Few people looking for an ideal time slot to debut a big TV show would choose midnight on Labor Day. But to Scott Van Pelt, the longtime ESPN anchor who will launch a more personal, one-man version of "SportsCenter" Monday, it’s perfect. “SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt” will begin just minutes after the conclusion of a hotly anticipated rematch between the reigning national college football champion Ohio State Buckeyes and the Virginia Tech Hokies.
“All you can hope for is a good lead-in,” Van Pelt told International Business Times. “And we've got that.”
The date has symbolic significance, too. Sept. 7 happens to be the day ESPN first went on the air in 1979, signing on with the first episode of its flagship program, "SportsCenter." Now, with Van Pelt, the world’s biggest sports broadcaster is looking to build a new kind of show, one that starts with the same highlights but packages them differently, drawing on everything from late-night variety show-style bits to segments Van Pelt dreamed up as a radio host.
“The only mandate I've had is that I use the space I've been given, that I don't stay in the middle lane,” Van Pelt said.
The gamble, of course, is that ESPN is tinkering with a show that still works. “We're doing this, more than anything, to see what the appetite is for it,” Van Pelt said.
It Ain’t Broke, But ...
It would be hard to argue that "SportsCenter" needs to be fixed or shaken up. Though it’s a little long in the tooth, the show, particularly its 11 p.m. edition, which typically leads with a recap of a recently concluded prime-time game, still performs very well in its time slot, drawing audiences of well over 1 million.
But for a program that hits the airwaves at midnight, ratings appear to be a secondary consideration. Instead, Van Pelt and his producers are looking to build something that transcends its airtime and travels well across digital devices and the social web. “This is the conversation,” Van Pelt said. “The genius of so many of those late-night shows is those three minutes, 27 seconds the next day.”
Where those bite-size clips will come from remains unclear. Because he’ll be at the mercy of the day’s box scores and highlight reel, Van Pelt acknowledges that crafting something shareable every night will require an open mind. “Whatever organically happens that people respond to that we can revisit, we will,” Van Pelt said.
The show will look past the court, too. Segments like "Best Available Video" and "Best Thing I Saw Today" will draw from social media and YouTube.
Placing A Bet
They also will come from the sports books. While gambling and sports odds are not a frequent topic on ESPN (depending on how you view fantasy sports), they have been a fixture on Van Pelt’s radio show for years. Every Thursday, he will offer “Winners,” or picks, on NFL football games, as well as anything else that strikes his fancy, including college sports. “It's certainly in the game plan,” Van Pelt said.
While talking about sports betting is still mostly taboo among TV broadcasters -- Al Michaels, who does play-by-play on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” will occasionally refer to point spreads in the most oblique way possible -- Van Pelt does not anticipate many ruffled feathers. “People freaking bet, man,” he said.
“If people are sitting around offended by that at that hour,” he added, “then you've gotta go to bed.”
As with most shows that lean heavily on the host’s personality, Van Pelt and ESPN are going to be patient with this specialized version of "SportsCenter." “I haven't been given any directive on what the expectation is,” Van Pelt said.
That said, he knows that a certain baseline of performance is expected. “We don't want to see a hammock between 11 and 1,” he added.