Sunday, May 23, 2004

If there’s one thing that’s easy to do in sports commentary, it’s poke fun at and criticize ESPN. For all the success generated by the sports cable giant, there reliably has been a Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, “Season On the Brink” or Rush Limbaugh to serve as a lightning rod for the network’s shortcomings.

“Cold Pizza,” the unorthodox morning show on ESPN2, certainly gained its share of heat. Immediately after its October debut, critics from coast to coast excoriated the show for its wild mix of sports and political news, entertainment features, pop culture, weather and celebrity interviews.

But seven months into its life, evidence is beginning to mount that “Cold Pizza,” is both finding its way toward a successful format and engendering strong support among top ESPN executives.

To be certain, the mix of “Cold Pizza” segments day to day remains quite jarring. A rather serious 12-minute piece on Dominican baseball players forging their ages last week was followed by an uproarious send-up on pro sports history by Randy and Jason Sklar, hosts of ESPN Classic’s “Cheap Seats.” Other “Dateline”-style features clash up against video game reviews and miniature golf matches.

Every morning show, from NBC’s stalwart “The Today Show” to local gabfests, works along the same juxtaposition. The core of the TV morning show concept is to give a 30,000-foot view of the world in as little time as possible. The key difference with “Cold Pizza” is that is fighting directly against a quarter-century of hard-won, ultra-serious ESPN brand equity, built up behind mantra of manifest destiny as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

For the past few years the network slowly has attempted to develop entertainment programming and loosen its image with decidedly mixed results to date. But for all the hoopla about shows like the now-departed “Playmakers,” no ESPN vehicle is on the front lines of this quest more than “Cold Pizza.”

“It’s really very interesting to watch this show evolve now,” said Robert Thompson, Syracuse University professor of television and pop culture. “It’s almost like watching monkeys come out of the trees, begin to stand erect and learn how to use tools. In the early days of cable, everyone expected each channel would be very specialized, dedicated streams of constant information, almost like water coming out of a tap. But folks like ESPN, certainly like MTV, have found that a more traditional, broader model of programming works best.”

So what’s changed on “Cold Pizza” since the bumpy October debut? First and foremost, the three lead anchors — Jay Crawford, Kit Hoover and Thea Andrews — have grown visibly more comfortable. Morning shows typically succeed or fail on the affinity viewers have with their hosts, and producers of “Cold Pizza” have boosted their efforts to spotlight the group.

Irreverence also remains a key guiding principle, but the show appears to worry less about being quirky for its own sake and more about putting on some genuinely fun segments. A piece aired during spring training brought on a New York Yankees beat writer and a professional clown to debate the oft-repeated line of the Yankees’ atmosphere being a circus.

At the same time, some serious respect has entered the equation. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is constantly peppered with TV interview requests, deliberately sought out the show to talk about his crusade for boxing reform.

And perhaps most important, the show has been given steady nods of support from Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president for programming and production. Shapiro told Brian Donlon, “Cold Pizza” coordinating producer and a veteran of CBS’ troubled “The Early Show,” not to worry about ratings for the first year — a good thing considering that they remain about 250,000 viewers a day. Shapiro also has said he’s planning to see “Cold Pizza” on the air for 25 years and not entirely in jest.

“Every day this is getting a little better,” Donlon said. “I’m not sure ESPN realized initially how hard it was to put something like this together. We’re trying to pack in a lot of different elements, bring in different voices than what typical ESPN viewers would expect. We’re trying to zig when everyone else zags.”

Some elements, however, still don’t hit the mark. Rapid-pace debates on baseball issues of the day between Jim Bowden and Jon Warden mimic the generally insufferable shoutfests seen on at least a dozen other programs. That segment even uses the boilerplate buzzer to prompt the pair to move on to the next topic. Standard fare interviews with Hollywood actors and musicians, though occasionally lively, also do little to distinguish the program.

“Every week we’ll do about 60 segments,” Donlon said. “Twenty will be really great, 20 will be OK, 10 will have missed the mark a little and 10 we’ll maybe wish we hadn’t done. That percentage may not change. But I have no doubt the overall quality will.”

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