Topical Flow

January 08, 2001

Wendy's cooks a decent hamburger. So does Burger King, and there
are folks who prefer either (or both) of their offerings to
McDonald's. Then again, McD's has the most customers.

A similar predicament bedevils CNN and Fox Sports Net, who on a
late-nightly basis find their flame-broiled sports highlights
shows trailing the category leader, ESPN's SportsCenter. "That's
the power of the brand," says Steve Robinson, managing editor of
CNN/SI, which produces CNN's Sports Tonight and simulcasts it on
CNN/SI, the TV arm of this magazine. "There are a lot of places
to go at 11 p.m. for scores and highlights. Sports Tonight has
been a solid show. At the same time, the ratings have been pretty
static."

Nielsen ratings for October, for example, provide an accurate
snapshot of the war at 11 p.m. While SportsCenter averaged a 0.9
rating (746,000 households), Sports Tonight was a distant second
with a 0.3 (220,000 homes). During the postpresidential election
quagmire, CNN preempted Sports Tonight with a political
discussion show, The Spin Room. As the chad-induced hiatus
continued, CNN executives decided to experiment with building a
better burger. When the half-hour show returned on Dec. 18, it
was with a revamped, discussion-driven format.

Topics now trump highlights at Sports Tonight. Hosts Vince
Cellini and Fred Hickman have emerged from behind the desk to
effect a more conversational style. Across the studio former New
England newsperson Kara Henderson stands next to a video
monitor, reading viewer e-mail or chatting (as Cellini and
Hickman also do) with the occasional caller. Meanwhile, guests,
who are athletes, coaches and/or journalists, opine, often at
length, on the topic of the day.

It's as if Sports Tonight has plundered the most successful
aspects of CNN's "Live" franchises--Larry King Live and Talk Back
Live--and tailored them to fit the talents of Cellini and Hickman.
"I like it," says Hickman, who, except for two years in the '80s,
has been with Sports Tonight since its inception 21 years ago.
"In the early days we were very cognizant of not being
opinionated. Now our knowledge matters. Our opinion matters."

Whether CNN gains ground on ESPN, only time will tell. However,
after two decades of finishing second in the burger wars, how
much harm can be done by tossing a spicy Cajun sandwich into the
mix? --J.W.

COLOR PHOTO: AP PHOTO/MARK LENNIHAN COLOR PHOTO

The Hall Guy?
Tongue in cheek, an instant website advances the candidacy of a
Cooperstown long shot

Through 12 major league seasons and half that many clubs,
lefthanded pitcher Jim Deshaies (84-95, 4.14 ERA) failed to
amass the mound of stats usually needed to warrant a Hall of
Fame nomination. Somehow, though, Deshaies is one of 32 players
on this year's Cooperstown ballot. (The inductees will be
announced on Jan. 16.) Deshaies (right), who spent most of his
playing career with Houston and is now one of the club's
broadcasters, has allowed two friends, former Astros publicists
Chuck Pool and Craig Sanders, to design a witty website,
putjdinthehall.com. Among other "accomplishments," Deshaies
achieved immortality, as noted on the site's Major League
Records link, by:

--Becoming, in 1984, the 1,000th player to don a Yankees uniform.

--Setting the National League record for most consecutive
strikeouts to begin a game (eight, against the Dodgers in 1986).

--Setting the big league record for most career at bats (373)
without an extra-base hit.

Moreover, the site notes, Deshaies's induction would furnish
Cooperstown with its first Astros uniform and first number 43,
thus numerically providing the missing link between Jackie
Robinson's 42 and the 44 worn by sluggers Hank Aaron, Reggie
Jackson and Willie McCovey. "Our rallying cry is 'One man, one
vote,'" says Sanders, mindful that one of last year's nominees,
Hubie Brooks, failed to garner a single nod from among the 499
Hall of Fame balloters. "Jim's not exactly preparing his
induction speech right now. He just doesn't want to be
'Hubie'd.'" --J.W.

"I like it," says Hickman of Sports Tonight's new format. "Now
our knowledge matters."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)