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'Monday Sportsnite' contains a rare look at hard issues

ABC is attempting to revive TV sports journalism with a funky late-night show called Monday Sportsnite. It's a move we applaud. There are some serious questions being asked on this show, the kind that haven't been posed since Howard Cosell's half-hour Sportsbeat was junked in 1985.

The fundamental flaw in Sportsnite, however—and it could be lethal if not addressed in a hurry—is that the show doesn't know whether it wants to be journalism, entertainment or something closer to Dr. Ruth. Some segments are so smarmy, or ill conceived, as to be unwatchable. L.A. Law heartthrob Corbin Bernsen discussing his emotional attachment to Alysheba? Comedian/baseball fan Robert Klein joking about fantasies involving Fawn Hall? Lord have mercy!

ABC is committed to a 14-week test of Monday Sportsnite, which runs from midnight to 1 a.m. The show is aiming to pick up some of the hard-core Monday Night Baseball audience, along with journalism buffs from Ted Koppel's Nightline lead-in, plus some soft-core viewers who might otherwise be watching Johnny Carson or the CBS Late Night. The idea is to build a bridge between these disparate audiences.

"Right now we're flying with our gut feeling, and my gut feeling says we can bridge it," says Sportsnite host Al Trautwig, who currently plays both straight man and funny man, and who has to act interested when he introduces a segment on, say, Jane Fonda discussing husband Tom Hayden's obsession with baseball. ''At the end of 14 weeks, if something's going wrong, we may decide to take the show in a completely different direction or cancel it altogether," says Trautwig. "But right now we're daring to be different."

Sportsnite is freewheeling and fast moving. The pleasant, multidimensional Trautwig, who earned his spurs on ABC's Wide World of Sports and college football broadcasts, works from a set that is part health bar, part rec room and part Elks Lodge 4101. ABC is hoping Monday Sportsnite will average a 2.5 rating. (Week 1 came in at 1.9, Week 2 at 1.2—figures that have got to be depressing.)

The show is certainly different. Except for Cosell's weekend afternoon Sportsbeat, a show that failed after a four-year average rating of 2.7, the networks haven't come up with a major new sports program format since The Superstars appeared in 1974.

With Cosell long since departed to write a column for the New York Daily News, there are many sports issues—among them drug use, racism and college recruiting violations—that haven't been adequately addressed on the air, except occasionally by Koppel.

It takes chutzpah for ABC sports president Dennis Swanson to try Sportsnite, especially since only 78% of ABC's affiliates are airing the show. WBBJ in Jacksonville, for example, is showing 25-year-old reruns of Rawhide instead.

What's right about Sportsnite? For one thing, Trautwig's Koppelesque Q and A segments work well, especially coming on the heels of Night-line. (ABC leaves the impression that the Sportsnite Q and A is live, a la Koppel, but it's actually taped several hours earlier.) Trautwig could focus his questions more sharply, but the issues he has examined—from the Reverend Jesse Jackson's affirmative-action campaign to place blacks in baseball's front offices to Brian Bosworth's boycott of the Seattle Seahawks—have been timely and controversial.

Trautwig, 32, who along with Al Michaels is the new golden boy in Swanson's bullpen, has a madcap streak that producer Joel Feld should exploit more frequently. On Sportsnite, Trautwig has staged a few David Letterman-like skits, which have been amusing. (In one he achieved a childhood dream of getting his picture on a Wheaties box.) And the timely two-minute commentaries delivered by Jack Whitaker and Jim McKay at the end of each show are a good idea.

One more quibble: Why, oh why is ABC using that cutesy, one-word Sportsnite misspelling, in the fashion of shopping center names like the Qwik-Kopy Shak and E-Z Kleeners? Please, ABC: Just call it Monday Sports Night.

Mercifully the show has avoided features on lady wrestlers and Playboy centerfolds participating in their favorite sports; one idea recently rejected by Feld featured Sportsnite contributing reporter Becky Dixon cooking pasta with Jim Valvano. Unfortunately, Dixon did bat in Dodger Stadium wearing a Dodger uniform and black high-heeled shoes. Spare us. This is a show that deserves to succeed. More meat and less fluff might keep it around.



Producer Feld and host Trautwig are tinkering with the show's format.