Enormous changes coming to ESPN’s ‘SportsCenter’
To say “SportsCenter” is getting a makeover is to undersell the magnitude of the project, sort of like suggesting the Big Dig offered only cursory tweaks to the Central Artery.
ESPN’s changes to the set and style of its flagship program — which will be revealed on the 11 p.m. edition Sunday — are enormous and altering and may even change traffic patterns, at least for the anchors.
Given that ESPN has tirelessly touted the expanse of the project — a 39-page media packet was provided for a ceremonial unveiling in May of the 194,000-square-foot, five-studio media center called Digital Center 2 — it is presumably only slightly less expensive than the Big Dig.
“What’s great about the studio is we’re finally working off a studio that was built to support a 24/7 show,’’ said news director Craig Bengtson. “[The current studio] was built at a time when we were live just three hours a day. Now we’re live 18-plus hours a day.”
ESPN’s current studio was built in 2004. That it is just a decade old and already is being treated as outdated makes one pause when considering the public relations department’s touting that the new studio “can handle all existing media formats and future industry standards capable of carrying data/signals at various rates, that haven’t been adopted by the television industry yet.”
It’s always risky to project what the media future may hold, especially with the landscape shifting with unprecedented speed. But ESPN’s confidence that the new studio will bring progress to the present certainly seems reasonable — even if it may take viewers time to digest it all and adjust.
“I think initially it’s going to be a dramatic change for viewers for a variety of reasons,’’ said Bengtson, who also emphasized the enhanced role of the “SportsCenter” app. “No. 1, the programs will be differentiated by where they start on the set. The set has multiple anchor locations. The lighting in the morning is different than the lighting at night. The music in the morning is slightly different than the music at night.
“There are more than 100 video and graphic display monitors to just 15 on the current set. They’re big, they’re going to be able to deliver information in a different way to the audience that will make it more compelling television. The graphics have been adjusted. Fewer numbers, bigger, bolder, easier to digest the information.”
The new appearance should become familiar soon enough. The larger curiosity is an adjustment in approach. The anchors — it will be longtime hosts Steve Levy and Stuart Scott for the premier — will not be situated behind a desk nearly as often as they are now. Instead, the anchors will be upright and mobile while navigating the massive set, often standing next to a screen when a highlight is shown rather than voicing it over in the familiar way.
“The biggest change for us is certainly awareness of our surroundings,’’ said Levy. “The way I understand it and from doing rehearsals, we are almost never — almost never — going to be behind our desk. That might be an opening shot, an establishing shot, a shot for a serious story, a shot for a serious discussion, but we’re going to be all over the place.”
The anchors now have to hit their marks like an actor. And they’d better know their lines.
“The desk is nice and comfortable,’’ Levy said. “And to be seated there, you have all your papers, all your highlights, all your cards, news notes. Walking around, we won’t have that luxury. Sort of the safety net of the hard paper, of the scripts. That won’t be available to us.”
Bengtson has used the phrase “talent forward, content back” — one of those buzzy sayings that if you hear enough might leave you with a hangover the next day — to describe a more personality-driven approach to “SportsCenter.” Levy was asked if that meant he has the freedom to veer off script and, say, talk about the NHL more often than the limited amount of time the network generally allots.
“It’s an interesting question,’’ said Levy, who has been around ESPN long enough to have worked with distinctive personalities such as Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and Craig Kilborn. “There’s definitely a push to have more personality, right? You still have to be who you are.’’
You can’t fake that. If you’re not funny, like myself, you can’t try to be funny.’’
That’s not going to work for anyone. But I think the looseness leads to more fun without trying to be funnier. It’s the age old thought in television. If you’re having a good time doing it then the audience will be having a good time as well.”
Those old what-ifs reared up again this week when Tim Duncan, the prize of a 1997 NBA Draft in which the Celtics had the best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick, won his fifth championship in his stellar career with the San Antonio Spurs.
While losing out on a player of Duncan’s historic magnitude is a frustration that probably won’t go away until he retires, Comcast SportsNet New England has come up with an interesting twist on how Celtics fans can revisit that draft night.
CSNNE will debut “Blast the Past: ’97 Celtics Draft Special” on Monday at 8 p.m. It will feature a Mystery Science Theater 3000 approach, with panelists Gary Tanguay, Cedric Maxwell, and Michael Holley looking back at the network’s 1997 draft special — which originally aired live on SportsChannel New England — from the CSNNE theater room while providing running commentary.
Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn covered that draft for SportsChannel, when the Celtics ended up with Chauncey Billups (third overall) and Ron Mercer (sixth). Rick Pitino, who was in his first year with the Celtics, should be particularly ripe for mockery and barbs 17 years after the Celtics missed out on an all-time great.