Sportscenter Shakeup: Anchor Movement at 6pm and 11pm, Discontentment About "Debate" Direction Show is Taking

By Ty Duffy

We mentioned the Sportscenter anchor shakeup before. Here are some more details of the changes, which will be implemented in December.

We’ve heard the 6:00pm Sportscenter ratings posited as a source for the shakeup. Multiple ESPN sources described these ratings as “declining.” Another ESPN source said the ratings were only slightly down, but the 6:00pm show was the only one that was down at all. According to ESPN PR, the 6:00pm ratings were even from year to year and the changes are not in response to ratings.

"“Similar to our overall SportsCenter viewership, ratings for the 6pm ET show are not declining. In fact, ratings are even from year to year (2012 vs. 2011). As viewers know, we regularly rotate commentator assignments to provide new opportunities for our people. It’s that simple.”"

Multiple sources have confirmed rising star Lindsay Czarniak will be moving to that 6:00pm spot. It has been described as a warranted promotion for her. According to one source, ESPN prefers male/female Sportscenter pairings during the daytime hours and wants to extend that dynamic to 6:00pm.

Jay Harris, presently anchoring the 6:00pm show, will move to 11:00pm and take over the Friday and Saturday shows. John Anderson will not be joining him. The suits are not enamored with their partnership, according to a source, and Anderson did not want to work nights.

Harris’ move to 11:00pm will have a knock-on effect for several anchors. The 11:00pm spot is a coveted position. It’s the show with the best ratings and the most sponsor interest. Multiple veterans, most notably Linda Cohn, could be shut out from that time slot.

Besides personnel changes, we’ve heard some internal disenchantment with the direction the show is taking. Some are unhappy with the shift from showing sports highlights to more of a conversational, “debate” type format. The trend began with the live daytime Sportscenters and has become steadily more prevalent. A source described the show as “trying to out ‘First Take’ First Take.” A source told us “morale was low” and it is “a weird time to be working there.”

Most thoughtful people find the “embrace debate” movement lamentable and silly. Sportscenter moving that direction, though, should not surprise anyone. The show has had to embrace a changed media climate and the loss of its monopoly on highlights, hence the shift to live programming. A source told us “everything is about ratings.” As audience feedback becomes more precise and quantifiable, the natural inclination, for better or worse, is to play to it. Viewers look at jerks ranting. They snooze through NHL lockout discussions.

ESPN can’t circumvent advertising and become Sports PBS. The issue may not be how to roll back the “debate” trend, but how to make it more palatable. First Take can bait races and outwardly troll. Sportscenter has a stronger legacy to uphold.

The two “debate” shows that have drawn ratings without being napalmed by critics are PTI and Sportsnation. Like any television programming, those shows worked because of the personalities involved. Sportswriters yelling at each other is charming, when it comes within the bounds of well-worn friendship. Trumped up, troll-tastic debates work, when the host is charismatic, funny and can somehow wring some humanity out of Colin Cowherd. It’s there where the current iteration of Sportscenter may be missing the mark.

Sportscenter now is different from its progenitor, not just with the lack of highlights but with its treatment of talent. The apex shows in the 1990s were anchor-driven. Personalities and partnerships flourished. Patrick and Olbermann had the leeway to be Patrick and Olbermann. The current shows are sleeker with scene changes, flashing lights and swirling cameras, but they feel faceless and interchangeable. They are clean but they don’t connect with the audience.

Anchors have personalities, but they are most often sublimated rather than cultivated. You find out furtively, on Twitter or when they wander onto the Sportsnation set without a tie.

Sportscenter is no longer the place where viewers must go for sports updates. It has to be a place viewers want to go. Reclaiming that may take more than rearranging anchors.

[Photo via Getty]