ESPN takes command of studio's watchful eye TALENT RATINGS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This week, Milton Kent is evaluating the sports broadcast scene locally and nationally. Today: National sports news programs and studio shows.

Twenty years ago, before the ascent of CBS' "NFL Today" or NBC's "Grandstand," the most important place to be in sports broadcasting was in the booth or on the sidelines, calling the action, either on the floor or on the field.

Neither of those pioneering studio shows currently exist, but the happening spot now is in the studio, either moving viewers about from one game to the next, or anchoring a sports news show, delivering information on one sport or on the world of fun and games in general.

Here's a look at the blow-dried men and women in front of the cameras, and at the shows set up for your sports-viewing enjoyment.

Best anchor teams:

1. Dan Patrick/Keith Olbermann, "SportsCenter," ESPN; 2. Craig Kilborn/Kenny Mayne, "SportsCenter," ESPN; 3. Nick Charles/Fred Hickman, "Sports Tonight," CNN; 4. Charley Steiner/Robin Roberts/Bob Ley, "SportsCenter," ESPN.

Taken at face value, the pairing of the ultra-suave Patrick and the ultra-disheveled Olbermann looks incongruous, except that .

together, they make magic every night on the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter." Kilborn and Mayne are an occasional pairing on the overnight show, but when they are hooked up, they are hipness personified.

Charles, who formerly worked at Channel 13, and Hickman get overshadowed by the "SportsCenter" behemoth, but they are a worthy challenger to Patrick and Olbermann, and the threesome of Roberts, Ley and the increasingly humorous Steiner work really well on the early "SportsCenter."

Best studio anchor:

1. Bob Costas, NBC; 2. Greg Gumbel, NBC; 3. Chris Berman, ESPN; 4. James Brown, Fox; 5. Ernie Johnson, TNT.

Costas consciously and wisely lowered his profile two years ago, taking himself off "NFL Live," and he has been brilliant at the helm of "NBA Showtime," probably because he is fresher from not having the burden of football to carry through the fall. Meanwhile, Gumbel, the second man to replace Costas, moved smoothly into the host chair for NBC's football coverage, managing traffic so that each of the show's five contributors got quality air time.

Tell the truth: Don't you just wonder when Berman's going to pass out from oxygen deprivation while he narrates highlights on either "NFL PrimeTime" or "Baseball Tonight"? The fact that he loves his job that much tells you how special a host he is. Brown was the best and most unheralded component of Fox's NFL pre-game menagerie last year. Johnson continues to get better and better on Turner's NBA packages.

Best studio analyst:

1. Peter Gammons, ESPN; 2. Peter Vecsey, NBC; 3. Joe Gibbs, NBC.

Like many studio shows, in general, the role of a studio analyst is largely superfluous, unless he or she has solid information to impart. And nobody in the studio imparts more solid information than Gammons. Vecsey does a nice job of translating his lively New York Post column and a wicked sense of humor to the tube on "NBA Showtime." No one who had to cover Gibbs when he coached the Washington Redskins would believe it, but he has displayed a nice wit and presence and is the best of the former coaches-turned-studio guys fraternity.

Best studio show:

1. "NFL GameDay/Prime Time," ESPN; 2. "NBA Showtime," NBC; 3. "Baseball Tonight," ESPN; 4. "NFL Live," NBC.

In a perfect world, a viewer could just tune right in at the beginning of a game and get all the pertinent information during the body of a telecast, but studio shows have become a kind of necessary evil. The four shows listed here are roughly even, but the edge goes to "GameDay/Prime Time" by virtue of Berman's mania, combined with Roberts' cool and the knowledge of Joe Theismann and Tom Jackson.

Quick hits

Maryland's own Jim McKay, who missed the Preakness and the Belmont as he recuperated from heart surgery in May, returns to the air tomorrow (Channel 2, 4:30 p.m.) as host of ABC's coverage of the Travers Stakes race from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Also, tomorrow night's Orioles-Oakland game will not be televised on Channels 2 and 7 as had been listed. Instead, Channel 2 will carry the Boston-Seattle game at 8 p.m., and Channel 7 will have the Washington Redskins exhibition game at Miami at 7 p.m.

It's the first Orioles game this year not to be televised locally. The reason, according to a Baseball Network spokesman, is that the Athletics were not asked by either TBN or ABC to shift the start time to accommodate an East Coast start. In other words, don't blame Channel 2. It's not its fault.

YOU MAKE THE CALL

Who are the best sports broadcasters in Baltimore? Readers are invited to vote for their favorite weeknight TV sportscaster, weekend TV sportscaster and radio talk-show host by calling Sundial, at (410) 783-1800. Enter the four-digit code 6169 and follow the prompt to place your vote. The results will run with Milton Kent's column on Monday. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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