During the past 12 months ESPN viewers have watched the company attempt to recalibrate SportsCenter in an era where the show is no longer the absolute destination it once was. Why? There are too many other options outside of linear television to see sports highlights, including social media. The growing number of cord-cutters from cable television has also hurt ESPN, as well as other competitors with similar highlight shows.
That’s the backdrop for SportsCenter becoming much more personality-driven, with different time slots representing the content ethos of host or hosts as opposed to being a homogenous brand. The most notable of these attempts has been the midnight edition of SportsCenter, solo-hosted by Scott Van Pelt.
Into this environment come Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who are moving from their His and Hers show on ESPN2 to co-host the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter on ESPN. The new show (called SC6) launches on Monday and the format and production (including the set) is designed specifically to fit the hosts’ interest. It will not be a straight rundown of the day’s news.
As part of a 70-minute Sports Illustrated Media podcast, Hill and Smith discussed how ESPN management came to them to host SportsCenter; why they accepted the job; how long ESPN has committed to them as a SportsCenter duo; how politically savvy one has to be to move up at ESPN as talent; what kind of viewership expectations management has put on them; whether SportsCenter is a post-racial show in terms of who is watching; whether race or gender of talent impacts sports ratings; why they believe sports and politics intersect, and much more.
“The litmus test for us for us when we did His and Hers was: How do we feel about this? Do we feel passionate about it?” Hill said. “I don’t mean having a take necessarily, although that is part of it, but are we excited to discuss this?”
“I understand it [the show] might be something of an adjustment because it is going to be discussion-based,” Smith said. “But the people who have watched us and know His and Hers are going to get His and Hers. It’s just going to be called [SC6]. To be clear, His and Hers was not broken. It was successful. So we are not fixing it.”
What’s interesting is ESPN management has contractually guaranteed Hill and Smith three years at this time slot, with an option for a fourth. Managament approached the hosts, not the other way around. In terms of ratings, the 6 p.m. slot of SportsCenter drew 606,000 viewers on Monday, 507,000 on Friday and 538,000 on Thursday. Both Hill and Smith said management had not given them any ratings expectations. “My sense is that I think in some ways for most shows today, you have to shoot for the relevancy more than the ratings,” Hill said. “I think on His and Hers we are able to achieve that. Being on [ESPN2] at noon was not easy. You have to do a lot to try to draw in a viewer.”
“We honestly don’t care about the ratings because ratings do not make a good show,” said Smith. “There are horses--- shows that rate high. We all know that. We have likened ourselves a lot of times to the Roots—that’s our favorite hip-hop act. Black Thought is the greatest emcee of all time. Now the Roots are our favorite and they have achieved some success, but they are not the most commercially successful group. There are other some people who are putting out trash music that outsell them or get more radio play.”
One of the impressive things about Hill and Smith—and by no means are they a sure bet to find success at this slot—is that they built their ESPN brands with very little help. His and Hers started as a podcast with zero promotion. They also used their standing at ESPN to give others TV time—one of the best traits of any sports television person.
“Let’s me real about it: Our show never had a lot of marketing muscle behind it,” said Smith. “We did more with less than anybody here. The people that like to b---- about what they did not have at ESPN, come to our side of the tracks. Do what we did the last four or five years. You want to talk about what you didn’t get from ESPN? Please.”