Big news: Anchors pull weight Stint in front of camera opens a critic's eyes


BRISTOL, Conn. -- To Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott, Rich Eisen, Kenny Mayne, Brett Haber and the rest of the ESPN "SportsCenter" crew:

Why didn't you tell us how tough your jobs are?

For years now, a sizable number of us ink-stained wretches have looked at our television brethren with an air of superiority, that what we do is somehow elevated above what a TV sportscaster does and that, given the opportunity, we could easily do what they do.

I personally haven't subscribed to all of that theory, but I must confess that I've assumed that I could be a sportscaster with relative ease. I mean, I've rewritten a baseball playoff story in 15 minutes. What exactly does Chris Berman have that I don't?

So, with a touch of smugness, I accepted ESPN's invitation to come here earlier this month not only to watch the launch of its new, 24-hour-a-day sports news network, ESPNEWS, but also to take part in its "SportsCenter Fantasy Camp," at which a collection of sports media critics would get the chance to play sportscaster on the hallowed set of "SportsCenter."

From the moment we piled out of the van into the vast, nine-building ESPN complex last Thursday, I couldn't help but notice that every on-air personality we ran into broke into one of those "I know something you don't know" grins whenever they saw us, and their conversations carried vague, but potent references to an unspecific terror that awaited us.

"We have great appreciation for the fact that you're willing to do this," said Dan Patrick, one of the co-anchors of the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter." "It's just like us trying your deadline at a World Series and you've got to be through at midnight and get something filed. I have great respect for that and the ability to crank it out. I think it will give you a sense of perspective. It's not as easy as it looks."

Yeah, whatever.

After a day and a half of warnings and preparation, it was time to get down to business.

On Friday morning, in two groups of about 12 each, we were led into an editing suite, with six different highlights -- one each from baseball, basketball, football, golf, hockey and tennis -- and told to watch them all, then select two highlight packages that we will use for our own five-minute "SportsCenter."

We also were given the option of either using the scripts that were used for the original packages or writing our own material, all within a 45-minute time span. I decided to use clips from a September football game between the Colts and the Cowboys, and the fourth game of an NBA playoff series last spring between Seattle and Houston. I decided to write my scripts.

In the four hours between writing and the actual taping, there were more tips. Robin Roberts, who frequently joins Charley Steiner on the 6: 30 "SportsCenter," showed us around the set, pointing out the monitors in the desk where the anchors watch the highlights as they read from a "shot sheet," which describes the clips in detail.

Since a "SportsCenter" tends to air during times when games are still in progress, the anchors frequently narrate highlights they haven't seen, and an accurate shot sheet is key.

Over lunch, Berman and Bob Ley, the only two original on-air anchors remaining from ESPN's launch 17 years ago, counseled us to relax, have fun and to breathe. It seemed like odd advice at the time, but would it ever come in handy later.

At 1 p.m., they began leading us into the studio in groups of four to do the foul deed. I was still quietly confident about what I was going to do, until a spokesman took me downstairs to get a peek at the ESPNEWS set.

The surroundings there were sparse, but effective. However, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a producer watching the audition of one of my fantasy-camp colleagues on an in-house monitor. He was chuckling at the amateurishness and motioning to one of his co-workers to watch, too.

It was then that I realized what those warnings were about, and what was going to happen: We were about to become entertainment for those professionals, and the tapes of those auditions would find their way into the newsrooms of all the people we have criticized.

At this point, I learned the meaning of fear.

My turn came at about 2: 15, and the five minutes on the set were like an out-of-body experience. A very nice, young floor manager instructed me on where to look and where the clips would be. Even under the relentlessly bright lights, and over my building anxiety, I read my lead-ins almost flawlessly.

It was the highlights that proved to be my undoing. I'd seen the highlights seemingly 15 times previously, but the clips went so fast that there wasn't time for the witty retorts I had planned. And to make matters worse, I read from the shot sheet the final score of the Seattle-Houston game as 106-104, Sonics. That would have been great, except that the score was 114-107, Seattle.

The other campers and crew applauded me, and some told me that I'd actually done a good job. Frankly, it sounded like sympathy applause and I walked off the set feeling like a fool.

Somehow, I think the sportscasters I write about would heartily agree.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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