SportsCenter ain't what it used to be. Whether it be nostalgia fondly reminiscing about a golden age or longing to relive our youths, many of us sports fans who are young adults wish SportsCenter recaptured its old identity. Although it shows flashes of its old self with a solid group of anchors like Scott Van Pelt, Jay Harris, John Buccigross, Neil Everett, Stan Verrett, Lindsay Czarniak, Chris McKendry, etc. it's the content of the show that can be jaw-droppingly bad. Like, Kardashian level bad. Whether it be the vapid mindlessness of the live daytime editions or the nighttime editions that ignore half of MLB while airing tired vignettes about superstar players we've seen a million times, the truth is SportsCenter ain't what it used to be.
But in 2013… can it be? Should it be? Do we even really want it to be? The numbers tell a different story than what conventional wisdom may dictate.
Remember ESPNEWS and Highlight Express? This was a show that removed all the elements of SportsCenter that may have caused your blood pressure to rise in a frantic search for the remote. No analysts. No long, drawn out postgame coverage. No incessant celebritizing of sports. Just the highlights with no-nonsense anchors. Perfect, right? One problem.
It was one of the few programs in television to draw a 0.0 rating and ESPN canceled it due to low ratings. John Ourand reports in SBJ a mere 53,000 viewers for Highlight Express between 11-12 PM ET. If all we want is highlights, why is Highlight Express in the dustbin of televised sports? If SportsCenter is in an out of control tailspin quality-wise then why weren't viewers flocking to ESPNEWS?
Highlight Express isn't the only SportsCenter alternative in existence. NBC Sports Network produces a counter-culture highlight show that airs weekday mornings called The Lights. Or, at least they did. A 20 minute show that is nothing but highlights. Again, a great alternative for those people tired of having debate and analysis shoved down your throat through a funnel. There's not even an anchor – just a voice reading highlights. That's it.
Again though, nobody was watching. Ourand reports The Lights averaged just 21,000 viewers in April. NBCSN even put the show on hiatus during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which one would think is a good time for highlights. That's right, The Lights was such a roaring success that NBC puts it on extended hiatus like it was one of the network's crappy sitcoms.
What's more, when The Lights does come back in late August, NBCSN is going to retool it to focus on sports NBCSN has rights to air.
“You will see ‘The Lights’ evolve, and the programming and our highlight strategy will come forward in a different format,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “I’m not ready to share what that’s going to be, but I will say that’s going to take on a unique format that’s relevant to the programming that we have coming this fall.”
That's a pretty brash admission considering the criticism ESPN gets for appearing to favor sports that air on their family of networks. NBC is basically admitting they are going to forget an all sports highlight show and try to advance their own network portfolio.
And this is the state of the traditional highlight show – one canceled and one on hiatus that will be dramatically changed.
How can there be this disconnect between angst and disgruntlement over SportsCenter and a failure for a traditional highlight show to emerge?
I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle ground. The traditional highlight show is a relic of a past time in 2013 when fans of particular teams or sports can get highlights instantly. For the more progressive leagues YouTube is a great place to start. Then there's the official league and team sites and even ESPN.com online. There's mobile apps for highlights. And there's league controlled networks who have their own shows to produce even more options.
If you want highlights, you don't have to wait until 11 PM ET anymore. They're right there at your disposal instantly. With the internet and social media, there's no use in waiting around till 11:47 for the Cincinnati Reds highlight anymore. You can find it yourself.
This is why SportsCenter has moved away from showing highlights towards a heavy dose of context, analysis, and reporting. That's why they lean so heavily on the small army of analysts and former players and coaches that rely in Bristol. It's no longer enough to show the what anymore, you have to relate the why and how to reach viewers and gain relevance. This in and of itself is not a horrible thing – it's an evolution of the times.
Where SportsCenter is rightly criticized is how they far too often execute the why and the how. As we examined earlier this week in great detail, there's more fluff than substance in a typical episode, especially during the summer months. When watching SportsCenter, you can largely expect the same stories over and over again on a repeating loop:
Tebow story, LeBron feature, butt fumble video, LeBron tweet, Heat vs Blackhawks, A-Rod story, Kobe, Tebow rumor, Cowboys, Yankees, Lakers, Tebow positional change analysis. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Where's the middle ground? SportsCenter doesn't have to ditch analysis features completely, but they could certainly mix in more highlights and smarter, more relevant features. They don't have to swoop straight down to the lowest common denominator and debate everything or obsess over celebrity. Dial back on "LeBron in Chapters" and spend 5 minutes on what's happening in the AL West. Give some additional love to your great soccer coverage and tell us more about Brazil thrashing Spain or the folks at Wimbledon to expand on what's happening in London. There's an infinite number of options out there that could provide a more balanced, thoughtful show.
It doesn't just have to be SportsCenter though. NBCSN could take the best elements of NBC Sports Talk and The Lights and build a decent program. Fox Sports Live could find the sweet spot that entertains, informs, and delivers the news and highlights of the day and places themselves as a legitimate, relevant alternative.
Do we really want an old school highlights show? Maybe the answer is no. Maybe we just want the new school highlight shows to be better.