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Volume 21 No. 26
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Ratings not living up to demand for highlights-heavy shows

John Ourand
It’s probably the complaint I hear most frequently about sports media: Today’s sports news shows are a far cry from the “SportsCenter” of the 1990s. People consistently say that they want to see the old shows, which mainly were focused on delivering highlights rather than today’s shows that are dominated by talk and debate.

I brought these complaints to Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer of production. He said he’s heard the same views from people both inside and outside of ESPN. The problem is that what people say and how they act don’t mesh.

People may say they want more stripped-down highlights. But TV ratings tell a different story.

Earlier this month, ESPN canceled “Highlight Express,” a highlights show on ESPNews that gave nothing but highlights. When the show launched, it received some buzz from people looking for an alternative to “SportsCenter.”

Fans wanting “SportsCenter” of the past often don’t tune in for shows focusing on highlights.
The problem was that nobody watched. For the month of May, ESPNews averaged only 53,000 viewers for each episode of the show that aired between 11 p.m. and midnight. During prime time for the month, ESPNews averaged 92,000 viewers.

“We canceled it because it didn’t really perform where we wanted it to,” Gross said. “It was a business decision based on performance and based on us putting resources into ‘SportsCenter’ and other highlight shows instead.”

NBC Sports Group had a similar experience with “The Lights,” NBC Sports Network’s morning show devoted to nothing but highlights — no anchor, no analysis, just highlights. Though the show created a good bit of buzz on social media, an audience never materialized. During the first three weeks in April, NBC Sports Network averaged 21,000 viewers for the show.

NBC put the show on hiatus during the NHL playoffs and plans to return with a retooled version of the show in late August.

“You will see ‘The Lights’ evolve, and the programming and our highlight strategy will come forward in a different format,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “I’m not ready to share what that’s going to be, but I will say that’s going to take on a unique format that’s relevant to the programming that we have coming this fall.”

The problem, according to both Gross and Miller, is that highlights have evolved. Shows like “Highlight Express” and “The Lights” — ones that offer nothing but game highlights — are competing with highlights available in an instant.

Fans are not sitting through an entire highlights show just to see two or three plays from their favorite teams. They are accessing them right away on their computer or mobile phone.

To program against that, ESPN and NBC Sports Group say the TV highlight shows of today need to give more context behind the highlights. That means bringing in analysts and reporters to tell the stories behind the games.

“On a highlight package, you really want to get a great sense of the story of the game or the story lines of the game so that you can properly document — essentially you are documenting the event,” Gross said. “Seeing your nuts-and-bolts highlight with four or five plays and the score — the audience is getting more sophisticated. They want more than just, ‘Here’s who won the game.’ They want context. They want to know why.”

What does that mean for ESPNews, a network that was created to show nothing but highlights?

“ESPNews is going to continue to evolve like everything else here,” Gross said. “Right now on ESPNews, there are more live games than there used to be. And now ESPNews is getting our franchise show, ‘SportsCenter,’ at least six hours a day.”

As for “The Lights,” Miller hinted that when it returns in late August, it will focus more on sports that have relationships with NBC, like EPL soccer and the NFL.

“People consume highlights differently, much as they consume media differently than they used to. If you don’t react to those changes, then you’re going to be left out,” Miller said. “That’s why you’re going to see us take ‘The Lights’ and evolve it to be consistent with the programming that’s on our different platforms and our different networks.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.