Tuesday, May 29, 2012

SportsCenter: The Unwatchable Hour

The program that carried ESPN through the early stages of its existence was SportsCenter. The idea was simple. Use technology to record as many sports highlights as possible and then play them back in one show. There were no rights fees to pay, nothing to negotiate and plenty of sports up in the air to record.

The early version of SportsCenter at 7PM previewed the match-ups of the night and set the table. The 11PM version showed highlights of the East Coast games now over and updated the West Coast in-progress scores. Finally, at 2:30AM in the east, the wrap-up show put all the highlights in one place and then replayed in the morning.

Since that time over thirty years have passed. ESPN has become a global media company with digital businesses of all kinds. While the faces, sets and studio locations have changed one thing has remained constant. ESPN continues to use SportsCenter as the backbone of its existence.

These days, SportsCenter expands to fill the holes in the ESPN TV schedule that have seen various types of programming come and go. National business shows, exercise series and even movies have all been tried and failed. The bottom line is that ESPN struggles in dayparts when no live events are scheduled.

A quick check of the ESPN schedule shows just how valuable sports highlights and news are to the network. On Tuesday, 15 of the 24 hours on the ESPN network programming schedule will be filled by SportsCenter. In essence, SportsCenter is the de facto "filler show" between ESPN's live events.

While it made sense to show timely sports highlights when SportsCenter was made available on a limited basis, the opposite is true these days. The over-exposure of this franchise program has led it to morph into something few believed it could become. Sportscenter is now truly the unwatchable hour.

The late night show now originates from ESPN's Los Angeles studios. The morning and afternoon versions are now live from Bristol. The results of these efforts is often nothing more than a disjointed stream of seemingly random content. Even with the labels of the upcoming stories right on the TV screen, it's become very clear that a lot of this content is being created simply to fill time.

Now with such a demand, the network often focuses SportsCenter around a continual stream of experts who seemingly appear to be on-duty at the network 24 hours a day. From Barry Melrose and his mullet to the hyperactive Herm Edwards, there are always former athletes or coaches available to talk about anything. Their role is to take what should be a highlight and expand it into a full-length program segment. Their presence is often recorded, a fact that is rarely made clear to viewers.

The second wrinkle in the modern SportsCenter is the emergence of the non-story. The reporter assigned to document Tim Tebow's first organized team activity (OTA) as a New York Jet found out what others already knew. There was nothing to report. That no longer matters. Simply by taking a reporter, adding a sports celebrity and showing video of both it becomes content now suitable for the SportsCenter marathon.

What the plethora of in-house experts and the forced presence of non-stories has done is eliminate sports that do not fit the SportsCenter mold. Such is the saga of NASCAR and motorsports in general. Since 2007 and the new eight-year NASCAR TV deal with ESPN, nothing has been a bigger disaster than the lack of consistent coverage on the network's flagship news program.

Here at TDP, we have written story after story on the embarrassing and even comical manner in which the various SportsCenter anchors have tried to deal with NASCAR. Here are a few:

SportsCenter Drops The NASCAR Ball from September of 2008

Why SportsCenter Hates NASCAR  from June of 2011

This weekend both NASCAR and IndyCar ran Sunday races. The Indy 500 was featured on ABC while the Coke 600 was on FOX. Like many other Americans on holiday, I tuned into SportsCenter late Monday morning to watch the highlights and get the follow-up reporting on both races.

Dario Franchitti had won one of the most exciting Indy 500 races in years. This event is the jewel of the ESPN IndyCar TV package. The race featured a furious sequence of passing on the closing laps and a final lap crash that became the story of the race. ABC had left the coverage with many stories untold and missed showing many memorable images.

SportsCenter had no Indy 500 highlights, no follow-up and never even referenced the event during the three hours of programming I recorded.

Popular NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne had finally broken his run of bad luck and won in Charlotte. Danica Patrick dominated the pre-race publicity. Favorite Jimmie Johnson had trouble on pit road. There were stories throughout the field. ESPN carries the final 17 Sprint Cup Series races, including the entire Chase for the Championship.

The SportsCenter shows I recorded had no NASCAR highlights, no results and never referenced the race. Fans have told me an earlier AM version of the show had Rusty Wallace talking about the event. Wallace was in Bristol to appear on the 3PM Monday afternoon NASCAR Now program.

In 2011 some key ESPN staff members were taken on an "immersion trip" to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Click here to read the story. This trip was not arranged because things were going well, but because it was very clear NASCAR's presence on SportsCenter and other ESPN programs continued to be a struggle.

Now, one year later, my Monday SportsCenter experience included Steven A. Smith loudly debating NBA topics, extended analysis in May about the NFL season and a Top Plays feature that did not show the Indy 500 finish.

The unwatchable hour is alive and well. Perhaps that immersion was not quite deep enough.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

31 comments:

earl06 said...

Not that I needed it, but thanks for the confirmation that quitting Sportcenter cold turkey 10 years ago was the right move to make.

GinaV24 said...

LOL, well, I've never watched ESPN much and the only time I watch SC is when it is on somewhere that I can't control the TV.

It's obvious that the "new" ESPN has no real interest in motorsports. As you say, since they covered the Indy 500, I would have expected SOME highlights of it. NASCAR, nah, I wouldn't expect it at all. NASCAR is something to make fun of for ESPN - I'm not even sure why they wanted the 17 races that they are scheduled to cover. It's almost like they bid on it to stick it to NASCAR for shutting them out on the previous contract.

OSBORNK said...

In the early days, both SportsCenter and Headline News were a must watch for me because I was able to catch up on everything that interested me. I could watch
SportsCenter and a half hour of Headline News and feel informed. They have lost their mission with most of their programing now being just filler. In recent years, they have both become useless to me. Neither now gives timely news or information. I now watch neither but search out the information that is of interest to me from other sources.

matriarch said...

Let's face it. NASCAR is the red-headed stepchild at ESPN and always will be. We will look for more, but we'll never find it.

lacboi said...

Well written and pitch perfect

Sel11 said...

I hope to god NASCAR does not extend ESPN's contract because it's a joke they talk more about NFL than the Indy 500 on raceday which is in may which is still 4 months away from the NFL season

Adam said...

Great article, and I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. SC is becoming too redundant with the same five people talking about the same five stories over and over and over. And there are very few highlights.

ESPN stinks, plain and simple. They're ruining college football, and their NASCAR coverage...is, well, terrible.

Allen Wedge said...

Sadly talking heads is all ESPN cares about these days. Its not even the sports themselves, they show a highlight of a baseball game for 30 seconds to 1 minute, but then they bring in experts to debate it for 5 minutes.

Interesting that you said 15 of their 24 hours were sportscenter, but what I'm more interested in is how much of their 24 hours is live sports. Because from what I can tell those remaining hours are filled with mike and mike, around the horn, PTI, 30 for 30 replays, nba/nfl countdown shows (all talking head shows).

Anonymous said...

I gave up on Sportscenter years ago too, the make a story out of nothing with an athlete that can talk is all they do. Scripts are reused even 12 hours from evening broadcast to next am. ESPN other than live sports is worthless now..

GreenEyedLilo said...

Clearly ESPN doesn't really want NASCAR or its fans, and therefore, does not deserve us and our loyalty. I don't think it's an accident that NASCAR's ratings have slipped since ESPN got involved. I've been beating this drum for a while. Frankly, it pisses me off to be made to feel second-class, and to see NASCAR try to suck up to ESPN anyway.

w17scott said...

Mr Editor -
As for ESPN's interest in motorsports, I can only use the same term as to describe the so-called 'motorship' - self-absorbed. The corporate mindset has taken over with a clear lack of respect for the images and properties promoted on-air. Sad, but true.
Walter

PammH said...

Since racing is the only sport I'm interested in (and rapidly losing interest in Nascar), I would never even think of watching SC.

Joj said...

I gave up on SC 3 years ago - in fact we watch very little of espn at all.

Its no longer relevant to the sports we follow.

AncientRacer said...

First Truth is I have never, ever expected Sports Center to cover motorsports. Never have. It is a stick and ball and run and jump circus.

Second Truth is I have not for many years been a viewer of any general sports round-up show. I was some years ago. I liked the combination of Fred Hickman / Nick Charles on CNN and Keith Olbermann / Dan Patrick on ESPN, but I know now I wasn't really there for the sports. I was there because I liked the show itself and the banter of the hosts, and to be honest I still miss both shows and Sports Center has, in my opinion, lived off the hump of The Big Show for years now.

Third Truth is motorsports is just not a New York / Connecticut thing nor is it a Los Angeles thing and I doubt very much they ever will be. As far as they know there are 2 races per year: Daytona and Indianapolis. One is seen as toothless rednecks running in circles and the other as the internal combustion version of the Kentucky Derby.

In our little world we have Speed Center which in patterned on Sports Center and is used similarly as a filler but which has not to date gotten the transcending jolt of electricity only achievable from the appearance
on the scene of a team like those I mentioned above.

RPM said...

It's as plain as the nose on your face that ESPN does not consider NASCAR a sport but rather a burden they must bear to pre-sell a block of advertising. Once that block is sold they lose all interest until contract renewal rolls around.

Lou said...

Hi JD,
after reading the previous comments, I am glad I am not alone on this.

It has been so long since I watched SC that I cannot even tell you who the anchors are. The only person I sort of followed was Brian Kenny. I met him in my former home town of Kingston,NY when he was on the local station WTZA. And now I see he is on MLB network.

Just maybe I am old school, but I see a trend here in my viewing habits. Gave up on SC a few years ago and now am watching less and less nascar on tv

KY1WING said...

SC ruined sports for me years ago. When they did cover sports why should I devote an afternoon watching the entire broadcast live when you could see all the big plays anyone was going to be talking about by watching a few minutes on SC. Quit watching NFL for that reason.

When their anti-racing, anti-NASCAR, anti-UK bias became unbearable stopped watching them too.

The sport is no longer important, but just an excuse for ESPN to exert their contol. Instead of reporting, they are directing sport today. Lot like NASCAR on FOX. The race is no longer the focus, just the excuse for non-stop Waltrip blathering.

KoHoSo said...

In 2011 some key ESPN staff members were taken on an "immersion trip" to the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Unfortunately, I cannot find the exact quote and no longer have the book. However, that reminds me of the children's classic, The Phantom Tollbooth, where one of the characters that had to swim through the Sea of Knowledge came out on the other side completely dry.

Buschseries61 said...

I've been used to the fact that NASCAR will never be important on SportsCenter, see 2001-2006. NBC Sports Talk is no better with motorsports.

The combo of failed comedians as hosts and stick & ball sports remains locked in place inside the ESPN bubble. ESPN's ego has become so inflated ESPN seems bigger than the sports it was created to cover.

Lately it seems like ESPN picked up NASCAR to advertise it's approved list of stick-and-ball sports to the idiots watching cars race in circles for three hours. They failed to deliver with the Nationwide series - adding nothing to the series it took over from FOX and Turner except one commercial and a few more qualifying sessions a year. And on weekdays, NASCAR Now has replaced the 12th hour of SportsCenter as the DVR lead-in to the real afternoon lineup.

NASCAR - a valued partner of ESPN.

William said...

ESPN has a show called Sports Center? Never noticed it, when is it on?

glenc1 said...

I am a fan of many sports & used to watch SC just to catch up. Now I turn over & it's people arguing or trying to out-clever each other without any of the real humor the hosts used to have. It's funny that we had a similar experience--I turned over the other night to catch up on the scores & there was Stephen Smith, whom I can't stand, and I couldn't turn away fast enough. As OsbornK pointed out, there is no more 'quick catch up' on the news or sports, I gave up on those long ago so the Internet is our only choice. As for motorsports, if I want to get news, the only time it's covered wihtout a mocking tone it'll be someone like Ryan Burr.

West Coast Kenny said...

J.D.,

It's telling that Rusty Wallace's election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame received the grand total of one plain-text line in the weekly round-up post in the ESPN in-house blog, Front Row.

WCK

Anonymous said...

West Coast Diane said:

I gave up on Sportscenter years ago when I gave up stick & ball sports, of which I had been an avid fan.

Instead of highlights and commentary, it becomes an act. Who can be the wittiest, funniest, etc. It's about the hosts not the sports.

Can't speak to other sports as I only watch racing & golf. As to motorsports, the ignorance expands to morning shows, local newscasts, etc.

Who writes the copy for some of this stuff? Heard a comment yesterday about Dario drinking the milk....wait for it...a Dan Wheldon tradition.

I cringe when drivers are on shows and asked the most absurd questions.

The days of doing some homework to provide accurate and informative information is long gone.

Not just sports, expands to all forms of reporting.

Used to be: "believe half of what you see and none of what you read".

I think it has become, "none of what you see or read". At least until you can do your own research to verify.

bevo said...

Great post. SC has gone from a habit to a an afterthought for me. What used to be a way to catch up on the day's many sports stories turned into constant fake arguments and hosts trying to out-douche each other.

RPM2Nite was sadly the last real motor sports information on tv.

Dot said...

The way BSPN treats race fans, it is my hope that they will not be a TV partner when contract negotiations begin. Does anyone at nascar notice this? I am so disgusted with BSPN that I don't even watch/DVR nascar Now anymore. Is it even still on? JD, how are the ratings for SC, do you know?

Anonymous said...

I hope to say this as family friendly as possible. If nascar (bzf) plays the "prostitute", why are we surprised we are treated as one? Has anyone been impressed with bzf's intellegence? Can you imagine him in a business meeting with the execs at bspn? Talk about absurd. We are the ones that get what bzf desereves. Has anyone really bought the line that he cares about the fan. Everything is goooood! MC

Darcie said...

I used to watch Cold Pizza because they did cover Motorsports somewhat, and did have drivers on as guests. But now, the new show, First Take, is nothing but that loudmouth Skippy arguing with various other loudmouths, and it's only stick and ball sports. ESPN has really gone down the tubes and I can count on one hand the number of hours I watch that channel in a month.

Vince said...

I haven't had cable for the last year or two, so take this comment with that in mind. But the last time I watched SC Chris Berman was still one of the anchors. That was a looooong time ago.

saltsburgtrojanfan said...

Sportscenter is a comedy show, not a sports show. I dont watch it at all. Its one of the many cancers of ESPN.

AveryNH said...

I recall watching the Monday morning sportscenter around 10 a.m. And ol Lindsey C. Was interviewing Rusty and recapping the prior nights coke 600. The night of they had Ricky Craven Giving analysis of the race that had just finished. Then they turned their attention to briefly highlighting the Indy 500. I can't recall if they talked about the 500 Monday morning or not. Most of the time the anchors are dummys and rave about junior, as was the case Sunday. But Lindsay is a great example of how NASCAR should be represented on the variety hour that's named sportscenter

Daly Planet Editor said...

Avery,

She has been doing a great job. My column was driven by the fact that for the late morning and noon shows they dropped motorsports for a new feature called "The Morning Buzz."

It was pretty awful and featured Steven A. Smith arguing with another man on a panel that Lindsay had to moderate. Bad decision all around there.

JD