December 18, 2002


TROUBLE IN BRISTOL: Mere seconds after anchor Scott Van Pelt introduced last night's 6:00 PM "SportsCenter" with "don't get fooled by the rocks that we got," I arrived at a sudden realization: I no longer enjoy watching ESPN. Whereas I once hung on Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick's every word nightly, SportsCenter is now a show that I watch each night while sitting at my computer with my back to the TV.
Where did it all go wrong for the "Worldwide Leader in Sports"? The problem came about two years ago when, as part of an effort to become the sports version of VH1, they decided to adopt something called "ESPN Original Entertainment." This meant that, on top of the usual actual sports programming and highlights shows, the network would be producing a third tier of programming, which would include talk shows, reality shows, and even original movies.
In that time ESPN has introduced a couple of dozen new shows. One of them, "Pardon the Interruption," is among the best talk shows in the history of cable television. Just about every other has completely, utterly, and unquestionably sucked. From "Streetball" to "Beg, Borrow, and Deal" to the misbegotten Brian-Dennehy-as-Bobby-Knight biopic "A Season on the Brink." the network that once defined edginess and creativity has sunken to lows that were once hardly even imaginable.
"PTI," the daily talker hosted by sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, has probably had more influence than any other sports show since SportsCenter itself. But a year after PTI's launch, ESPN's executives have shown that they completely misunderstand its appeal: rather than continue to produce intelligent content from people who know what they're talking about, the network has stuffed its schedule with all sorts of obnoxious people shouting personal insults at each other. It's the Fox News Channel-ization of cable TV.
On top of the abominable gabfest-cum-gameshow "Around The Horn," this mentality has even invaded SportsCenter itself. A few months ago the network's flagship show introduced a segment called "Fact or Fiction," during which a question is asked by the anchor and two panelists are asked to argue about it- preferably in between calling each other names. When the topic is football one of the panelists is usually Vikings backup quarterback-turned-NFL analyst Sean Salisbury, who in a segment last week spent 10 minutes shouting personal insults at gritty, respected chief NFL reporter John Clayton. Watching this highly regarded journalist being screamed at by the loathsome Salisbury made me feel nothing but embarrassment for Clayton- is this why he spends all those hours on the phone each week with sources, so he can get yelled at by some failed backup QB?
I don't mean to sound like Phil Mushnick here- I still enjoy the network's sports specialty shows (NFL Primetime, Baseball Tonight, College Gameday, etc.), and I don't share the revulsion towards Stuart Scott that so many sports observers seem to have these days. ESPN's journalistic credentials are still top-notch, and its coverage of actual sporting events (including the newly-acquired NBA) is second to none. But I find it quite disturbing that what has long been one of the top operations in television has been reduced to producing such substandard programming as "Around the Horn," on top of vacuous drek like the sub-"Amazing Race" "Beg, Borrow, and Deal." This week, they even ran a heavily-hyped prime-time interview with O.J. Simpson.
It's going to be tough, but I do have faith in the folks in Bristol to bring its network back to the respectability levels of the mid-'90s. I mean, could you ever imagine Keith Olbermann introducing an episode of SportsCenter with a quote from J-Lo?

Posted by Stephen Silver at December 18, 2002 02:06 PM
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