To the list of the great issues of our time, somewhere between Nature versus Nurture and Tastes Great versus Less Filling, it's time we added SportsCenter versus Sports Tonight. Every weeknight, for a half hour at 11:30 p.m. Eastern, and again at 2:30 a.m., CNN's Sports Tonight and ESPN's SportsCenter joust for respect and ratings as they satellite-dish out the evening's sports news and highlights. The action footage they show is usually identical, and the anchors rip the same wire copy. But the programs have decidedly different styles. The one you choose says a lot about who you are.
CNN's Fred Hickman and Nick Charles, with the camera right up in their faces, are like barkers at a circus, leading you breathlessly from clip to clip and finally to the big top for their (organ chords, please) Play of the Day. Slick Hick and smooth Nick make the men of GQ look like soldiers in an Army surplus catalog. Sports Tonight frequently shows game results by rolling them up the screen, like Hollywood credits—the night's action "served up on a hard roll," as Hickman, CNN's glib gourmand, likes to tell us.
By contrast, SportsCenter's hosts—who include Chris Berman and Bob Ley, as well as newcomers Charley Steiner and Dan Patrick—sit at a distance from the camera, looking a little logy as they drop their baby-boomer puns. There's no show-biz roll at ESPN; scores appear individually, at 10- to 15-second intervals, as if on flash cards. It also imparts more information with its baseball line scores. CNN still doesn't tell you who came out of the pen for the save.
You know all about Berman and his act. (Kudos, Chris, for a few of this baseball season's better coinages—Fred [Crime Dog] McGriff, Craig [For What It's] Worthington, Jeff Torborg [Gold] and David [War of the Worlds] Wells.) Ley is a polished pro. Now meet Steiner, who joined the show in September '88. Squat and russet-jowled, with a radio background and a radio face, Steiner's avuncular personality is a refreshing change from the usual blow-dried TV types, even when he goofs. Commenting recently on reports that Pete Rose had placed bets under a code name, Steiner claimed to be paraphrasing Gertrude Stein when he said "A rose by any other name is...G-1." (He was actually playing off Shakespeare.) Nonetheless, Steiner's usually learned playfulness rarely fails to please.
Since John A. Walsh took over as ESPN's managing editor in January 1988, he has put more hard-news zing into SportsCenter and improved its use of graphics. A former newspaper and magazine editor, Walsh is a legend in print circles for his eccentric tastes and prodigious Rolodex, in which you'll find everyone from Bowie Kuhn to Dr. Joyce Brothers to Runyonesque tipsters named Kinky and Skylab and Ratso. His ink-stained hand is evident in ESPN's new emphasis on expanding old stories and breaking new ones. Walsh has further distinguished SportsCenter from its CNN competition by junking the policy of lumping all news from, say, the NBA in one segment—whether the story is Dantley for Aguirre, or Chuck Nevitt bruising his coccyx. Now stories are played strictly according to their news value.
When possible, I choose Berman & Co., mostly out of a feeling that if things were to fall apart—if a TelePrompTer were to go down, for instance, and the anchors had to wing it—ESPN's SportsCenter could hold. (That, Charley, is a play on Yeats.) But that preference says more about me than it does about the shows; this reporter is himself an ink-stained baby boomer. And I add "when possible" for good reason. SportsCenter's most maddening fault is that, like Leon Spinks, it can show up at the strangest times. If an Iowa State-Oklahoma State baseball game goes into extra innings, the 11:30 edition coughs up the minutes and runs when the ball game is over. As with everything on CNN, you can set your watch by Sports Tonight.
The next time something like a USAC Midget Series race runs long, won't some ESPN potentate unapologetically pull a Heidi? SportsCenter is the better show, but in these busy times the practical consideration of getting 40 winks is more important. If forced to wait, I'm off to Hick 'n' Nick in a minute.
Ley (left) and Berman deliver hard-news zing without the show-biz roll.