ESPN Employees Not Necessarily Embracing Debate On "SportsCenter"

Further changes on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” are being reported, including the possibility of phasing 20-year veteran Linda Cohn out of the highly-rated 11 PM edition.

A few weeks ago, we reported on upcoming changes to ESPN’s trademark show, “SportsCenter,” most notably, the promotion of one-year employee Lindsay Czarniak to host of the 6 PM edition.

Well, there’s a follow-up on this report via The Big Lead, whose Jason Mcintyre initially broke the news of the imminent departure of husband-and-wife Steve Berthiaume and Cindy Brunson. We’ve learned that of the two current 6 PM “SportsCenter” anchors in John Anderson and Jay Harris, Czarniak will be bumping the latter.

But don’t cry for Harris, who is going to be working alongside the many anchors on the network’s late edition of “SportsCenter.” According to The Big Lead’s Ty Duffy, the 11 PM program is “the show with the best ratings and the most sponsor interest.”

Harris will join a roster of 11 PM “SportsCenter” anchors including Stuart Scott, Scott Van Pelt, Steve Levy and John Buccigross.

But Duffy suggests that one 11 PM anchor in particular, Linda Cohn, who recently celebrated her twentieth anniversary with ESPN, is on the bubble.

“Multiple veterans, most notably Linda Cohn, could be shut out from that time slot,” he writes.

Recently, in addition to pulling late night and weekend duties on “SportsCenter,” Cohn had also been heard in the afternoon drive time slot on ESPN Radio, which had previously been held down by Doug Gottlieb until he left for CBS Sports; as of this week, the vacancy has officially been filled by former WWE commentator Jonathan Coachman.

We’re not sure which of the other installments of “SportsCenter” that Cohn will be reassigned to, or any of the other “veteran anchors” currently positioned at 11 PM that appear to be in jeopardy. Perhaps Van Pelt, who hosts his own midday program on ESPN Radio, is a possibility.

But the current incarnation of “SportsCenter” as we know it isn’t just about anchor pairings. Recently, the show has leaned more on debates and analysis. It’s no secret that the debate format has worked wonders for ESPN2’s “First Take” program. So once the daytime editions of “SportsCenter” began to lean on this device, it was only a matter of time before it started to work its way into the 6 PM and 11 PM editions of “SportsCenter” – much to the chagrin of ESPN employees behind the scenes.

“It’s a weird time to be working there,” said an ESPN mole, who also described morale at the Worldwide Leader amid the “SportsCenter” shift in direction as “low.”

“Everything is about ratings.”

Think about it: “SportsCenter” has evolved from the beloved “big show” in the 90’s to a program that asks actors their thoughts about the Jets getting blown out at home.

And keep in mind, the NFL season only lasts so long – so of course, they’ll need to come up with ways to attract viewers (or hold onto them) long-term.

But if it’s true that ESPN staffers are not taking kindly to the amount of debate elements on “SportsCenter,” I have to wonder about what the vibe is at NFL Network. Their “NFL Total Access” regularly includes debate and analysis segments – then again, they’re primarily responsible for covering one sport (you can also find Charles Davis with college football segments, as well as “Path To The Draft” programming during the spring). ESPN is supposed to be tapped into many leagues.

However, as Duffy puts it: “Viewers look at jerks ranting. They snooze through NHL lockout discussions.”

If ESPN is going to commit themselves to more live, original content on “SportsCenter,” relying heavily on debate makes for a cheap fix, at best. Certainly, they can come up with creative features that can draw viewership.

They could devote a great deal of time to athletes celebrating birthdays – the problem is, there are not 365 Tim Tebows.

They could opt for ribald segments that would pique viewer interest – and at the same time, risk losing advertisers.

So, if more debate is the route that “SportsCenter” must go, ESPN should beware of, as one Worldwide Leader insider calls it, “trying to out-‘First Take’ First Take.”

Because that would lead to incorporating Skip Bayless on “SportsCenter” – and we can’t have that, now, can we?

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