The old saying around ESPN is that “SportsCenter” is what “keeps the lights on,” in that it is inexpensive to produce — at least compared to live sports rights fees — draws decent ratings and eats up massive numbers of TV hours.
That is why the Bristol Stompers see the evolving 24/7, on-demand information world that surrounds their old franchise as a serious threat, and why serious efforts have been underway to rethink the entire thing.
Enter the new 6 p.m. “SportsCenter,” also known as “SC6,” also known as #thesix, ESPN’s latest and most extreme experiment yet in personality-driven “SC” interpretations.
Well, OK, maybe it’s second to Scott Van Pelt’s late-night stylings.
Regardless, as promised Jemele Hill and Michael Smith for Monday’s premiere largely moved their old “His & Hers” midday show from ESPN2 intact, with a better time slot and channel, higher production values and heavier promotion — MUCH heavier promotion.
How was it? It is pretty much what they said it would be a couple of weeks ago:
If you like them, you probably will like the show. If you don’t, you certainly won’t.
They signaled their playfulness and pop-culture bona fides Monday with an open to the theme song from “The Golden Girls,” a nod to Gen X nostalgia from Hill, 41, and Smith, 37.
Then the show began, and hipper cultural references started to come. Many of them may fly over the head of Baby Boomers, but that’s OK. “SC6” has “Pardon the Interruption” as a lead-in, where Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon have spoken effectively for many years to their fellow Boomer geezers.
The point is that ESPN is the biggest tent in sports media, and Hill and Smith offer another pole to keep it all standing as we trudge deeper into the 21st century.
That is not to say that, as with “PTI,” people of all ages, genders, races and politics can’t enjoy “SC6.” Hill and Smith are sharp and likable — and as with Kornheiser, Wilbon and many other sports TV debaters, they are former print journalists who bring a newsy sensibility to the task.
But, again: If you do not enjoy their company, forget it. Such are the pitfalls of shows that rely on personality more than on information. Even if you hated Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick in the 1990s, you needed them for their highlights.
The “SC6” premiere was timed for the day after the Super Bowl, guaranteeing much to talk about, and the way the game unfolded offered even more than Hill and Smith could have hoped.
So that was good, as was getting James White, who scored three touchdowns for the Patriots in their Super Bowl LI victory over the Falcons, on screen for an interview from Disney World.
Less wise was devoting an 18-minute chunk of the show to a studio sitdown with the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas. Sure, he is an engaging fellow and an emerging superstar, but . . . 18 minutes?
Remember: Fans of shows such as this come for the hosts, not the guests.
Anyway, none of this will be easy moving forward, given the glut of conversation/debate shows currently clogging TV, radio and the Internet, especially given how stale some of the topics du jour can get by 6 o’clock.
But Hill and Smith offer something a little different, which is what ESPN needs now, more than ever.