Opening day for new 'SportsCenter'

ESPN breaks huddle on daytime programming block

BRISTOL, Conn. -- The show looks and feels pretty much the same, but the day starts pretty early for the crew of ESPN's new daytime "SportsCenter."

Monday was the first day of the new live "SportsCenter," a six-hour block beginning at 9 a.m. ET that on weekdays replaces the "SportsCenter" repeats that had run there for years. It's part of a new effort for the network to shore up its live programming during the day and jump on sport stories that break before the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter."

That means ESPN and its franchise program starts its day even earlier. The first employees roll into the network's sprawling suburban Connecticut campus around midnight, as the finishing touches are being put on the preparations for the night's final "SportsCenter" beginning at 2 a.m. The late crew gives way to the morning shift that each day will provide six hours of live sports news.

It's the first time that "SportsCenter" has ever been produced that long for that regular a period of time. But they're not reinventing the wheel, said Mark Gross, managing editor of studio production.

"Is it going to be different? Yes. Is it going to be dramatically different? No. It's still going to be scores and highlights," he said.

There are some new features, including a strong link to the new SportsCenter Web site, an interview with an ESPN analyst taking viewers' questions called "In Box," and "Word on the Street," talking to an ESPN Radio talk show host from around the country. Monday's topic? How Green Bay, Wis., is weathering life after Brett Favre.

Doing a live "SportsCenter" daytime block was on the boards for years, but the network decided this spring that the time finally was right.

It hired veteran sports broadcaster and former "Early Show" co-host Hannah Storm, who anchors the 9 a.m.-noon telecast with Josh Elliott. The broadcast is then passed off to Chris McKendry and Robert Flores for the back three hours. Monday was chosen as the premiere because it's at the beginning of the Summer Olympics, plus near the start of football season and in the stretch of baseball's pennant race.

On Monday, there was no breaking news and only a handful of dropped balls. Favre led off the first newscast, with the U.S. swim team's stunning come-from-behind victory in the men's 4x100 freestyle relay and Team USA's opening victory over host nation China in men's basketball near the top.

Storm and Elliott were in almost constant motion, between two desks and two standup locations. They interviewed in short order former NFL player Cris Carter in the studio, reporter Jeremy Schaap in Beijing and baseball reporter Buster Olney, among others.

Because of the NBC-ABC trade that allowed Al Michaels go to "Sunday Night Football" and ABC to have, among other things, Oswalt the Rabbit, ESPN has been able to run six minutes of Olympics highlights per hour, up dramatically from years' past. "SportsCenter" used that to full effect with an extend play and several camera angles of Sunday's thrilling relay finish.

It's a dizzying pace, and one that Storm said after the telecast was thrilling and challenging. Storm started full-time work at ESPN only at the beginning of the month and estimated that there were only about eight rehearsals before hitting the air. Some of the rehearsals by Flores and McKendry ended up going on the air because of last week's Favre trade to the New York Jets.

"We only had one or two days where we actually did try to pull off a three-hour rehearsal," Storm said.

Previous plans had ESPN start the live "SportsCenter" at 6 a.m. ET, but several weeks ago those earlier three hours were scrapped. Gross said the network decided that it wouldn't start out doing 6-9 a.m. but might review it in the next six months.

"The beauty is that we have a whole crew of people in place" in case breaking news forces ESPN on the air earlier than 9 am., he said.

It's also hoped that the live nature of the show boosts the ratings after 9, when in the past the re-air ratings dipped. Ratings range from 0.5 in households between 6-9 a.m. to 0.4 at 11 a.m., Nielsen Media Research said. The 10 a.m. re-air averages a 0.6.

"We think there is more upside to the 9 a.m. start," Gross said.

For Storm, her first live three hours brought back memories of the excitement and responsibility when she worked at CNN. She also said she enjoyed writing the script and doing other preparation for the sports show, which she hasn't done in six years or so.

But there was one challenge to the whole "SportsCenter" routine. There's no time to get food, so she brought her own: nuts, fruit and the like.

"I didn't like going three hours without eating," she joked.