearsals began in late July. During the week of Aug. 4, the teams will go to full “live” rehearsals. “We'll produce the show as if we're on the air,” says Bengtson, who believes Aug. 11 marks an auspicious starting point.
“The first full week of the Olympics is good place to begin,” he says. “But August is a very busy time for us. The baseball pennant races are really heating up. College football's coming back. Who knows? Maybe more of the news is coming out of NFL training camps that week.”
Format tweaking aside, more SportsCenter changes are in the offing. Next spring, the 1 a.m. show will originate from a new studio in Los Angeles. ESPN will also revisit its original game plan, which called for nine hours of live daytime news coverage.
“We took a look at the business model and determined six was the right way to start,” Gross says. “After the NFL season, we'll reassess and see whether going to nine live hours is the right move.”
In the meantime, Bengtson, quickly dismissing a query concerning any apprehension about producing the format, just wants to get on with the new shows.
“This is what we do. It's all about making TV, making SportsCenter. I'm just kind of looking forward to getting the next two weeks [of rehearsals] out of the way. Everybody from the anchors to the PAs wants to be part of this. The energy around SportsCenter hasn't been this good for a long time.”