Anne Marie Jeffords on Life on the Assignment Desk: "I sort of orchestrate the show, starting with the morning list from the wires, the papers, a few phone calls, tips from people I know. I have four brothers who give me ideas sometimes. I call local TV stations—ABC affiliates mostly [ESPN is 80% owned by Capital Cities/ABC]—for leads and to set up feeds on stories. I buy satellite time when the feeds are set. Busy days are the best. On a day with no news, we just start making calls. We try to remember stories we can follow up. Like, 'Hey, didn't so-and-so have pneumonia a while ago? Let's find out how he is.' So we call, and someone on the other end of the line will say, 'My god, he's been cured for months. Why are you asking about him? Get a life!' This is a nice, busy news day, thank god."
Did You Know? The ESPN headquarters and broadcast center is situated on Route 229 in the countryside near Bristol, about 20 miles west of Hartford and 85 interplanetary miles north of Manhattan. The only thing in Bristol resembling a tall building is a 383-foot-high shaftlike structure about a quarter mile from ESPN. It is an Otis Elevator Co. facility for testing the fallibility, as it were, of the company's products.
The isolation of Bristol has been a drawback for some ESPN employees over the years. When sportscaster Sal Marchiano left in 1983 after three years at ESPN, he said, "Happiness is seeing Bristol in your rearview mirror." The slow country quality appeals mainly to the married-with-children crowd. Chris Myers, 33, an anchor on the 2:30 show tonight, who moved to Bristol from ESPN's Los Angeles bureau, says, "We just had a baby, and I can get home for the 4 a.m. feeding after the show because I live only 15 minutes up the road. In L.A. I'd be driving forever. But when it snows up here, I try to pretend I'm still in L.A. That's easier said than done."
Get This! In the beginning there were only two satellite dishes stuck around the ESPN headquarters. But—Get this!—now there are 18 of them.
Get This Also! In the beginning the idea was that ESPN would do cable coverage of Connecticut sports only (the University of Connecticut and the New England Whalers), but—Get this!—today ESPN holds live TV production rights to more big-time team sports than any other national television network, broadcast or cable, has ever held at one time. ESPN aired 162 major league baseball games last season. It did 40 regular-season college football games this season and will do seven bowls and three all-star games over the next month. It is doing nine regular-season NFL games, plus the Pro Bowl. It will televise 203 NCAA men's college basketball games by the end of this season, and it will do at least 25 NHL games, plus as many as 37 postseason games, including the Stanley Cup finals.
John Walsh: The man who is credited with making SportsCenter as good as it is, is an inkstained wretch who had spent his entire journalistic career paying homage to the printed page until he was hired by ESPN in 1988 to strengthen the network's news and information programming. Walsh, at 47 not only the executive editor but also the elder statesman of the youthful ESPN crew, has an air of low-key professorial authority that serves as a soothing counterpoint to the Type A, high-tension atmosphere endemic to TV news. Having worked as an editor at Rolling Stone, Inside Sports, The Washington Post, Newsday and U.S. News & World Report, Walsh brought a freshly critical eye to SportsCenter.
He punched up the writing, which all of the anchors are required to do for themselves. He organized the show like Page One of a newspaper, with all the best stories at the top, instead of clustering items together by sport. He demanded that information be expert and sophisticated, instead of serving up the once-over-lightly, up-and-down-the-scoreboard pap that has long been typical of sports-news shows.
He says to Bill, "We say there is no subject that is too complex or too complicated to put on our news and information shows. We actually seek out the technical, the inside stuff, the subtle facts. With SportsCenter we establish a voracious appetite for expertise among our viewers and then feed it."
4:03 p.m. This is the first meeting of the day for the 11:30 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, which tonight stars Dan Patrick, a four-year ESPN veteran who is perhaps the most popular of the network's anchors after Berman, and Olbermann, who arrived at ESPN in March from KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. They are the two wittiest guys in the SportsCenter stable. They will need all the wit they can muster, because an hour-long SportsCenter is a very tough, intense and pressure-filled piece of work. Unlike the 7 p.m. show, which is built on harder news with virtually no game results or highlights, the 11:30 sticks almost exclusively to what happens during the evening's games. The show includes highlights from as many as 20 basketball, football and hockey games, some of which will not finish until after the show goes on the air.
Producer Williamson, a cherubic man with a ready smile, is another ESPN-spawned hotshot, who worked for a spell in the mailroom and once specialized in taking Dick Vitale to the airport. In stereotype he should be an intense and ambitious little monster, but in fact he is as relaxed and pleasant as a Sunday afternoon. When John asks him why he is so good at what he does, Williamson replies, "I have fun doing this. Like we got sick of seeing dunks on every highlight reel last winter, so one time we decided to do No Dunks Night. We've never not made a deadline. You have to come to play every night on this show."