ESPN Pulls Ferrell, Koechner From "SportsCenter" Telecast Amid Winston News
The iconic status of "SportsCenter" presents ESPN with a challenge: how to add entertainment value and create buzz for the net's flagship program without deviating too far from its well-tested format. One of many answers to this challenge has been the use of celebrity guest anchors, beginning late last year with Billy Crystal's appearance and continuing with more recent stints by actor Ken Jeong and NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson. That effort hit a snag this week when tonight's scheduled appearance by "Anchorman 2" stars Will Ferrell and David Koechner on the 6:00pm ET "SportsCenter" was called off in anticipation of today's announcement of the results from a sexual assault investigation around Florida State QB Jameis Winston. It is understandable that ESPN would not want a matter of such gravitas reported by actors appearing in character from an upcoming comedy, as that could be construed as the outlet making light of the situation. But the move raises several questions about the use of guest anchors going forward.
TIMELINE AND ANTICIPATION: ESPN Dir of Communications David Scott explained that the net's decision in this case was not entirely last-minute. Whenever a guest anchor appears on the show, ESPN makes clear to the celebrity's handlers that rescheduling or cancelation is a possibility "if there is news of a serious nature" breaking that day. Scott said ESPN producer Jack Obringer notified Ferrell and Koechner's camp on Tuesday that the Winston news could be breaking today, and if that was the case, the net "would have to take a good hard look" at keeping the actors on the show. When word came down yesterday that the Winston results would in fact be released this afternoon, both sides "mutually decided" to nix the appearance. But what if a hard news story breaks unexpectedly in the midst of a guest anchor appearance? Scott said that possibility has been discussed as well. There will be "some kind of acknowledgement made" on-air that the tone of the breaking news requires a shift away from the celebrity presentation. The planned segments with the guest anchor would then be scrapped in favor of straight news reporting for the rest of the show.
NEWS ASSESSMENT: Scott said that the net does not have strict guidelines for what kind of news would be too serious to cover with a guest anchor, but instead takes a common-sense approach along the lines of, "You know it when you see it." He added that Mike Tomlin’s fine would be an example of a story that, while it has serious implications, would not be off-limits for celebrity anchors to cover. Scott believes the guests appreciate the net's reluctance to put them in the position of reporting certain kinds of stories: "There is no way (Ferrell) wants to be reading a story like the Winston results."
SO, WHAT NOW? Scott dismissed the notion that this event in any way has caused ESPN to reconsider the guest anchor effort. "When the timing is right, when the celebrity has a connection to sports, we will certainly look at those opportunities," he said. There is no planned schedule for what celebrities will be guest anchors next or even how often they will be brought in, but the program will certainly continue. Scott said viewers have responded well to the effort, "and the ratings prove it."
NOT COMPLETELY ON THE SIDELINES: Although Ferrell will not appear on "SportsCenter" tonight, he was able to bring the Burgundy character to "The Dan Patrick Show" this morning, where he served as a co-host for two hours of the radio broadcast. Patrick asked Burgundy, "Who was your idol, by the way? Who did you learn the most from when it comes to TV presence?” Burgundy: “I learned a lot from my father, Claude Burgundy. ... My father would do the news in the town bar. He’d sit behind a desk, even though it was not televised, and just read the day’s events.” NFL Network's Rich Eisen later appeared on the show and asked Burgundy how he would “spice up" tonight's broadcast of Texans-Jaguars. Burgundy: “If it was up to me, I would walk off the air. I think this is one of those games where the NFL says, ‘Folks, it’s not gonna happen, we’re folding up shop.' … There’s a very seldom-used clause in the NFL statutes where if a game is too boring, they can release a series of wild animals into the middle of the game.” Burgundy then was asked whether the Texans want to win tonight’s game or lose and improve next year’s draft position. He replied, "You build your franchise around punting, and this next draft class, oh my, my -- there’s about 15 Reggie Roby's out there.” Burgundy later told Patrick, “You’re the Neil Armstrong of sports radio, in a world dominated by women.” Patrick: “Neil Armstrong, like the former Bears coach?” Burgundy: “No, no, no, the cyclist Neil Armstrong."