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Sports Tonight gets a face lift


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000

When the folks at CNN's Sports Tonight had time to twiddle their thumbs last month, talk turned from dangling chads to changing Fred.

Longtime anchor Fred Hickman, that is, and the discussion wasn't about Hickman's off-again/on-again facial hair. When Sports Tonight was pre-empted for extended election coverage, CNN/SI managing editor Steve Robinson decided the time had come for a new format for the 2-decade-old show.

That format still is evolving, but Sports Tonight debuted Monday with a new, interactive style that lets fans chime in via phone and e-mail. You'll still have the requisite highlights, but discussions and interviews are the focus, instead of Hickman and co-host Vince Cellini reading scores from behind a desk.

Hickman and Cellini now sit in comfy chairs and chat with athletes, viewers and analysts. They are joined by newcomer Kara Henderson, who stands near a monitor and does things like read viewer e-mail and interview guests.

The atmosphere is casual and the dialogue mostly unscripted. The format still is evolving, but Robinson said he felt the need to stray from the typical sportscast.

ESPN's SportsCenter has set the standard for years, but now that format is everywhere -- and all the time on 24-hour sports news stations CNNSI and ESPNEWS.

"We're giving viewers something informative and fun, but different," Robinson said. "We want to use technology to do the news better and interact with users and viewers better. The interactive nature (of broadcasts) is here.

"It's an experiment. We're trying it. The traditional format is a good solid show, but we think this will be better."

Hickman said he is thrilled with the change.

"They've finally let me out of my box," he said. "I love this format; it's right up my alley. ... We've been doing the old Sports Tonight format for over 20 years. That was good. This is better."

The idea is intriguing, and certainly more fun than the staid old version of the show. There is such a thing as too casual -- it's a bit jarring, for example, to see Henderson standing next to a monitor and "facing" the person she is interviewing (who, of course, can't look back). But good guests and good chemistry can make it work.

MNF RATINGS: Raise your hand if you had a productive day Tuesday. ... Yup, that's what we thought. Nielsen estimates that more than 590,000 Tampa Bay area households tuned in to the Bucs' 38-35 Monday Night Football victory against the Rams.

That represents a 35.6 rating and a 54 share, meaning more than half of the households tuned in were watching the game.

Nationally, the game was the second-highest rated of the season, garnering a 15.2 rating (each rating point equals 1.022-million homes) and a 26 share. Only the Denver-St. Louis season opener did better (15.3/26).

Y2K IN REVIEW: It's time for the annual looks back. ESPN will air a SportsCenter series starting at 1 p.m. Sunday with SportsCenter Remembers: the Legends of our Time, followed at 1 Monday by The Best of SportsCenter and 10 p.m. Tuesday by SportsCenter Top 10 Games. ... The Last Word with Jim Rome brings us Newsmakers 2000, featuring the show's best moments of the year. The special airs at noon Saturday and at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 30 on Fox Sports Net Florida.

ORANGE CRUSH: With Saturday's final game at Mile High Stadium in Denver, ESPN Classic is celebrating at 9 tonight with a live, two-hour Road Show. Co-hosts Chris Fowler and Denver Post columnist Woody Paige will be joined by former Broncos John Elway, Randy Gradishar, Vance Johnson, Karl Mecklenburg, Craig Morton, Haven Moses, Sammy Winder and Louis Wright to look at memorable moments in the stadium's history.

On Saturday, programming from noon to 9 p.m. will be dedicated to Denver, including a rebroadcast of the first home game in Colorado Rockies history and a compilation of Elway's greatest comebacks for the Broncos.

The Broncos host San Francisco at 4 p.m. Saturday on Ch. 13.

FINE TUNING: ESPN2 will air a 16-hour NASCAR marathon beginning at 1 a.m. Christmas Day. ... ESPN is bringing back its acclaimed documentary The Season, about a Pennsylvania high school team's quest in 1999 for a state championship. The 2:30 p.m. Christmas broadcast will include updated information on the students and this year's team. ... Sunshine Network will air a Sugar Bowl preview at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 29.

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