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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sportztyme!: ESPN Goes Hollywood

Sports and TV: they go together like peas and carrots. But every marriage has its bumpy spots, and that's where our own Uncle Buster comes in with his new column. Ladies and gentlemen... it's Sportztyme!

ESPN bills itself as "The Worldwide Leader In Sports," which is a completely apt description. No single network has so revolutionized sports coverage over the past 25 years. Much like MTV before it, ESPN has evolved into its own societal island. But, also like MTV, what made ESPN singular and exemplary isn't good enough anymore. Now they delve into reality and drama programming to fatten their ratings- and their coffers.

This approach has produced some hits- and misses. In their made-for-TV movies, 3, the life story of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, was an inspired if hurried look at a man who changed his sport and its fans forever. A Season On The Brink, based on John Feinstein's best-selling book, put a relentless full court press on Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. But the movie was so different from what the book intended that Feinstein once told me he'll never let ESPN adapt another of his novels.

As for series, ESPN attempted to dramatize the NFL with Playmakers, a behind-the-scenes account of a fictitious pro football team. On some levels, it worked. But when you see the star running back snorting cocaine in some back corner of the stadium at halftime, I had to throw a penalty flag. I've covered the NFL for over a decade, and while the players have their share of shortcomings, I can promise you there isn't the time, nor the privacy to do something like that during a game.

I won't discuss Dream Job, the reality competition show that gives some schmuck off the street an $80K gig to work as an anchor. As someone who toiled for less than minimum wage in God-forsaken markets you''ve never heard of to gain a foothold in sports broadcasting, I find the entire concept a disrespectful slap in the face to our entire profession.

Now, they attempt to capitalize on the TV poker phenomenon with Tilt, their new drama about card players. If you've seen 5 minutes of ESPN over the last month, you've seen at least 2 promos for this new show. From the spots, it doesn't look all that promising, and this is coming from a fan of poker. But, give ESPN credit for taking the chance.

And if only 3 of their 10 shows and movies work, they are still batting .300. That's good enough to get you in the Hall of Fame, isn't it?

Related Link: USA Today: ESPN playing on wider field

Uncle Buster's Sportztyme! appears every Thursday.

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