Every now and then, because it's the "worldwide leader in sports" and can get away with random programming heat checks whenever it wants, ESPN will try and force-feed the viewing public some ill-fated attempt to blend sports and pop culture.
- Who's Now?, an ongoing feature a few years ago that tried to determine which sports figure was the most "Now" through a series of three-minute panel arguments among ESPN talent and random celebrities. And to this day, oddly enough, I still don't know what "Now" meant, and even more oddly, I don't think the panelists did either. It was scrapped after one year, proving that the one thing that was not "Now" was Who's Now?
- Cold Pizza, ESPN's attempt to tailor a Today Show style format but give it a sportsy feel by adding spiral staircases and neon signs to the set, kitschy fonts in the graphics, and casting hosts with an average IQ about 40 points less than their Today Show counterparts. Put it all together, and VOILA! Train wreck! After about four years, Cold Pizza quietly morphed into a debate only show (which is the "Default" mode for any ESPN show -- when in doubt, flip to "DEBATE") called First Take. R.I.P. Kit Hoover. Sad face.
- Mohr Sports, an attempt at a late night style talk show with a sports twist hosted by the hilarious Jay Mohr. This (according to Wikipedia) was actually a brain child of Mohr after he was offered a more traditional late night show by Michael Eisner on ABC and turned it down. (Once Mohr turned it down, that show offer then went to Jimmy Kimmel. Oops.) Mohr Sports was cancelled after one season.
The ESPN programming graveyard is full of several more examples (more on one of the biggest in a minute), but this will not deter ESPN. In the ongoing attempt to find some way to get sports and pop culture to cross streams in a cash printing fashion, ESPN recently announced a new late night talk show which will run on ESPNU starting in August:
ESPN will officially make its foray into the late-night television circuit on August 27. The network's first late-night entertainment show, UNITE, will air daily on ESPNU at midnight ET providing a live late-night snack of sports, humor and social buzz Monday through Friday.
"An authentic late-night entertainment show for a new generation of sports fans is an idea we have been pursuing for several years" said Rosalyn Durant ESPNU vice president. "We want to connect with some of the most passionate college fans - college students - at the intersection of sports and pop culture."
ESPN's Yaron Deskalo, an Emmy Award-winning E:60 producer, is the show's coordinating producer, planning and shaping the content and structure of UNITE.
"The way people consume entertainment has shifted dramatically, and continues to evolve by the day. There is a unique opportunity to provide sports news and humor through new avenues," said Deskalo. "Some things on UNITE you will recognize as late-night entertainment staples - a couch, guests and, of course, an in-studio musical act - will all be part of the show, but not necessarily in the way you've seen it done before."
Live from the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., the show's three hosts will push the envelope Monday - Friday with an often irreverent look at social media and video-driven sports of the day. Expect nightly guests, but not always on the couch. The show will use the latest technologies to connect with the world outside the studio walls, incorporating many guests and sports fans via Skype with a 103" monitor as a set centerpiece.
Push the envelope...often irreverent...social media....the buzzword S.W.A.T. team is camped outside Bristol right now.
Nobody represents irreverent pushing of the envelops more than Jay Mohr. He is one of the funniest knowledgeable sports fans in the celebrity world, and the ESPN format and vibe completely dragged him down and spit him out after just a few episodes. So it didn't work with Mohr, yet ESPN expects to pull this off with some random scrubs with no "street cred"? All righty then. I'll give it a chance when it debuts. I'll also give it a year before it's yanked off the air or reformatted into some show where two people yell at each other for thirty minutes.
In honor of UNITE's upcoming debut, let's take a trip in the YouTube way back machine and go back to October 1993, with this six minute clip of the then fledgling ESPN2's flagship show Sportsnight, with a mustachioed Keith Olbermann and a poofy haired Suzy Kolber.
At that time, ESPN2 billed itself as a home for the younger, hipper demographic (before it was quietly transformed into an impersonal overflow trough for stuff they couldn't fit on the main ESPN channel). Let's take a look (Zapruder-style breakdown after the video):
0:02 -- A mysterious leather clad arm dials a phone that (GASP!) has a cord coming out of it! (Amazing, a phone with wires?! I realize that you kids out there now probably think this thing was shot in like the 1950's. No, phones with wires existed in the 90's.) The leather clad arm is attached to a torso which is attached to a head that is making a cringeworthy fake voice as it play-acts a prank phone call to someone named Barry Bonds.
0:15 -- Yes, kids, that guy with the high top fade and the leopard patterned vest is Barry Bonds. I realize it looks like a Shrinky Dink version of the Barry Bonds that you saw hit 73 home runs earlier this decade but, trust me, it's him. He, too, is talking on a phone with wires! Unreal, a conversation between two people, both on a land line. Does that ever happen any more?
0:30 -- Ah, leather clad arm guy is saying he's from the Baseball Writers Association and he just asked for a million dollars from Barry Bonds, presumably implying that Bonds bribed his way to the MVP award. This, friends, is an ol' fashioned prank phone call, a true sign that this video took place in 1993 because the Jerky Boys were considered high comedy at this point. Sad to see those fellas obsoleted by things like caller ID and texting. They never did adapt, did they?
0:42 -- Phone hangs up, camera zooms in, leather jacket guy turns around and...GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY!! THAT'S KEITH OLBERMANN!! And his upper lip is being devoured by some sort of lip face-eating caterpillar. I'd make fun of his center part, but I think I made fun of it back in 1993, too. Some of us took longer to leave the 80's behind than others did.
0:50 -- ESPN2 was meant to appeal to younger fans, a hipper audience. In 1993, I was that younger fan (my hipness was arguable). I'm pretty sure the saxophone solo they use as theme music to start the show wasn't on any of my tapes or CD's back then. Also, you gotta love the generic, anonymous silhouettes of BASEBALL PLAYER X, and FOOTBALL PLAYER Y, and the amazing aerial skills of DUNKER Z. It was 1993. You did have Bonds, Barry Sanders, and Michael Jordan in their primes then. Just saying.
1:07 -- Another "watch us be cool" staple -- the proper names started with lowercase letters. For some reason, ESPN2 thought that the really cool kids expressed themselves by not capitalizing their words. Not just that, but the really rebellious ones would stick an ill-shaped, capital letter in the MIDDLE of the word for no fucking reason at all. "Yeah, that's right...how's that capital O shaped like a diamond in the middle of spOrtsnight taste, bitch?!"
1:20 -- You want a real, fly-by-the-seat of your pants feeling? How about we start the camera in the hallway and go with the first person point of view of walking into the studio and setting up shop? (This method of shooting a sports show is POV porn's incredibly boring, dorky third cousin.)
1:26 -- But wait, this is black and white...this isn't hip...
1:28 -- Whoooaaa, now it's color...TOTALLY hip....
1:30 -- We see that the show is hosted by the aforementioned leather jacket class Olbermann, whose douchiness was suffocating even back then, and a young, frisky Suzy Kolber, who in this video was unknowingly a little over a decade away (and about ten hair styles) from being best known for Joe Namath drunkenly doing everything but slip her his hotel key on a Sunday night football game:
1:32 -- All lowercase letters for Keith and Suzy. Oops, sorry....keith and suzy. I feel cool just watching this!
1:55 -- suzy describes spOrtsnight as a more progressive look at sports, including sports that "[she] and I might get into on our off days." You mean ESPN2, oops, I mean espn2, had a show about binge drinking in 1993? How did I miss this?
2:05 -- keith teases a feature coming up on Charles Barkley (who I swear looks like Tim Hardaway's identical twin in that shot) being made into a comic book hero by some comic book illustrator. You know what that is? That's fucking progressive, people!
2:20 -- From there, suzy teases a story about the whacky spOrtsnight crew trying to to engage former 49er safety Dwight Hicks in some sort of fighter plane aerial assault. Um, I'm pretty sure I didn't do that on my off days.
2:45 -- More teases! keith says that we will take an in-depth look at the new catch phrase that is sweeping the nation. Yes, we will go coast to coast to measure the seismic impact of "WHOOMP, THERE IT IS!" Riveting stuff. At this point, the annoying Zombie Nation crap they play at Penn State after a sack was a mere twinkle in our collective eye.
3:24 -- We start into the Barry Bonds feature and suzy tells us that "even with all of his accolades, it doesn't seem like the media and the fans really embrace Barry B." (Barry B....very progressive sounding.) Yes, back in 1993, Bonds' douchebaggery was still very much in its discovery phase, to the point where society choosing not to embrace him was actually still a story. At least, a story worthy of coverage on spOrtsnight. (Also, from this angle, you get an excellent shot of the wall of hair shielding the left side of suzy's face. She is like a completely different person.)
4:20 -- It's keith's turn in the 1993 National League MVP debate, and suzy, keith will see your Barry B and raise you a Len Dykstra! Yes, that's right, back-to-back future felons at the top of the 1993 MVP balloting! Back then, Dykstra was apparently "Len," not "Lenny," so in addition to being the first man to convince Washington Mutual to lend him $13 million while having a mouth full of Red Man, he is also the first adult to actually add the long "e" sound to the end of his first name later on in life, not subtract it.
4:25 -- After listing all of Len's statistical accomplishments, keith concedes that Len "does spit a lot." Oh 1993 Keith, if only I could tell you about so many more of Len's flaws, and by flaws I mean scams and failed business ventures.
4:45 -- keith asks us to consider these "unpublicized numbers" -- only twice all year did he go longer than two games without a hit, and only twice did he go more than three games without scoring a run. Let's be clear, the only reason these numbers were "unpublicized" is because at that point Tim Kurkjian was still a local columnist. If Kurky were on ESPN, he'd have been dorking out over Dykstra's 1993 season on Baseball Tonight nightly, pants around ankles.
5:15 -- The two co-hosts engage in some supremely awkward banter over the qualifications of Dykstra over Bonds, keith bringing up actual tactical advantages Bonds had batting in the Giants lineup, and Suzy dropping some empty rhetoric about Dykstra being "blue collar" and Bonds being a "hot dog." If you look closely you can actually see the thought bubble over keith's head, and it says "Why did I say YES to this gig? WHY?!?"
5:34 -- Excellent awkward transition by keith, from "blue collar" Dykstra to "blue collar" John Daly. Can I just say, at this point in the video, how ridiculous keith's leather jacket looks? I mean, he looks like he's getting ready to leave, the WHOLE TIME. This was supposed to be edgy content, and it feels like an infomercial with one of those awkward couples that own a real estate agency together.
5:40 -- John Daly suspension story, proving that this shit has been going on with him forever. Even better, this story is about him playing in the Mexico Open, which sounds like some made-up tournament that wound up on the cutting room floor for the sequel to Tin Cup.
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As much as I've just torn this clip apart, to their credit, I would pay good money to watch the 2012 versions of Olbermann and Kolber redo this six minutes of talk to discuss the 2012 versions of Bonds, Dykstra, and Daly.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.