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Can SportsCenter Be Saved?

Empty SportsCenter Set

In 2006, with nightly news ratings in the midst of a 30-year decline, CBS attempted a Hail Mary pass: It lured TV darling Katie Couric away from NBC for $15 million, and gave her the anchor’s chair, replacing legendary newsman Dan Rather, who had departed in 2005. Couric generated ephemeral buzz, but by the time she left in 2011, ratings never spiked (they actually sank) – though it wasn’t her fault. For years, anyone who wanted news could get it throughout the day on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or the internet. Hiring a star didn’t make for appointment viewing.

In 2013, ESPN’s signature show, SportsCenter, is at a somewhat similar crossroads. Declining ratings, competition – from within and soon, Fox Sports 1 – and ESPN’s hope is that a sparkly new $25 million set will perhaps inject some life into the sports highlights show. In an era when highlights are everywhere moments after happening, is this mission impossible?

Obviously, plenty of people still watch the evening news (read: the over 65 crowd, hence all the Depends commercials). Significantly fewer are watching SportsCenter. ESPN gets cagey when you ask about ratings, as I did last week. Officially, an ESPN spokesman told me ratings for the 6 pm SportsCenter and the 11 pm SportsCenter – year-over-year – are only down slightly right now.

Numbers I’ve heard from internal ESPN sources though, offer a much bleaker picture, and cumulatively, paint a much worse ratings plunge (as much as 30% recently). The word “hemorrhaging” has been tossed around on the set, I’m told.

One source said that recently, an outside researcher analyzed SportsCenter and came back to ESPN brass with this summation: The show is stuffy. An ESPN spokesman confirmed research groups are often utilized multiple times a year, but cautioned against reading too much into the “stuffy” finding. [UPDATE: ESPN Front Row just posted a podcast on this subject.] But two people close to the show agreed with that analysis, and added that the show often feels scripted. The anchors want a looser show, but producers seem leery to give them space.

Not everyone is nervous. Norman Chad, the noted media critic, told me that the evening news couldn’t adapt, but ESPN won’t have any trouble.

“SportsCenter has been a little pregnant lately, what with embracing debate on the show,” said Chad, who has chimed in on the media for over 20 years in various newspaper columns, and now calls Poker on ESPN. “ESPN usually figures this out, and I would always bet on ESPN figuring it out. They always have, they always will.”

ESPN began pushing debate into SportsCenter last year, much to the chagrin of some anchors. In February, it shrank the show, and juggled anchors in hopes of finding the right chemistry. Educated guess: there will be plenty of opinion on SportsCenter in 2013/2014, but it won’t be framed as a debate. And essays. There appears to a strong push for smart essays, and that was before Keith Olbermann’s successful one last week.

If you’re looking for when SportsCenter may have begun to struggle, a source suggests ESPN may have cannibalized the show a few years ago when it began running SportsCenter all day. This removed the “appointment viewing” tag from the 6 pm SportsCenter, as anything that happened during business hours was covered on a previous show. And the rise of social media and smart phones has made every LeBron dunk or Tom Brady touchdown or Jozy Altidore goal available online within minutes.

When SportsCenter works best: Big, breaking news. Aaron Hernandez. Johnny Manziel. Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. The ability to utilize its talented reporters and unsurpassed resources to own a major story. The problem? When there’s a lull in the news, such as this summer, and you’re forced to troll for ratings with stories the largest fanbases care about – teams in the Northeast corridor (RG3 and the Redskins, Rex Ryan and the Jets, Tim Tebow and the Patriots), and the biggest stars, round-the-clock – such as anything LeBron or Kobe do on social media.

Since Katie Couric’s departure, the nightly evening news has lacked a superstar anchor such as a Brokaw, Jennings (RIP) or Rather. The program hasn’t been the flagship of the network in years – that now falls upon the morning shows. Are we close to SportsCenter no longer being the flagship of the network?

 

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