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Retooled ESPN Classic aims to capture viewers' attention


You would think that a channel that traffics in nostalgia would be sensitive to the issue of a face lift, but the folks who run ESPN Classic are plowing on with a whole new look.

Starting Monday, the new ESPN Classic won't look like your father's ESPN Classic, what with new logos and graphics, but it will continue to show your father's favorite games, along with some new programming.

"Right now, it [ESPN Classic] is potluck viewing, and that won't work anymore," said Mark Shapiro, the channel's vice president and general manager. "It can't be a [channel] that you surf to. It has to be someplace that you have to want to go to and stay."

Over the five years that ESPN Classic (formerly known as Classic Sports Network) has been on the air, its viewership has exploded, from 7 million homes in 1997 to the current 28 million. In fact, Shapiro said ESPN Classic has added 6 million homes to its total in just the past six months.

But the mission, to make the channel more compelling as well as more attractive to cable operators, means shaking things up even further. For instance, each night will have its own sport, starting with Monday's baseball game, and going from boxing to college football to the NBA to the NFL to the NHL and concluding with Sunday's NASCAR series.

The channel will also debut "Classic Sports Reporters," a variation on the Sunday morning ESPN blowhard show with veteran journalists reminiscing on great sporting events that occurred on a particular week, with host Jeremy Schaap, son of Dick Schaap, who presides over the ESPN show.

However, the hallmark of ESPN Classic will be the new "SportsCentury" show, a fresh one-hour version of the series that aired last year on ESPN. The show will profile athletes of the 20th century- both the famous and the not so well-known - each weeknight at 8.

Shapiro, who oversaw the project that won Emmys and the prestigious Peabody Award, said the new "SportsCentury" will not only bring in new profiles - 100 this year and 60 a year for the next five years - but also will revisit some of the athletes who were examined in the previous series, without sparing any expense.

"If we don't do this to the fullest, you'd realize that we were skimping. We want this to be the best biography series on television," said Shapiro.

More reelin' in the years

Joe Morgan isn't exactly a codger sitting on a porch, yearning for the good old days, but the Hall of Fame second baseman, who will call Tuesday's baseball All-Star Game, does say the Midsummer Classic isn't quite what it used to be.

Morgan, who returns to Atlanta, the city where he won the 1972 game's Most Valuable Player award, said yesterday that the extraneous events, like Monday's skills competitions and the crumbling of the wall of separation between the leagues, has diminished the fervor of the game.

"When I played, the league president would come in to the clubhouse before the game and make a speech and he'd say, 'You're not here to have fun. You're here to win a game,' " said Morgan.

"Baseball's All-Star Games are the best because you have the best players playing the same game they play every day. That's what I used to say. I don't say that anymore, because I think it's more of an exhibition."

Morgan will be joined in the booth Tuesday by Bob Costas for NBC's telecast, which begins at 8 p.m. on Channel 11. Hannah Storm is host of the pre-game segment, and Jimmy Roberts and Jim Gray will report from the dugouts.

Meanwhile, ESPN will carry the Home Run Derby at 8 p.m. Monday, followed by the All-Star Celebrity Hitting Challenge at 10 p.m. The channel will debut its latest technological toy, "True Track," which projects the distance a homer would have traveled unimpeded. Govern yourselves accordingly.

New kid in London

NBC's Ted Robinson knew that he was in a very different place last week when, after an early-round match, Wimbledon officials carted away media darling Andre Agassi from the press interview room while he was still being interviewed, something you wouldn't see on this side of the pond.

"They [Wimbledon officials] don't care. You may have 20 more questions to ask, but they have a way of doing things and they've done it that way and that's the way they're going to do it," said Robinson the other day. "From a spectator standpoint, the rigidity doesn't seem to be too repressive. I've not felt stifled at all."

Robinson, 42, who calls San Francisco Giants games on television as well as Grand Slam events for USA, was tapped by NBC to succeed Dick Enberg in the booth on the French Open and Wimbledon, a vacancy created when Enberg left for CBS last spring.

Given Enberg's stature in sports broadcasting in general and in tennis circles in particular, Robinson could have found the sledding tough, but all parties, including Enberg, who sent a fax to the NBC offices in London, have worked especially hard to make things as comfortable for the newcomer as possible.

"The first day, I felt it [nervousness] a little bit, but things have gone so smoothly and everyone has done so much to make this work," said Robinson.

NBC (Channel 11) will air one of the men's semifinals today at noon and the women's final live tomorrow at 9 a.m., with Robinson and Chris Evert on the call. Then, on Sunday, also at 9, also live, Robinson will be joined by John McEnroe for the men's final. TNT concludes its very successful first year of telecasts today at 5 p.m.

A boo of the week goes to the WBAL (1090 AM) news department for not only spilling the score of the Venus-Serena Williams semifinal match yesterday morning, but the details as well.

Yes, Venus' victory was news, but couldn't the newscasters have warned listeners who might have wanted to watch? Of course, if NBC had bothered to show the match live, there wouldn't have been a problem.

Around the dial

A piece of the national spotlight will shine on Columbia's Hobbit's Glen Golf Course, the site of the State Farm Senior Classic, and ESPN will have a weekend's full of coverage, beginning today at 2 p.m. and continuing tomorrow and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ...

The CBS (Channel 13) weekend schedule includes the re-airing tomorrow at 5 p.m. of the David Tua-Obed Sullivan and Andrew Golota-Orlin Norris heavyweight fights that were shown on Showtime last month. The network will also present a behind-the-scenes look at this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, narrated by Greg Gumbel, Sunday at 4 p.m. ...

Finally, mark your calendars for Wednesday night, when ESPN2 carries the Triple-A All-Star Game from Rochester, N.Y., at 7:30 p.m. and the Double-A game from right down I-97 in Bowie on tape at 10:30 p.m.

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