The Death of the Sports Highlight Show
Once upon a time, long ago, there was this television program, whose explicit purpose was to show its viewers highlights of games from various sports. Not just big games, but every game in noteworthy leagues and collegiate levels. These highlights would occur one after the other, often only interrupted by a brief introduction into the next highlight or commercials, but after 30 or 60 minutes viewers will have soaked in the day's worth of sports just from the highlights they've watched and walk away satisfied.
This seems like a fairy tale nowadays, as the highlight show as we used to know it is all but dead.
That notion came to me after reading a rant some time ago via Awful Announcing over the continued decline of ESPN's SportsCenter. The basic rundown of that article is that SportsCenter's continued prioritization of fluff stories, debate and analysis over running simple highlight packages has turned the show from one of ESPN's biggest strengths to its major weakness. However, thanks to ESPN's huge brand name, it still brings in massive ratings regardless.
As SportsCenter continues to descend into darkness, more and more people have yearned for someone to bring back a show dedicated just to highlights. Well, it isn't for a lack of trying, that's for sure, but previous efforts just have not panned out.
They Provide It, But No One Watches
Back in 2006, Fox Sports Net started airing a program called Final Score. Final Score had but one purpose: 30 minutes of highlights and scores, nothing else. Those who watched it hailed it as a savior for them, a bastion of hope against the new debate-heavy SportsCenter. However, not enough did watch it, as on July 1st, 2011, it was cancelled, citing a lack of ratings as the reason. Keep that reason in mind as I continue.
When the old Versus network rebranded itself as the NBC Sports Network following Comcast's purchase of NBC, in August of 2012 it began airing its own highlight show in the morning. The show, named The 'Lights, was a 20 minute segment of highlights and scores, never even bothering to show the anchor who presents it. The twenty minutes would then be repeated several times over the two or three hour block it was designated to. Unlike Final Score, The 'Lights has not been officially cancelled as of this writing, but it has not seen airtime in over year, basically a quiet cancellation. It is notable that show received poor ratings during the short time it was on.
Perhaps the most indicative of the fall of the highlight show is the entire channel of ESPNews. First airing in 1996, ESPNews had been set as a 24-hour SportsCenter of old, showing nothing but highlights and news, with a few press conferences here and there. However, in recent years, ESPN has converted ESPNews into another outlet for the new Sportscenter, basically having it air whenever its not airing on regular ESPN. Just last month, Highlight Express, the last flicker of what ESPN was once about, was cancelled, citing, yes, low ratings as the reason.
The reasons behind these highlight show failures are not as difficult to determine as one would think. Many do wish for the return of the highlight show, but many of those people want it to be on ESPN. Not Fox Sports, not NBC Sports, not even ESPNews, just regular ol' ESPN, and these people are both unwilling to look at another network for that type of programming, as well as content to simply watch SportsCenter instead, despite all the problems with the current editions thereof. They basically want SportsCenter to be the full-time highlight show again, not for an alternative to rise up.
Ratings are not the only factor into the downfall of the highlight show. There are other factors in play..
To Embrace Debate
On October 22nd, 2001, ESPN began airing a new type of program. The show, Pardon the Interruption, took two newspaper columnists - Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon - and they spent 30 minutes discussing the big sports topics of the day, often disagreeing loudly about many of those topics. The debate show became greatly popular, and ESPN realized the money-making cash cow they've just given birth to. Just a year later, the network would start airing a show that preceded PTI - Around the Horn - which had four panelists debating sports topics with a fifth person moderating the debates by giving their arguments scores. Back to back, Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption became mega hits for the network, especially as the two led up to the 6:00 PM SportsCenter. Soon, ESPN realized those two shows just were not enough.
On October 20th, 2003, just two years after PTI's debut, ESPN2 began airing a morning program called Cold Pizza. The program was basically the sports version of what you would find on Good Morning America, or Today. That proved to be lackluster in ratings, so Cold Pizza was reworked to operate more like PTI and ATH - it began utilizing a debate format in segments called 1st and 10, featuring ATH's Woody Paige as well as a guy by the name of Skip Bayless, who became known for his wild and baseless opinions. This new debate-centric format proved popular and as the years went by, 1st and 10 became more and more prominent on the Cold Pizza, basically becoming the core segment for the show. Paige would eventually leave Cold Pizza to return to Denver, and the debate portion starred Bayless with a rotating second debater. On May 4th, 2007, Cold Pizza came to an end, but was immediately replaced with First Take, an expanded, full-time version of 1st and 10.
First Take featured Bayless taking on more and more absurd opinions on major sports topics, including a continued bashing of LeBron James during his first stint in Cleveland and, much more annoyingly, his continued support of Tim Tebow during his time in Denver and even more so this past season when he did basically nothing for the New York Jets. Last year, Bayless was joined full time by Stephen A. Smith, another analyst who does a better job making sure everyone hears his loud opinion on something rather than making sure his opinion is well-founded or informative. With Bayless' comical opinions and Smith's reckless abandon, the two have turned First Take into a mockery amongst sports fans, who make fun of its "Embrace Debate" culture and the show's continued lack of proper prioritization of the sports news of the day. Despite the mockery, the show remains a solid ratings-earner for ESPN, somehow, and for this primary reason the show remains on the air even today.
In recent years ESPN has heavily injected the "Embrace Debate" culture into SportsCenter. Now, when you turn on SportsCenter - especially in the morning - you'll likely find nothing but an argument between two "analysts" - both of which are more than likely former athletes that may or may not have played the sport they're arguing about - in some vain attempt to make whatever nonsense they're arguing about water cooler material for everybody else at work or school. Sometimes a graphic will appear showcasing that athlete's "resume" which shows nothing about that person's ability to go on the air and debate endlessly about nothing.
Its quite a shocking devolution of the program - and the network as a whole - especially when you consider that PTI and even ATH aren't even bad programs, but the network has completely fallen in love with First Take's direction and decided that "loud arguing" is the best option going forward for SportsCenter rather than do what it was once most famous for - showing highlights, stats and scores of nearly everything noteworthy over a 60 minute period of time.
The Changing Landscape
Is "Embrace Debate" the main reason why the highlight show has died off? I would wager its has a role in the highlight show's downfall, but its not the major reason. As ESPN is fully committed to embracing debate, other highlight-savvy viewers have begun embracing something else in order to nab their fix: the internet. Every major league now offers comprehensive highlights for every game - with no anchor commentary to get in the way - on their websites, and these packages - offered for no additional cost mind you - are also available to view on smartphones as well. Why bother sitting through SportsCenter in the unlikely hope you'll get to see Baltimore Orioles highlights when MLB.com has those same highlights, in a larger quantity, without some ESPN commentary, immediately available to you on your iPhone or Android?
With the explosion of internet-available highlights, people do not bother going to FSN, NBCSN, or even ESPN now to get their highlights. Within the hour it takes to watch a highlight show, people can instead go on the internet and get all the highlights they could ever desire much quicker. This is the reason why Final Score died. This is the reason The 'Lights died. This is the reason ESPNews is no longer what it once was. This is the reason ESPN has no other option but to embrace debate. People no longer watch TV for highlights when their computers and smartphones can give them those highlights much more efficiently.
One could argue that people only turned to the internet for highlights after ESPN's "Embrace Debate" devolved SportsCenter into the cesspool is currently is, and that they'd be more than happy to go back if ESPN would put a highlight-focused show on, or make the morning SportsCenter focus primary or exclusively on highlights. At this point, though, I highly doubt it. The landscape of the highlight has been pushed onto a new path it can no longer back off from. If you are among the few remaining who wish to see a highlight show on TV again, its time to give up and start using the internet for your needs - and let ESPN and others "embrace debate" without you.