- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

Credit ESPN for a healthy dose of fortitude.

The last year has been more than a bit choppy for the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” The network’s “Season On the Brink” with Brian Dennehy brought scores of negative reviews, inflamed by Dennehy’s over-the-top, ultra-profane portrayal of Bobby Knight.

The hotly debated Rush Limbaugh experiment on “Sunday NFL Countdown” exploded after just a month because of his comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. And despite strong ratings, ESPN’s original drama series “Playmakers” has drawn open scorn from nearly everyone connected to major pro sports, most notably NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, for its hyper-realistic depiction of sex, drugs and violence in pro football.

Rather than become gunshy, ESPN is coming out firing again with “Cold Pizza,” a two-hour morning show set to debut tomorrow on ESPN2.

The new show, described as a sort of sports-themed morning show for men, seeks to break many of the established rules of sunrise TV. There will be little in the way of standard game highlights. Weather forecasts will play a minimal role. And forget about traffic updates.

Instead, “Cold Pizza” intends to strike a delicate balance between hard-core sports talk, entertainment and lifestyle features, how-to and new gadget segments, and athlete and celebrity interviews. The show will air from a set near New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“One thing missing from the morning is fun,” said Brian Donlon, coordinating producer for “Cold Pizza.” “It’s just not as fun as it should be. That’s what we intend to re-inject into the morning. That time of day needs a bit of different sensibility, and this offers us the chance to create a signature show for ESPN2.”

That latter part should not be much of a stretch. Despite 10 years of success and near-equal distribution as ESPN, ESPN2 has been and remains a sort of dump-off channel when ESPN’s programming lineup gets overbooked. ESPN2’s current morning lineup typically consists of scarcely watched fitness programs, outdoors shows and replays of second-tier events such as billiards and poker.

The more difficult trick will be establishing a clear identity attractive to viewers, particularly advertiser-coveted young males. Donlon says he believes morning TV has become “too feminine.” But early shows of the still-evolving “Cold Pizza” will have segments on fashion, relationships, and a kitchen studio set, all elements skewing more toward women. Early comments on “Cold Pizza” have attempted to link the show to Fox Sports Net’s ultra-male “Best Damn Sports Show Period,” but ESPN executives insist the shows have few similarities.

Furthermore, the current battle lines of morning TV are well honed, and viewership patterns are heavily driven by habit. There is “SportsCenter” on ESPN for highlights. ESPNEWS for a faster version of that. Local affiliates for local news, traffic and weather. Network shows such as “Today” and “Good Morning America” for a more global perspective with a splash of entertainment. And all of these shows operate at a break-neck pace because most morning TV viewers watch 20 or fewer minutes of their chosen show.

“Cold Pizza,” conversely, is trying to create a hybrid between fast-paced information and the slower-paced, wide-angled talk of later morning shows such as “Live with Regis and Kelly.”

“This will be different than anything anyone has seen in the morning,” said Jay Crawford, “Cold Pizza” co-host. “If you’re trying to just see a sports show because it’s ESPN, you’ve got the wrong idea. Sports is absolutely part of it, but we all have other interests than just sports.”

The primary “Cold Pizza” talent, a mix of veterans from local TV, and numerous major cable outlets, further blurs the lines between sports, news and Hollywood-style entertainment. Thea Andrews, a reporter for “Cold Pizza,” moonlights as an actress, and plays Samantha Lovett on “Playmakers.” Andrews’ character on that show, also a journalist, is said by the Cougars players to do her best reporting on her back.

Former NBA star Darryl Dawkins will have a weekly segment entitled “A Visit from Lovetron,” a sort of homage to the colorful Dawkins’ self-proclaimed home planet.

Given the lethargic ESPN2 programming it is replacing, “Cold Pizza” is primed for quick approval from the network’s corporate leadership. And from there, the temptation will be heavy to compare the show head-to-head with its competitors.

“We want everybody to watch the show,” Donlon said. “Men, women, dogs, goldfish — anybody with a Nielsen box. We want them all.”

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