ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill is leaving the 6:00 p.m. SC6 edition of SportsCenter to join the staff of The Undefeated, the ESPN microsite that fuses sports, race and culture, as well as other additional assignments. Multiple sources confirmed that Hill asked management for the switch. She is expected to depart SC6 the first week of February. Hill has three years remaining on her ESPN deal.
As this column wrote in October when it predicted Hill’s tenure as the co-host of the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter would end, Hill's departure from SportsCenter will not be a shock to those in Bristol. ESPN management clearly has limits to the speech it will allow from front-facing talent on social media, particularly those representing the SportsCenter brand, and Hill likely did not feel her show had management’s unwavering support given the events of 2017.
As I wrote then, the SportsCenter that Hill and co-host Michael Smith envisioned—one that included the elements that made their chemistry honest and unique on the ESPN2 show His and Hers and their co-hosted podcasts—had slowly been chopped away at by the addition of segments you see on traditional SportsCenter shows. Those included interviews with reporters in the field and blocks that feature the kind of short, bite-sized takes viewers get on shows such as Around The Horn. Multiple people told me in October that there was an effort to bring in ESPN talent as guests with opinions contrary to the hosts. That also comes with change in the executive branch on those overseeing SportsCenter.
It is an interesting exercise to look back at the Jan. 30, 2017 press release when Hill and Smith were announced as the hosts of a re-imagined version of SportsCenter. This was when management was touting boldly that ESPN had made a strategic shift in thinking to rebuild the SportsCenter franchise around what one of its executives termed “personalities and conceits that work for specific audiences.” From that press release:
“With a format geared to fit Smith and Hill’s personalities, along with a specially-designed set and its own music, The Six will be different from any other SportsCenter produced since ESPN’s first telecast of its signature news and information program in 1979 Debuting on the day after the Super Bowl, the premiere episode of the weekday offering will be hailed with an hour-long simulcast on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. Smith and Hill, who previously co-hosted ESPN2’s His & Hers and will be the first African-American duo to host SportsCenter on a regular basis, will combine some of the best elements of their previous program with SportsCenter for the new show, including a deliberate and well-paced conversational format in which they discuss sports topics, news, culture and social issues. The program will continue SportsCenter’s focus on news of the day and breaking news as warranted.
“I’m most excited for the viewers to see how much freedom we are going to have,” said Smith, who’s been with ESPN since 2004.
With Hill’s departure, The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie reported that Smith will host the 6 p.m. iteration of the show solo. It is unclear how long that iteration will last.
“The telecast continues to evolve as our primary mission is serving sports fans no matter the time of day,” said ESPN executive vice president and executive editor, studio production, Norby Williamson, in a statement. “We have clearly learned that viewers expect the most comprehensive news coverage and compelling analysis during the 6 p.m. hour. Michael Smith is an experienced journalist and seasoned commentator and I’m confident that his talents can help us achieve our objectives as we move forward.”
As far as the viewership of the show, management knows that any replacement for SC6 will not produce a viewership panacea. Douglas Pucci of Programming Insider and Awful Announcing has charted ESPN studio shows over the past couple of years. What he found was that ratings movements (ups or downs) are generally parallel to those of its PTI lead-in.
For the week of Jan. 22-24, 2018, SC6 averaged 516.000 total viewers and 305,000 adults 18-49. The previous week, it averaged 481,000 total viewers and 274,000 adults 18-49. Going further back for the week of Sept. 26-29, 2017, SC6 averaged 508,000 viewers including 277,000 adults 18-49. One year earlier in the same week (Sep. 27-30 & Oct. 2), the SportsCenter 6:00 p.m. show averaged 475,000 and 245,000 adults 18-49. That is a 6.9% increase in overall viewership.
You can also find weeks where the show is down: For example: For Sep. 12-15, 2017, SC6 averaged 448,000 viewers, down 20.2 percent from the 562,000 viewers for the corresponding week in 2016 when Hill and Smith were not hosts. The show averaged 408,000 viewers (and 215,000 adults 18-49) from Oct. 3-6, 2017. That was down from 477,000 from Oct. 4-7, 2016, per Pucci. Then there are the weeks that are flat: The 6:00 p.m. SportsCenter averaged 469,000 viewers for Oct 11-13, 2016. This year, from Oct. 10-12, it averaged 463,000 viewers.
I've talked a lot with Hill over the years about a number of topics in sports media, from sexism to race to sports media people discussing social issues on Twitter. I find her to be one of the most honest brokers I deal with in sports media. She was a guest on the Sports Illustrated Media podcast on Jan. 4 and four months after tweeting that the President of the United States “is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists” and how Donald Trump “is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime,” Hill said stood by the content of her comments but regretted the medium.
“I have more regrets about the medium because as most of us find out every day in some form or fashion that Twitter is not necessarily a place for nuance,” Hill told Sports Illustrated. “Twitter’s not even really a place where you want to have some extensive conversation, especially about race. Twitter’s just not built or set up for that. It’s built on quick thoughts, okay, and that’s not something to have quick thoughts about. So I don’t really have any regrets about the language that I used, because I do think that there is some evidence to at least where we can question some of the things that he’s said and done, and for that matter, examine why there are clearly large groups of people, women, people of color, who feel they’re very vulnerable at this time and under attack. I don’t regret what I said or even the language that I used. It’s just the where. I think the where is problematic.”
Her comments were part of an hour-long conversation including how she felt about the changes to her SportsCenter show and whether she fit into the SportsCenter paradigm.
“You become a walking think piece for people,” Hill said of the attention that came her way the last four months. “It brought a different level of scrutiny, a different level of attention. I don’t think I ever imagined in my career I would be brought up as a topic of discussion at a White House Press Briefing or have the President tweet about me. For that to happen in one clump of time, it was almost as if I was watching this happen to someone else.”
Hill explained her new, more expansive role in a tweet at 4:28 p.m. ET on Friday, calling it "that much more exhilarating" and confirming that the decision was hers.
She also thanked her SC6 cohost Michael Smith and the entire SportsCenter staff, while dispelling any "rumors" that the move was somehow a demotion by adding, "I'm sorry if that isn't a [sic] sexy enough for some of you."