Cable goes to hoop in a variety of ways CNN layup

Fox dunk

ESPN full-court press

June 10, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

Let's say you're in the market for a new car. How pleasant an experience you have behind the wheel of your new roadster in large part depends on where you go to buy it and what features you add to it.

In many respects, the same is true about the cable television shows that cover sports. Each of the big three programs -- CNN's "Sports Tonight," ESPN's "SportsCenter," and Fox Sports Net's "Fox Sports News" -- have individual flourishes and touches that attract millions of viewers on a nightly basis.

"SportsCenter," the Saturn of sports news shows, is the program that gets you from zero to 60 minutes with an occasional burst of momentum, but is mostly consistent.

"Sports Tonight," meanwhile plays the family station wagon role, heavy on the facts with a bare minimum of flash, while "Fox Sports News," the brash newcomer, is the Miata of the group, with speed to burn.

So, let's say you're in the mood to find out exactly what went on in tonight's Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Which of the three programs is the best to watch? "Media Watch" tuned in to the three shows last Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, taking in the programs that aired just after the NBA games ended.

CNN: If you want your sports delivered in a Joe Friday "just the facts, ma'am" approach, "Sports Tonight" is the place for you. In keeping with its presence on an all-news channel, "Sports Tonight" is the personification of low-key, with conservative anchors and reporters, interesting, if largely bland graphics, and solid information.

With only 30 minutes to play with, "Sports Tonight" keeps a fast pace, with little in the way of dead space such as flowery lead-ins or worthless chatter.

The highlight packages were about half as long as on "SportsCenter" or "Fox Sports News," but with half the time, that's to be expected. The NBA news also has been compartmentalized right at the top of the show in a roughly five- to seven-minute block, so if you tune in looking for NBA highlights at say, 11: 10 p.m. or 2: 20 a.m., when the show is updated for the West Coast, you're out of luck.

Vince Cellini, a fixture on the channel's studio shows, is serving as on-site anchor in Salt Lake City and Chicago, and his presence and wit are welcome. Bryan Burwell, who does some sideline work for TNT, is just OK, however, as an analyst, and would have made a much better reporter for this series.

In fact, CNN's biggest demerits are the overall paucity of time for "Sports Tonight" and the fact that only two people -- Cellini and Burwell -- are on-camera for the series.

ESPN: On events like the NBA Finals, "SportsCenter's" strength shines through. It attacks big events with waves of personnel who produce meaningful coverage -- usually about 10 minutes in a 60-minute show -- presented in a logical fashion.

For instance, while "Fox Sports News," has been big on live interviews from the post-game news conferences, "SportsCenter" has wisely backed off from presenting live, but pointless sound bites just for the sake of showing them. When the participants have had something to say, "SportsCenter" has shown those clips, often with a highlight to illustrate the point.

Former Portland coach Jack Ramsey has provided a clinic in terms of analyzing play, backed up with helpful replays to illustrate his points.

Meanwhile, Dan Patrick has smoothly anchored coverage from the United Center and the Delta Center, and conducted terrific interviews with, for instance, John Stockton after Game 1 and Steve Kerr after Game 2. Reporters David Aldridge and Bonnie Bernstein have been terrific with their packages.

Back in the main Bristol studio, the anchors, usually Rece Davis or Rich Eisen, have been fine, narrating highlights with an element of flair that doesn't overshadow the action itself.

Fox: In less than two years on the air, "Fox Sports News" has established itself as a player on the sports news scene, but its coverage of this series is demonstrating that the program still has a ways to go.

What "FSN" has to offer, in boatloads, is time. The program devoted anywhere from 15 to 19 minutes per hour to NBA coverage, an impressive total, particularly with baseball highlights and commercials factored in.

But the content of those minutes were, to be sure, mixed. Large chunks of the coverage were given over to showing players and coaches talking live from the post-game news conferences, which would be fine if we could have seen more than two or three questions and if the questions asked had been pertinent or interesting.

Also, there seems to be no consistent pattern or flow to the show. Rather than grouping related and relevant analysis and interviews into one or two neat little packages, the network has thrown the viewer willy-nilly from one element to another. The program could also use better fact-checking: the misspelling of Michael Jordan's name and a transposing of the score of Game 3 have made it onto the air.

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