In a TV world where a show can be canceled after two episodes, making it to 50,000 is an extraordinary achievement.
Like many of ESPN’s programming, “SportsCenter” is a live telecast, and its content can change at the last second due to a dropped ball or missed field goal. That anything-can-happen feel have made “SportsCenter” must viewing for decades for those who want to know who won what, and where, before going to bed.
The cabler’s signature show reaches the milestone with the 6 p.m. ET telecast Thursday. That’s a lot of player and coaches speak: “Our backs are against the wall,” “We’ll give 110%” and “We’ll play like there’s no tomorrow.”
Mark Gross, ESPN senior VP and exec producer of “SportsCenter,” says the “SportsCenter” remains a work in progress for all 18 hours each day that it is aired across all ESPN networks.
“Viewers have the complete ownership of it,” he explains. “There’s not another show we do where the expectations are as high.”
Adds anchor Scott Van Pelt: “‘SportsCenter’ connects people to their teams unlike anything else. It’s still the home for sports fans.”
When “SportsCenter” began on Sept. 7, 1979, the TV landscape was completely different, of course. ESPN was just a fledgling cabler with a couple of satellite dishes in its Bristol, Conn., backyard, and sports fans usually only got a 4-minute segment of sports highlights on their local newscasts.
Now, in sort of a back-to-the-future trend, there is a discussion to give the shows a more local spin.
After creating a Los Angeles-based broadcast that airs at 8 o’clock in Southern California, Gross says, “We’re working on different way to personalize ‘SportsCenter.’ If a fan wants just Dodgers, Clippers, Angels, Lakers highlights, they ask how can I do that?”
While scores and highlights have been the bread and butter of each telecast, the anchors themselves have often reached celebrity status. During the “Big Show” days of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann behind the desk, viewers would tune in not only to find out if the Yankees won, but to catch the playfulness between the two.
Anchors also have a say to the show’s rundown, — the importance of each story, starting with the one to lead the telecast. They don’t always agree with their producers, such as when Tim Tebow taking off his shirt uses about 15 minutes of the show. That’s an exaggeration, but the Tebow coverage has been a bit, um, excessive.
“We’re maybe more vocal than they wish we were,” says Van Pelt of the anchors participation. “It’s a collaborative process. The rundown is always in flux. That lineup is in pencil and not pen. Our voice carries weight, as does any voice that is raised and deserves to be (heard). Producers hear out everyone.”
Said anchor Sage Steele: “There are ton of disagreements, but it doesn’t get ugly too often.”
ESPN won’t do too much to celebrate the big occasion Thursday, but Chris Berman, who has been at the network since the beginning, will do a piece on former anchor Tom Mees, who drowned in 1996.