ESPN2 surfs into all-sports picture, but hip ride is not without its wipeouts

It seems that CBS isn't the only network that David Letterman has moved to. From the looks of its debut program on Friday, "SportsNight," ESPN2 is loaded with Lettermans.

Only anchor Keith Olbermann does a really good version, but he's not the only one who's trying. And those who aren't trying to be Letterman are attempting to be MTV veejays.


Thus went much of the first evening of ESPN2, the all-sports channel aimed at Generation X.

Though ESPN2 is supposed to attract a mixed 18 to 34 crowd that is more into sports as entertainment than obsession, the opening sequence likely was better appreciated by the regular ESPN crowd.


The Olbermann dream sequence featured a trial with Chris Berman as judge, Chris Myers as prison guard, Mike Tirico, Charley Steiner and Bob Ley as policemen and -- a dream come true for many of us -- Dick Vitale as inmate. It was quite funny -- and extremely self-referential to all things ESPN.

Shortly after Olbermann and co-anchors Suzy Kolber and Mitch Albom opened the program, Berman walked onto the set, introduced by Olbermann, "Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Hope." Berman brought along some ESPN outtakes.

Before its launch, the ESPN2 message had been, to quote Monty Python, "And now for something completely different." The channel's talk-show host, Jim Rome, had spoken of shifting paradigms. Despite Olbermann's leather jacket and Albom's T-shirt under the sports coat, the paradigms weren't shifting for me.

Nor would they as the evening went on. The first "SportsNight" felt like a long three hours. The program obviously is not designed for someone with the attention span (or the assignment) to stick with it all the way. There is a good bit of repetition -- I think the Dennis Rodman trade may become a spinoff series (with Jaleel White as Urkel, the wacky equipment manager) -- and, despite the frequent, bottom-screen graphics pleas not to channel surf, "SportsNight" producers clearly expect their audience to drift in and out.

So "SportsNight" will try to grab you with dizzying camera work provided by somebody walking around the set wearing a SteadiCam -- so named because it keeps a steady picture though the camera operator may be bouncing around (not because it was dubbed in honor of angst-ridden "thirtysomething" character Michael Steadman).

And "SportsNight" will try to stop you in mid-surf with "Entertainment Tonight"-style celebrity features from ex-MTVer "Downtown" Julie Brown. And perhaps it will pique your curiosity with stunts on the order of having boxing maven Wally Matthews bring an updated version of the old Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots toy onto the set to describe a bout.

Or maybe you'll just tune in to count the stumbles.

Perhaps it was opening-night jitters and glitches, but mistakes abounded, particularly in the "SportSmash" five-minute updates. One time, the Braves' Ron Gant was misplaced on the Astros. Another, hockey groundbreaker (or is that icebreaker?) Manon Rheaume was called a soccer goalie. The Lennox Lewis-Frank )) Bruno fight was said to end in the seventh inning. And that's not counting the times that the scores flashed on the screen didn't match the scores reported by the announcers.


But that's just the kind of too-attentive, Baby Boomer outlook that ESPN2 is trying to avoid. These people want to be hip. They want to be hip so much, it hurts.

Chiefs defensive back Dale Carter, nearly shot the other night, is said to have had "another run-in with Five-0" (hip, yes; accurate, no). A feature on model/volleyball player Gabrielle Reece comes with "The Guy Who Watches Too Much TV," an unseen presence seemingly flipping channels and commenting on what he's watching (Beavis and Butt-head, call your lawyers). The Giants, managed by Dusty Baker, are called "The Fabulous Baker Boys" at least twice (did you, too, conjure up the image of Barry Bonds slinkily singing atop a piano?).

This self-conscious hipness may disappear over time. But let's hope it doesn't manifest itself in the likes of more features on heavy-metal tennis players Luke and Murphy Jensen. They have long hair, wear black sneakers, ride motorcycles, play guitar and are a decent doubles team but singles nonentities. Image is everything, indeed.

But let's not paint an entirely negative picture of "SportsNight." Olbermann is always fun to watch. Several of the feature reports -- particularly the duet of "Poor Pitiful Me" as culled from news conferences of Notre Dame's Lou Holtz and Stanford's Bill Walsh -- were engaging. Tony Bruno's Bogus Plays of the Week shows promise.

"SportsNight" was followed by "Talk2," a standard-issue interview/call-in show with host Rome, a Southern California radio personality. A big deal was made over Rome's lingo -- for example, SoCal and NoCal refer to people from Southern or Northern California. Let's hope that isn't the extent of Rome's wit.

I must confess -- and please don't tell this to the boss -- that I didn't make it to the 3 a.m. "Jock'n Roll" show with box scores and music. But I had a good reason: some tough counterprogramming by USA Network -- Rhonda Shear's "Up All Night" movie was "Nerds of a Feather."