Pssst, ESPN Classic's got more than just reruns of great games


February 25, 2000|By Milton Kent

In today's 500-cable channel universe, the keys to success for a fledgling channel are to get brand recognition and to create a buzz that becomes so powerful that cable operators come clamoring.

As ESPN Classic's new vice president and general manager, Mark Shapiro has a double shot of brand recognition, with the name of the self-proclaimed world-wide leader in sports and perception that the channel will show all the history-making games.

But Shapiro, who took over the channel four weeks ago, is laboring late into each night to beef up talk about Classic as a place to see more than the 1970 Super Bowl or 1965 Masters.

"As a sports fan, I say, `I've got 100 channels. There's got to be one I can lose to Classic Network,' " said Shapiro. "We need to have our awareness generate a buzz which, in turn, will have cable operators coming to us. This network is so much more than old games."

For most of the first four years after the channel's May 1995 founding, Classic was just old games from the libraries of the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and other sports.

But in the last year, the channel, available in 22 million cable homes and an additional 18 million that either have satellite or digital-cable capabilities, has taken on more diverse programming, including documentaries, interview shows, and theme nights.

Last month, the channel introduced "Reel Classics," a Sunday-night movie series with sports-oriented films on the order of, say, "The Jackie Robinson Story" and related shows, such as a vintage baseball game.

There's more to come.

In July, the channel will diversify with more new programming. The highlight will be a "Biography"-style hour at 8 each night under the umbrella title "SportsCentury." Ninety hour-long biographies are set to go.

No one is more suited to shepherd the new "SportsCentury" shows than Shapiro, a Chicago native and Iowa graduate who oversaw the massive "SportsCentury" project ESPN created to mark the end of the 20th Century.

That two-year project -- from the weekly profiles of the century's 50 greatest athletes to programs on how sports evolved over the decades -- was widely acclaimed. The buzz helped vault Shapiro, who turns 30 today, into one of ESPN's hot properties.

"The funny thing is that I'm running this channel, and I'm not even old enough to remember more than a quarter of the things that are on," Shapiro said.

Back to the studio

From the moment CBS regained the NFL three years ago, Sean McManus, president of the network's sports division, coveted Mike Ditka to be an analyst on "The NFL Today."

But Ditka's agent told McManus the Hall of Fame-tight end turned coach was happy guiding the New Orleans Saints. With Ditka's early-January firing in the Crescent City, McManus was free to gobble him up for the cast of next season's pre-game show.

Ditka, the centerpiece of NBC's pre-game show for four years, will transport his blunt, plain-speaking style to CBS.

"The fans can see what's good or bad. It's just up to me to try to give some insight into the great game of football. I don't want to be over-analytical or boring. I want to do what I do," said Ditka.

Ditka joins Jim Nantz, Craig James, Randy Cross and Jerry Glanville on the pre-game show, which was overhauled after its first season but still trailed "Fox NFL Sunday" in weekly ratings by 39 percent.

McManus said Ditka will have a weekly presence on the show but that firm roles, beyond Nantz's as host, have not been set.

Swimming in ooze

Someone in the Channel 11 news department should be ashamed for the stunt pulled at the beginning of Wednesday's "Law and Order."

It was bad enough that the station ran a crawl with a warning beeper that gave the impression that details of some breaking story were forthcoming.

But the crawl was just a reminder that a trial date had been set for Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Of course, the crawl never bothered to tell viewers that date but did solicit viewers to watch the 11 p.m. news.

With the trial scheduled for May 15 -- smack dab in the middle of the next sweeps month -- it's a virtual certainty that Wednesday's isn't the last sleazy trick that will be played on viewers by news departments hungry for ratings.

Around the dial

Between CBS and NBC, nine college basketball or NBA games will be on the air this weekend, with three triple-headers.

At noon tomorrow, CBS (Channel 13) tips off its slate with Arkansas meeting Kentucky followed by Army-Navy and Duke playing host to St. John's.

On Sunday, CBS will have Auburn meeting Florida at noon, with Georgia Tech-Wake Forest and Illinois-Ohio State following.

Also on Sunday, NBC (Channel 11) has an NBA triple-header led by slam-dunk champion Vince Carter making his American broadcast-network premiere as Toronto plays host to Phoenix at 12: 30 p.m., followed by the Knicks-76ers and Lakers-Rockets.

During "NBA Showtime" at noon and at halftime of the first two games, NBC will air a special behind-the-scenes piece on life at home and on the road with the Houston Rockets.

The 64-player World Match Play golf tournament culminates this weekend on ABC with Saturday's semifinals and Sunday's 36-hole, two-player finals on Channel 2, airing at 2 p.m. both days.

At 10 a.m. Sunday, CNN's Jim Huber looks back during "Sporting Life" on what the last year has been like for Baltimore schoolboy-basketball standout Tamir Goodman, the Orthodox Jew recruited and dropped by Maryland but now committed to Towson.

Week's ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore during the past week (R-Rating; S-Share):

Event Day Ch. R/S

Lakers-76ers Sun. 11 5.8/10

Md.-W. Forest Sat. 54 5.5/13

Daytona 500 Sun. 13 5.4/13

Golf Sun. 13 3.8/7

Fig. skating Sun. 2 3.6/7

T'wolves-Nets Sun. 11 3.4/7

Napa 300 Sat. 13 3.3/10

Va.-N. Carolina Sun. 54 2.6/5

Golf Thu. 13 2.4/9

Duke-N.C. State Sat. 2 2.4/7

Note: Each local rating point represents 9,992 households.

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