Choosing native Washingtonian Jess Atkinson as its new weekday sports anchor was a safe and rather predictable decision by Channel 9 President-General Manager Dick Reingold. He had worked at Channel 4 as a news director when Atkinson was breaking into the television business 10 years ago, and said a major factor in choosing the former Maryland Terrapins and Washington Redskins place kicker was that "people really like Jess."

Though countless applicants sent in tapes and resumes for consideration, all indications are that Atkinson was the first choice right from the start. Several candidates already employed in this and other markets said they never had a chance to interview, and never heard back from Channel 9 saying there was no interest in them.

Knowing Atkinson from his playing days, the likability factor has been there ever since he began fielding questions as an athlete who walked on to the Maryland football team after being cut from the school's soccer squad. He loved the give and take with the media (mostly he gave), and became a quote machine by delivering honest answers with plenty of substance.

When an ankle injury ended his career, he tried commercial real estate until George Michael put him in front of the camera in 1990 at Channel 4 as a reporter and occasional weekend and morning anchor. Atkinson covered the Redskins for a couple of years, then also did a lot of feature reporting both in sports and, later, for the early morning news before heading to Providence in 1996 to learn how to be a sports anchor.

In Rhode Island, Atkinson developed a strong following in a market that included penetration from the Boston stations. He held his own with a heavy focus on features involving local athletes as well as the usual meat and potatoes--scores, highlights and interviews.

Now he comes to a far larger market and will have to compete with the Michael juggernaut at Channel 4, as well as creative operations both at Channel 7 and 5, not to mention NewsChannel 8 on cable.

His predecessor, Ken Broo, after being fired in September, said he thought the amount of time given to sports on Channel 9--about four minutes close to 11:30 p.m.--couldn't have affected the station's ratings.

But Channel 9 believes Atkinson's folksy, friendly style and his local roots could appeal to the sort of non-sports oriented audience that watches local news these days, especially women. The hard-core junkies are generally glued to the myriad sports news shows on ESPN, CNN/SI and Fox Sports Net. In fact, many stations around the country are shrinking the sports news hole in their 6 and 11 time slots for that reason.

In an interview this week, Atkinson said he believes he'll have the resources to compete with the opposition, "but to me, creativity is more important than resources any day. I have a lot of ideas about what I'd like to do. . . . I believe in breaking news stories, too. We did some of that in Providence, and I'd like to think that will continue.

"I know I have to bring something to the table. With Glenn Brenner, it was humor. I've never seen anyone with the sense of timing he had. I'm going to try to show you things you can't see on an ESPN kind of show. There's so much more you can do than scores and highlights. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Second Chance

It was only a matter of time before Marv Albert became the lead play-by-play man for NBA games on NBC even if it had seemed he had burned his bridges there by lying to his bosses during his trial and subsequent plea bargain on a widely publicized sexual assault charge three years ago.

A year ago, Albert got back into the NBA's national mix when he was hired by TNT to handle cable games. This year, he'll have the No. 2 weekend game on NBC teaming with Bill Walton, and next year, he'll replace Bob Costas as the lead play-by-play man, teaming with Doug Collins. Costas wants to focus on other activities, including preparation for Olympic coverage as well as his new gig doing a Nightline-type show for HBO.

Albert spent a year off television and away from the NBA after the trial, and also fulfilled all his court-imposed obligations, including counseling and therapy. In short, he was a model citizen and, according to his friends, a changed man from the manic workaholic who covered far too many games for his own or his family's good.

We live in a country where most people do get second chances to get it right or make amends for serious transgressions. In sports, it's often six or seven chances, especially for those truly gifted at what they do. We want to see the best player on the field, we want to hear the finest NBA voice in the land. They sell tickets, they boost ratings, they make money for their employers. Albert arguably is the finest basketball announcer of this or any other generation. That's why he's back, like it (I do) or not.

Hello From Sydney

NBC announced yesterday that it will air 172 hours of original programming on its two cable operations from the Sydney Summer Olympics starting Sept. 13, 2000.

While the NBC network will have 162 hours of programming that will be heavily highlight and feature driven, the cable coverage on CNBC (71 million homes) and MSNBC (51 million) will be mostly event driven, with games and competitions shown mostly in their entirety.

Because of the 15-hour time difference between Sydney and the U.S. East Coast, virtually all Olympic programming on the network and its cable affiliates will be on tape, except for the studio hosts.

NBC also announced that Jim Lampley will be the studio host for MSNBC and Pat O'Brien will handle the studio for CNBC.

CAPTION: In recently signed Jess Atkinson, WUSA-TV-9 will have a sports anchor who played sports locally in high school, college and the pros.