“SC6,” the new 6 p.m. version of SportsCenter featuring Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, hit its three-month anniversary over the weekend. The show was off last night and tonight (a regular version of SportsCenter ran in the same timeslot) so it’s a good time to look back at the first quarter for the show.
SC6 replaced the SportsCenter hosted by Lindsay Czarniak in the same time slot, and it was announced before Czarniak went on maternity leave in November that the change would take place. Hill and Smith both starred on “His & Hers” on ESPN2 during daytime programming before the move. Building on the successful move of Scott Van Pelt to a midnight time slot, this move is a continuation of the changing strategy with SportsCenter to make it more personality-driven.
Here’s what Rob King, ESPN Senior Vice President of SportsCenter and News, said right before the show launched on the Monday after the Super Bowl.
"We just celebrated an anniversary around Scott’s show and Feb. 8 we’ll have the anniversary around the daytime lineup. That gives us a chance to look back at all the really cool things we did that we would never have done if we hadn’t made these decisions and taken these creative leaps. So a year from now, I look forward to the typical metrics of success: better ratings; a larger available audience; larger average-minute-audience; a list of engaged and happy advertising clients who join us to identify new ad formats and interesting ways to reach the marketplace; a very happy, engaged, encouraged, enthusiastic Michael and Jemele looking forward to what other mayhem they can create a year out and a general feeling around SportsCenter that we continue to innovate."
So let’s look at the numbers (all via ShowBuzzDaily.com). For perspective and fairness, I’m including the viewer numbers for Pardon The Interruption at 5:30 pm ET when serving as a lead-in for both 2016 and 2017, and the Sportscenter ratings in 2016 and 2017 for the 6 pm show. These are summarized by week, using the Monday date for 2017. All viewers are in 000s.
Two weeks are set off in italics there. The week of March 13th is NCAA tournament week and none of the programs were aired on ESPN on Thursday or Friday up against the tournament games. The week of April 3rd is opening day of baseball, where ESPN has games broadcast throughout the day, as well as Masters week. Tuesday was the only day where PTI lead into SportsCenter both years on ESPN in the normal time slot. The shows were on ESPN2 for opening day, and the Masters broadcast extends into the evening and SportsCenter (both the 2016 version and SC6) was a 30-minute broadcast at 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday and Friday, sandwiched between Masters live and the replay of the Masters coverage.
As has been the general trend, viewership is down on ESPN, and we see that with the Pardon the Interruption numbers. PTI still draws a large number of viewers for the relative dead zone it occupies (5:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. CT is right at drive time for a majority of the country), but has seen it’s share decline.
Under the old SportsCenter in 2016, the retention rates, that is percentage of viewers relative to the Pardon the Interruption viewership, was just a bit over 60%.
Over the first month that SC6 was on the air, it showed some improvement in that area. Even though the show’s viewer numbers weren’t dramatically higher than the 2016 version, it was going against those trends seen in the PTI numbers. Each of Weeks Two through Four in February showed slightly more viewers in 2017 than in 2016 for the 6 p.m. slot.
That did not continue, though, and since March, SC6 has been performing below the 2016 pace, ranging in a given week from 6% to 20% less viewers compared to 2016.
That dropoff has to be of concern, and just as concerning is that the largest decreases year-over-year tend to come in shows that get a lot of viewers, tied to tentpole events. Here are the six most viewed days of the spring for the early evening edition of SportsCenter.
The NFL Draft and Masters Coverage provide the two biggest events during the spring for ESPN, at least as it pertains to providing a lead-in or follow-up to the 6 p.m. time slot. Thanks to the Masters not broadcasting live during the weekday opening rounds, ESPN draws plenty of viewers on those days, averaging over 2 million viewers. The NFL Draft, meanwhile, is a huge broadcasting event for ESPN. That Friday night show leads directly into the second round, while the Thursday show leads into the pre-draft show an hour before the first pick.
While they are still the most highly viewed episodes so far, SC6 is down 20% compared to the 2016 SportsCenter.
The show garners its share of criticism online. The online space can be a place for divisiveness and bitterness anyway, but reaction is quite negative. A search of the #SC6 hashtag shows that 86 of the last 100 messages are of the negative variety about the show, compared to 6 neutral or undetermined, and 8 positive. One site composed negative reactions to SC6 amidst the ESPN layoffs, and Daniel Roberts with Yahoo Finance said that about half of the comments on a post dealing with layoffs were about Hill and Smith.
It would be impossible to ignore the racial and political implications of some of those reader reactions. Smith and Hill are both outspoken on racial issues, and have gotten into it with fans in Boston over race issues in the past. YouGov ran an article last week showing that Republican opinion of ESPN has dropped over the last year, since the firing of Curt Schilling. A study by Deep Root Analytics into viewership in the Cincinnati area showed that there were shifts across all ESPN networks except for ESPNU, with viewers becoming more Democratic-leaning in 2016 compared to 2015.
Even with those shifts, though, the 6 p.m. time slot was fairly even in its political distribution of viewers, and represents a different demographic than daytime. According to Yahoo Finance just two weeks ago, “ESPN says SC6 is finding a diverse audience: 41% black, and its reach among black viewers ages 18-34 has increased 15% year over year since Hill and Smith took over.” Implicit in that is that viewership is down among white viewers, with the overall drop in viewers compared to 2016.
While there may be some viewers who would never give the SC6 a chance because of personal preference, time slot, social or political views, or other factors, the viewership data shows that some did, and the numbers decreased (relative to the previous year) after the first month. That, along with the declines year-over-year around key events, should be cause for more concern.
ESPN is adjusting its strategy and there will be growing pains, and right now, it is ESPN2 that will bear the brunt. The World Wide Leader in Sports shifted First Take to the main network, and moved Hill and Smith off His & Hers and onto ESPN into a different slot. Those moves provide greater exposure for the shows and personalities in question, but they have also weakened the ESPN2 offerings. First Take made the move after the Bayless move and viewership has largely held steady compared to the ESPN2 numbers from a year ago. Meanwhile, the morning 10 a.m. SportsCenter is barely registering now (it finished outside the Top 150 two days last week, and was down over 60% in the other three compared to 2016 on ESPN).
Three months into the SC6 experiment, the landmarks that Rob King cited–better ratings, a larger available audience–are not so clear to emerge. The evidence of success is murky, particularly set against the background of removing one anchor, paying two, and heavily promoting the show as much as any that has appeared on the network. If the old version was such that it needed to be replaced, then simply treading water is not a good sign given the larger investment.
The show will turn 6 (months) before the start of the NFL season. Will it begin to resonate by then?