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Hoping ESPN’s new Saturday show breathes new life into an old idea

The worst curse of growing old may be the pain of remembering how good things used to be.

That thought came as a surprising revelation, once I heard about ESPN’s latest plans to invade part of ABC’s Saturday lineup.

The two-hour window, called ESPN Sports Saturday, will be anchored by the cable sportchannel’s Hannah Storm – hopefully without the attire that got colleague Tony Kornheiser so worked up – airing from 4 to 6 p.m. starting April 3.

But even as I wondered about the impact of bringing a new ESPN recap show to the network (dubbed Winner’s Bracket, it features SportsNation host Michelle Beadle and ex-NFL star Marcellus Wiley in the block’s first hour), my mind wandered to the last time I really cared about an ABC sports broadcast in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

The Wide World of Sports.

Back in the day, before SportsCenter and NCAA updates emailed directly to your iPhone, the Wide World of Sports was the place to go for a palette of sports programming so broad it sounds absurd in today’s hyper-focused media universe.

From rodeo and NASCAR to gymnastics and skiing, this show covered it all, airing as a regular series from 1961 to 1998. In fact, the Wide World of Sports opening featured footage of the worst ski jump wipeout I think I’ve ever seen, timed to coincide with the announcer dutifully intoning how the show would being you the “agony of defeat.”

So even though this ESPN move feels like it could devolve into another hyped-up cover for days old scores, reruns of ESPN documentaries and old interviews plucked from the cable channel, I found myself hoping for something more.

Certainly, the timing couldn’t be better. Sports programming is proving to be the brawny backbone of an increasingly unsteady network TV business, with NBC’s Sunday Night Football and Winter Olympics coverage providing a rare oasis of viewership for that network in a sea of fading Law & Order reruns and ill-considered programming choices.

As the approaching NCAA tournament again induces mass sick leaves and diminished productivity across the nation, we are reminded of sports’ ability to draw us all around the tube at the same time in a way few other programs that don’t feature Barack Obama or Simon Cowell can manage.

It’s also no secret that network TV types have largely given up on Saturdays. Aside from ABC’s college football games and Fox’s combo of Cops and America’s Most Wanted, networks resort to reruns to fill their Saturday programming – assuming most available viewers are hardly the sort advertisers covet.

So why wouldn’t the TV network whose corporate cousin boasts the most powerful brand in sports media find new ways to leverage that material on broadcasting’s big stage?

Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen; after two weeks of promised new material – including a new episode of Rick Reilly’s Homecoming interviews and the debut of a 30 by 30 documentary, Guru of Go – the space can’t revert to retreads and recaps.

Instead, I’d love to see an amped-up sports presence bring a bit of rebound on Saturdays with viewers and programmers, providing a great way to leverage ESPN’s best work for an audience which hasn’t necessarily gorged itself on all the multiplatform offerings of the worldwide sports leader.

It’s an old TV critic’s hope — that the networks find a way to make Saturdays relevant for viewers again. And there’s no better vehicle than quality sports shows broadcast viewers might not get to see anywhere else.

Certainly beats sitting through another CSI rerun.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at www.blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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