BRISTOL, Conn. — During a recent episode of “SportsCenter,” anchor Keith Olbermann was counting down a series of top plays when he arrived at a block by Duke star Zion Williamson. “He puts a 21-49 down!” Olbermann announced as a slow motion replay zoomed in on the thunderous rejection.
That was an inside joke, one only the most connected of ESPN insiders would understand. Olbermann was referencing the phone extension of a man without any name recognition outside Bristol, but one who has been tasked with reviving the network’s signature program, in part by drawing on his nearly four decades at the “worldwide leader in sports.”
“I’ve had the same extension since I got here,” Norby Williamson said.
Williamson, 55, is something of a mythical figure at ESPN, a central Connecticut native who started in the mailroom in the 1980s and became the first producer of the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” hosted by Olbermann and Dan Patrick, which helped turn ESPN and its signature highlights program into cultural icons in the 1990s.
By last year, the show was suffering from slumping ratings as the company fought against the business climate of cord-cutting and the divisive politics of the Trump era. Enter Williamson, who was named ESPN’s executive vice president of studio production in September 2017, placing him in charge of “SportsCenter.” His strategy: Return the show to its roots as a hub of news and highlights.
In a year on the job, Williamson has overseen the end of the personality-driven 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” that starred Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. (Hill called President Trump a white supremacist last year and recently left ESPN.) Meanwhile, 7 a.m. and noon editions of “SportsCenter” were added to the daily schedule this fall.
“I think we miscalculated a little bit,” Williamson said. “The perception became that you could just roll a talent out there and it doesn’t matter what he or she is saying — that the content didn’t matter. I just never believed that.”
All told, ESPN looks more like it used to during its heyday — less debate, more news and highlights. Even the faces are familiar: Past stars like Olbermann and Chris Berman are on the air more often under Williamson’s watch. And so far, executives are pleased with the returns. At a recent meeting, some two dozen employees viewed a presentation that announced the 6 p.m. show has had eight straight months of growth, while the Monday editions of the new 7 a.m. (up 6 percent vs. last year) and noon (up 10 percent) installments of the show have shined during football season.
Never mind that in that calculus, the noon show is being compared with last year’s showings of “Outside the Lines,” a little-watched news magazine that focuses on social issues in sports.
Williamson, seated at the head of the table, told his colleagues: “When people whine or complain, ‘It’s not the way it used to be — fragmentation, blah blah blah,’ it’s all crap. You get information about your customers and adjust what you’re doing.”
He added, “I like where we’re at right now.”
Finding its audience
Last year, the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” struggled to build an audience, and ESPN faced heavy fire from the right for being both too political and too liberal. The marching orders from new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and his boss, Disney CEO Bob Iger, have been to recommit to hardcore sports fans. “Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field,” Iger said this year. “And I happen to believe he was right.”
“SportsCenter” is central to that mission. The show’s impact on ESPN’s balance sheet is less significant than larger issues such as cord-cutting — much of ESPN’s revenue comes from the $8 it gets from each cable subscriber, and the network has lost some 15 million subscribers over the past eight years — or the billions it has committed to broadcast the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
Still, the show is uniquely recognizable and plays an outsize role in how people think about ESPN. The franchise had its own series of famous commercials, one of which Williamson had a cameo in. “As ‘SportsCenter’ goes, so goes ESPN,” he said.
In his office, Williamson keeps the first pylon cam ever used, and on his wall is a framed news release announcing the highest-rated “Monday Night Football" game in network history, a 2007 matchup between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens — tributes to the network’s legacy.
He may be an executive, but Williamson remains a maniacal TV producer at heart. He recently called up basketball analyst Stan Van Gundy to remind him to keep his hands folded together when he was on air. Years ago, he told anchor Linda Cohn she couldn’t call home run hitters “master batters” during highlights. He once told Berman to shave his mustache and another host, Bob Ley, to get rid of his beard.
“I told Bob he looked stupid, but his wife liked the beard, I guess,” Williamson said. “The point is that every little thing you do on the air can distract from what you’re saying.”
Williamson explained that ESPN’s rationale for going all-in on debate and conversation began with the proliferation of cable news shows driven by personalities. ESPN also had internal success with shows such as “Pardon the Interruption” and “First Take,” on which panelists argue back and forth, often at high decibels.
There was also a belief that highlights were less valuable in a world where ESPN.com and Twitter could deliver video to fans in real time.
“We fell into that trap a little bit,” Williamson said. “We de-emphasized the video and the storytelling.”
Segments like “Fact or Fiction” expanded on “SportsCenter,” and more debate shows followed. Daily standbys “PTI” and “First Take” remain well-rated on ESPN. But this summer, under Williamson, morning talk show “Get Up!” was sliced by an hour; conversation show “High Noon” was cut from an hour to half an hour; and “SportsNation,” which focused on fan-generated content, was canceled.
The 6 p.m. “SportsCenter,” meanwhile, transitioned this spring back to a highlights-themed show, hosted by Sage Steele and Kevin Negandhi. (It averaged 508,000 viewers in October vs. 493,000 last year.) Instead of spoofs of “A Different World” with Hill and Smith, viewers now get more segments with analysts such as Tim Legler breaking down the day’s NBA news. The new mission has gotten a boost from the NFL season; Colin Kaepernick’s disappearance from the game is less a part of the news cycle, Trump’s feud with the NFL has receded, and high-scoring teams and young stars have dominated the conversation.
“I think we’ve recommitted to what people expect from us,” Steele said. “Just as I would have watched the ‘CBS Evening News’ show with Dan Rather, I want my information. This is the same thing — just sports.”
If televised highlights could feel passe just a few years ago, Williamson believes that new technology can revolutionize “SportsCenter” while also recommitting it to something closer to what it used to be. Next-gen stats mean the network can roll video of a dunk by Zion Williamson and show fans how high he jumped, or his velocity at liftoff.
“I’m like the fan,” Norby Williamson said at a production meeting of the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.” “Never forget: I’m the person you have to serve here.”
He later added: “Let’s not overthink ‘SportsCenter.’ The goal is to get more people to watch today than watched yesterday.”
Williamson acknowledged he would still like to see more audience growth among young men, a demographic that was once raised on “SportsCenter” — back, of course, when Olbermann and Patrick were hosting. “Those are the fans that have a longer runway to stick with you,” he said.
There’s also a question of whether the program can recapture its cultural cachet. As Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at investment firm BTIG, put it, “No one is walking around wearing ‘SportsCenter’ T-shirts anymore.”
Greenfield paused to illustrate his point by searching on Twitter the morning after a “Monday Night Football” game. “You’re looking for highlights, and you get video straight from the NFL, you see content from the Ringer and SB Nation,” he said. “‘SportsCenter’ doesn’t stand out.” (House of Highlights, an Instagram account with a nonstop stream of viral clips, was recently bought by Turner Sports; the brand has more than 11 million followers, nearly as many as “SportsCenter.”)
ESPN likes to note that it’s still the No. 1 linear TV network for men 18 to 34 in the 7 a.m. and noon windows. Its Snapchat account has a growing audience, and the Scott Van Pelt-hosted midnight “SportsCenter” — which blends the quirky (such as betting segments) with more traditional highlights — out-rates all the late-night talk shows on broadcast or cable among men 18 to 34.
That data point, though, might suggest younger men have an appetite for something more edgy than meat-and-potatoes highlights. And some at ESPN have wondered whether Williamson is too nostalgic for a past that isn’t coming back. There has been grumbling that Williamson wants “to make ‘SportsCenter’ great again” — a nod to Trump’s campaign slogan — with critics noting his past reluctance to change and his years-ago resistance to Stuart Scott’s famous “boo-yah!” call. (“That’s a flawed perspective,” Williamson said. “Stuart and I were close.”)
Williamson admits that he is a creature of habit. For 30-plus years, he went to the same Bristol convenience store to grab a giant soda on his way to work. (It recently reopened under new management, but the customer service was lacking, so Williamson found a new soda spot.) And, sure, from time to time he watches old episodes of “SportsCenter.”
But viewers are viewers, right?
“Keith Olbermann is the best to ever do ‘SportsCenter,’ ” Williamson said. “Chris Berman is the best at highlights. Why would we not want them here doing those things? If growing ratings are a homage to the past, I guess I’m guilty. But I don’t see it that way. I see it as catering to our customers."
Said Olbermann: “If you’re looking forward relative to ‘SportsCenter’ in a linear television format, it’s extinction. But if there are people who are willing to watch this show who are 40 years old, we still have years left to make money off them. What do we do to maximize the immediate future? What worked in the recent past.”
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