ESPN dresses up new product But ESPNEWS shines after glitz over, too

November 02, 1996|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

BRISTOL, Conn. -- If you watched the special first-hour simulcast of ESPNEWS last night on ESPN and are thinking of putting the heat on the local cable operator to add the channel on the basis of what you saw, hold on a minute.

What the country saw in that breathless first hour, with special interviews, a major investigative story and appearances from the likes of Chris Berman, Dick Vitale, NBA Commissioner David Stern and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, bears little similarity to what the new channel will look like.

Generally speaking, there won't be any Berman, not as much Vitale and hardly any Mike Tirico, who anchored the first hour.

More likely, ESPNEWS will more closely resemble the second hour, which went to the 1.5 million subscribers the new network has, rather than the initial hour, seen by ESPN's 70 million subscribers.

In that second hour, the viewer saw scads of highlights of NBA and NHL games in progress, and some features, which should make the channel a staple, say, in newspaper sports departments and among people who work late shifts and can't (( make time to see games or take in all of "SportsCenter."

That's not to say ESPN executives were necessarily wrong or immoral to present a different face to ESPNEWS than what could normally be expected, but consumers should know exactly what it is they won't be seeing.

"We had a special hour. That was more for [last night]," said ESPN executive editor John Walsh. "It's the quality that we're used to delivering. I'm delighted. Ecstatic."

As "SportsCenter" anchor Dan Patrick promised Thursday, the first hour of ESPNEWS was rather compelling television, with its hallmark, a brilliant investigative story from Bob Ley about the influence of the Russian mafia on Russian players in the NHL.

Ley and senior associate producer Don Barone turned in a four-minute, Emmy-caliber story that linked Vancouver's Pavel Bure to a firm that is believed to be a front for the Russian mafia.

Ley said the story, which had been reported on since February and included multiple sources -- mostly unidentified, but still credible -- was being reported even up until 90 minutes before air time.

That was about as glitzy as the night got, as the rest of the evening was the kind of meat and potatoes stuff that the #F TC hard-core sports fan -- the kind of person this channel is made for -- will want.

For instance, right at the top of the second hour, anchors Bob Stevens and Chris McKendry delivered scores, highlights and information, as play was going on, a definite bonus.

The ESPNEWS set -- a glass box with four robotic cameras that's placed in the newsroom -- is sparse and draws attention to the content, where it should be placed. Like the set, the anchors, including Michael Kim, who worked at Washington's NewsChannel 8, are solid, not spectacular, with nothing flashy.

Just as with ESPN2, the new network runs continuous score graphics across the bottom of the screen, which, in theory, are helpful, but occasionally get ahead of the highlights and updates that are airing.

Off its first night, ESPNEWS has established itself as a serious player in the heavily niched cable world, and has laid down the challenge to CNN/SI, its competitor, that it will have to be significantly different when it launches next month in order to stay in the game.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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