The biggest debate in sports television is debate itself, a format on which Fox Sports 1 has pinned its ratings hopes and toward which ESPN continues to evolve as it adapts “SportsCenter” to an instant-information age.
Enter Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who on Feb. 6 will move their conversation- and personality-based ESPN2 show, “His & Hers,” largely intact to a bigger platform as co-hosts of the 6 p.m. Eastern Time “SportsCenter.”
It is the latest example of ESPN morphing its bedrock non-live-event franchise into a creature of the 2010s that mostly assumes viewers know the news basics and want something more, especially personality.
“The most frequent question we get is whether we’re going to change moving to ‘SportsCenter,’” Hill said on Monday over lunch in Manhattan. “It is a telling question, because it’s an indication of what people think ‘SportsCenter’ is and the fact that I’m not sure they’ve been paying attention to how it’s evolved.
“We laugh about it. There were some of our regular viewers who wondered whether it was really a promotion. I was like, ‘No, it is a promotion. It’s a big deal.’ It wasn’t about them trying to throw a diss at ‘SportsCenter.’ It’s mostly because of all the fun that we had on our own show and the freedom that we had and they wondered whether that was going to continue.
“But the answer is, no, we’re not changing. And in fact I think to prove where the ‘SportsCenter’ mentality is now, they want us to be us and they want us to basically do all the things that we did on ‘His & Hers.’ They want us to literally pick up ‘His & Hers’ and implant it into ‘SportsCenter.’”
The most visible illustration of ESPN’s approach to “SportsCenter” is Scott Van Pelt’s late-night version, which incorporates elements designed for digital sharing with heavy doses of, well, Scott Van Pelt.
But because of the time slot, Van Pelt still must cover the highlights-and-interviews basics. The 6 p.m. edition always has had more freedom because it is not built around highlights. That freedom is about to be stretched further than ever.
“They came to us and asked us to do this,” Smith said. “This was not something where we were knocking on [senior VP] Rob King or anybody else’s door and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to host ‘SportsCenter.’’ This was brought to us and we asked them flat-out, ‘Do you want us to be us on ‘SportsCenter’ or are you just looking for new talent?
“They were like, ‘No, we want you to do what you’ve been doing and do it better.’ And with the resources we have, the staff that we have and now the platform it should just be a much better version of what we’ve been doing.”
Said Hill, “It will not be a highlight-driven show at all.”
The show will have the look of “SportsCenter” and, if needed, the news-gathering power behind it. If Hill and Smith feel compelled to throw it to, say, analyst Jay Williams before a Duke vs. North Carolina basketball game, so be it. If not, that’s fine, too.
“Look, it wasn’t broke, so we’re not fixing it,” Smith said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t improve it. And we are going to improve it in terms of production value, in terms of execution, in terms of timing. But it will be a conversation-based show, with high-level, high-profile guests.
“Will we look ahead to the night’s events? Sometimes. If it’s interesting.”
Smith added, “The show is going to be about us – our conversations, our opinions, with a lot of friends and family coming over to visit. The mantra of the show is, ‘Grab a plate.’ It’s like we’re having dinner, potluck, grab a plate, make yourself at home, have fun with us.”
Hill and Smith both began in print journalism and will have no qualms about going into news mode if necessary. “We can switch gears at a moment’s notice,” Smith said. “If there’s breaking news at 5:55 or within the show, if we need to throw it somewhere or turn into anchors, there’s not a hat we haven’t worn at ESPN.
“We’ve had people even internally say, ‘Are you guys going to have a news reader?’ Or, ‘What’s going to happen if there’s breaking news?’ We’re going to handle it. We can host and anchor with the best of them.”
One interesting dynamic of the new, broader audience at 6 p.m. on ESPN compared to their prior midday slot on ESPN2 will be how viewers react when Hill and Smith discuss politics or social issues, which they will.
“People ask, are you guys going to be silenced from addressing social issues?” Smith said. “I mean, we still worked at ESPN before. We would not have taken this opportunity if it meant compromising what we believe in. And we believe that certain conversations need to be had a certain way.
“We feel like our conversations when it comes to matters of race, gender, politics, we’re proud of those. We’re proud that we’ve been able to lead the way when it comes to those conversations. So the last thing we would have done for a raise or a change to E1 is give up that autonomy to drive the conversation.
“We’ve never gotten a single email, not one, not one phone call, not one suggestion, even an implication to change what we’re doing or tone it down. Nobody’s ever said that to us, and the moment they do, that’s going to be a come to Jesus [moment].”
Said Hill, “Whether we want to discuss it or not, athletes are dragging us into these conversations. It’s not that Mike and I wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, today we’re going to be MSNBC.’ It’s usually based off a news story that is relevant to sports.
“If you have an athlete choosing to protest the national anthem or Gregg Popovich speaking out against Donald Trump, you can’t ignore that . . . If anything, especially with the current [Presidential] administration, it’s going to get even more uncomfortable, when people start winning championships and the story becomes who is or isn’t going to the White House.”
Smith said he hopes viewers will accept where the hosts are coming from and that reasonable disagreement is welcome. “The viewers that have a problem with what we’re doing are, more likely than not, unreachable,” he said.
Hill, 41, and Smith, 37, would appear to be in a demographic sweet spot — young enough to understand 21st century media but old enough to have experience and perspective. Both are African-American. Hill is from Detroit, and Smith is from New Orleans. That covers a lot of demographic and geographic bases.
“I think there are some people, and I don’t want to give it too much credibility, because maybe it’s just a very vocal minority, that feel like we’re not a show for everybody,” Smith said. “Yes, we are. You don’t have to look like us or come from where we come from or be our age to enjoy our show.
“We’re the most fun show on the network. Nobody has more fun than us. So if you enjoy fun, we’re the show for you, and I think most people enjoy fun.”
As Smith pointed out, the glory days of “SportsCenter” were personality-driven, from “The Big Show” of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick to Stuart Scott. But in those days the show still was built around news and highlights.
That will not be completely ignored in the Hill/Smith version at 6 p.m., but it will take a back seat.
“We don’t want to compromise what makes us special, but we don’t want to ignore that there have been people at work all day and when they come home and turn on ‘SportsCenter’ — not ‘His & Hers,’ but ‘SportsCenter’ — and say, ‘Wait a second I want to know what happened today,’” Smith said.
“That’s going to be an adjustment. Do we try to serve them or just say, ‘Learn to like it?’ I think there’s a middle ground there . . . It’s going to be a hang. That’s the most technically profound description I can give to ‘The 6.’ It’s going to be a hang — a fun hang.”
Said Hill, “In this day and age where people know the results so quickly, and where you’re competing with phones and Twitter and that kind of thing, to approach the viewer like we’re telling them something they didn’t know in terms of a result would be foolish. To say like, ‘Hey, did you hear this happened?’ They already know it happened. So our mentality, I think, as a company and ‘SportsCenter’ in general, is how to give context and add some texture and substance to these conversations.
“It reminds me of what happened with newspapers. Newspapers kept treating the Internet like it was going away and it stayed the same and that has been part of the erosion of newspapers . . . I don’t want to make it seem as if news and journalism are not important. They’re very important. I mean, we’re two former print journalists. That will always be our first love.
“But I do think the way you present information to people now has got to evolve because technology is making you do it whether you want to or not.”