Out of the valley of the ashes known as late-night television has risen, of all things, a weekly network sports show. It may only be with us for a summer or it may survive several seasons; in either case, it establishes Al Trautwig, of all people, as an unlikely major new personality on the national sports scene.
ABC's "Monday Sportsnite," set for a 14-week trial run, made its debut this week. The one-hour sports variety show will nestle in every Monday night at midnight following "Nightline," the thinking being that a fairly literate, news-oriented audience will stick around for a fairly literate, sports-oriented show.
"We're hoping to get an audience that's issue-oriented," Trautwig said. "I'd like to think that some of the people interested in what's happening in the world are sports fans. If not, that's a pretty sad commentary on sports fans."
What the sports fan will get is this -- a topical issue to begin each show, followed by a fast-paced, twisting journey through myriad sporting endeavors. It's not altogether unlike the "Rebel Yell" ride at Kings Dominion; you just hang on and hope the next turn will send an unforgettable rush through your body.
Bringing us through all this is Trautwig, 31, who began his broadcasting career in 1979 covering soccer for WMCA Radio in New York. He was hired by USA cable in 1981 and joined ABC Sports full-time in 1985. To hold "Sportsnite" together, he has to cut a Ted Koppel-Ed Sullivan-Hugh Downs-David Letterman type of figure, which is difficult work, if you can get it.
The premiere show was a stampede of sights and sounds. There was the Dwight Gooden story (with interviews of Davey Johnson, Don Newcombe and John Lucas), a segment on the Belmont Stakes, Becky Dixon's piece on model-marathon runner Kim Alexis, a look at how actress Jane Fonda copes with husband Tom Hayden's baseball obsession, an in-studio interview with N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano, a three-minute, narrationless look at Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and Jack Whitaker's essay.
Some of it was fun, some of it was forced, but all through it was funk, right down to the designer studio set. The set is incredible -- "I want to get the guy who designed it to do my home," Trautwig said -- filled with couches, a wet bar, an anchoring area and even a little den of sorts for Whitaker or Jim McKay to offer essays. Trautwig calls it a "brownstone warehouse." It's certainly a television extravagance, complete with a blender for those studio guests who might want to order a pina colada during taping.
Credit "Sportsnite" for trying the Gooden story as an opener, but a cynic might point to the first show's sex-and-drugs approach. The drugs came first with the Gooden piece, but the questions Trautwig asked, particularly of Mets Manager Johnson, were lobbed in softly. Also, early on the premiere, came the Kim Alexis feature, relying heavily on titillating photos of her, including a well-known Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover.
"We didn't put Kim Alexis in that bathing suit," Trautwig said. "We thought that piece served a lot of purposes. But understandably, if we can use someone who's that attractive to tell a good sports story -- of a mother with a modeling career who runs marathons -- we're gonna do it. That's what this show is about."
Show No. 2 will include a look at the Michael Spinks-Gerry Cooney fight, Bob Horner's baseball move to Japan, the NBA finals and one of "Al Trautwig's Adventures," where the host tries to get his picture on a Wheaties box. It's that type of offbeat stuff on which Trautwig thrives. He was best in the premiere when he talked with the offbeat Valvano. He opened the Valvano segment by telling the coach he looked like "a badly dressed golfer" -- Valvano was wearing a pink jacket, green shirt and white pants (standard recruiting attire) -- and he closed the segment by telling us, "Somebody went wrong somewhere, but he's a great guy to have on your show."
The show is Trautwig's baby, and he'll be the one shaping a production that seems part "Nightline" or "20/20," part "Late Night With David Letterman" and part "SportsBeat." Trautwig is unsure whether ABC will continue "Sportsnite" once "Monday Night Football" begins, but, he said: "It would be foolish not to continue it on Monday nights when they have the largest built-in sports audience already there."
Therein lies an irony of sorts. Cosell was the best-known figure when "Monday Night Football" stormed into our national consciousness; Cosell also saw his pioneering "SportsBeat" program kicked around the weekend schedule and his brief attempt at a live, Saturday night entertainment variety show fail. All of that paved the path for a show such as "Sportsnite."
And if "Sportsnite" booms -- and gets a ratings boost from following "Monday Night Football" -- one can only think of Cosell in self-exile, removed from the spotlight he created. For, with all due respect to Al Trautwig, "Sportsnite" is really Howard Cosell's show, only he's not doing it.