When I saw that ESPN was replacing its standard six PM SportsCenter with The 6 with Michael and Jemele (which promised to mix in pop culture discussion with the typical sports chatter), my brain immediately blew through the following thoughts and questions. It all happened so fast.
Here they are:
- Is this a good idea?
- I’m not sure, but it’s risky.
- But actually, it’s not that risky. I mean, changing formats always carries with it the chance that everything will crash and burn, but the internet has blurred the lines between peoples’ interests: sports, movies, music, video games, and just about everything else under the sun often occupy the same space on our computer and phone screens, so why not meet the people where they already are?
- Ok, but what about those old dudes (psst: I’m kind of one of those old dudes) who just want their evening-news style sports news show while everything around them turns into First Take-style shouting matches.
- Oh, Lord. Please don’t let SportsCenter turn into a glorified “debate” show. Does anybody know any spells to protect a location from being invaded by self-important blowhards? Anybody?
- What? Oh, right: the old dudes. Aren’t these the same people who hate the NBA because it’s “street ball” and think Bart Starr is the greatest quarterback of all time? Maybe ESPN should actually care way less about those dudes than it already does.
- Not to mention, I like Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. They’re smart and thoughtful and can have a conversation that isn’t just a list of talking points being shouted back and forth at each other.
- I bet the old dudes won’t like Michael and Jemele.
- Oh, come on. That’s unfair.
- Really? Let’s see: Young, black co-anchors, one of whom is female, replacing their precious Sal Palantonio stand-ups from the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice facility with a discussion about which 90s rap album Russell Westbrook most embodies? Hmmm.
- Ok, not unfair. But what about ESPN’s (obviously younger, more diverse) target audience? Aren’t they making a smart play by going after that group since they know that, at the rate cable subscribers are vanishing, their only hope is to craft content that engages people who (A) have a savvier approach to their entertainment choices and (B) about a billion of said choices?
- Yes, probably. But there’s no guarantee it’ll work. Even people who like the hosts and the content will probably consume the show via 40-second clips on Twitter. If that’s true, is the Worldwide Leader equipped to deal with that? Is being a TV network instead of a social media platform the biggest thing working against them right now?
- That’s probably a question for the 19 people I share a WatchESPN login with.
- Fair point.
- In any case, no, there’s no guarantee it’ll work, although they’re not exactly flying blind here. Scott Van Pelt’s revamped SportsCenter at night has blended media a little more freely and been less obsessed with a highlights-commentary-talking head analysis format. I don’t hear people rioting in the streets about that.
- Also, by the time 6 o’ clock roles around, people already know what’s going on. They check their phones constantly. Having somebody on to recap the press conference that fans secretly watched live from their cubicle isn’t compelling. So unless you’re delivering content (via personalities) that viewers can’t possibly get anywhere else…
- …or mixing in more of what they’re interested in…
- … like the pop culture stuff, then you’re going to lose out to the machines in their pockets, no matter your format.
- Ok, but even if all that’s true, isn’t ESPN sure to lose some of their longtime SportsCenter viewers by making this change?
- Almost certainly, but what’s the alternative? Think about the people who still turn on the evening news to catch up on the events of the day. Think about all 14 of them. Does ESPN really want to keep playing the violin on the deck of that ship as it Titanics its way to the ocean floor?
- Never let go, Jack.
- Wrong. Let go early and often. What they’re doing with The 6 MIGHT not work, but at least they’ll get an idea about whether or not they need to correct course relatively quickly. But if they just ride it out with the same formula they’ve been using since they launched in the 70s, it’ll be too late to adjust, and they’ll miss out altogether on the chance to bring a new audience along. There’s no question that making this change is going to result in something. Whether that something is the death of SportsCenter as we know it, an entirely new programming approach from ESPN, a radical shift in audience, or a climb to new heights for the show and network, I have no idea.
- Westbrook is Straight Outta Compton, isn’t he?
- Yep. Young, fearless, revolutionary, and so angry he even scares his teammates.
Since these 24 thoughts, I’ve watched The 6 a few times (about the normal amount of evening SportsCenter for me), and I can’t think of anything that makes me balk at my initial reactions. I have no clue if the show is a ratings success, but it’s clear that weaving entertainment into the show more broadly has produced (what I think is) the desired effect. We’ll have to wait and see if ESPN (and its viewers) can live with that vision or not.