“Ye verily, a sampler of wonders.”
Those were the first words spoken on ESPN when the tiny Connecticut station launched on September 7, 1979. Host Lee Leonard followed with a brief introduction to the world’s first 24-hour sports network, teasing a college football preview show and the airing of two professional slow-pitch softball games. He then touted an “ESPN innovation” — “It’s going to be a big part of our future,” he declared.
“there’s lots of potential for breaking news”
The camera panned to anchor George Grande, sitting at a simple desk with a plain purple backdrop. Grande described a new show called The ESPN SportsCenter. “We’ll be filling you in on the pulse of sporting activity, not only around the country, but around the world as well,” he said. “If it takes an interview, we’ll do it. If it takes play by play, we’ll do it. If it takes commentary, we’ll do that too.”
Of course, Leonard’s prediction about SportsCenter being a big part of ESPN’s future was spot on. Over its first 30-plus years, the show set the standard for sports news programming. SportsCenter’s success made celebrities out of its anchors, with on-air talent such as Chris Berman, Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott, Linda Cohn, Robin Roberts, and Dan Patrick becoming household names.
The next in line could be Lindsay Czarniak, who last fall got the call to anchor the high-profile 6pm edition of SportsCenter. A native of Northern Virginia and a former protégé of the legendary anchor George Michael at Washington DC’s NBC-4, Czarniak will be instrumental to the program staying on top in the ultra-competitive 24-hour news cycle. The Connectivist chatted with Czarniak about a typical day in the life of a SportsCenter anchor, how the show is produced, and the ways it uses technology to stay ahead of the game.
Take me through your day. What time do you get to the office? What’s the first thing you do?
I usually get in a little bit before our morning meeting — that’s the first thing that we do as a group and when our day officially begins at 11:30. It’s myself, my co-anchor John Anderson, our producer, the coordinating producers, editors, et cetera. It’s a bunch of people in this room that are open to a very collaborative conversation about what we have available in terms of different panelists or pieces that have come off whatever has happened the day before or the big sports stories.
I usually start reading and preparing on my own a little before I come to work. I have an hour commute, so I catch up with what’s going on my device or on Colin Cowherd [radio show] to get up to date. And there are emails that we get in the morning from ESPN about what’s hot, what are the latest situations. That’s where I start.
“there’s a lot of traffic when producers are talking to us in our ear”
How much time do you have to prepare for a show?
After the meeting breaks at 12:15, then our home for the day becomes the newsroom upstairs. Compared to other shows, it’s a lengthy time between the meeting and when we go on air. The reason for that is at 6pm you’re both previewing and recapping, and there’s lots of potential for breaking news. After talking collaboratively about what things are important and how we may want to treat them, our producer will set the rundown and assign stories to the anchors. John Anderson and myself are always on at six, so we’ll figure out what are my stories for the day, what are my lead-ins. That’s when we start our writing.
Does writing take up the entire five-hour period from after the meeting until the show?
The writing lasts that whole time because on our shift in particular things can change so much because of that midday potential for breaking news or early games ending. Our script gets printed around 5:30. We walk down to the studio around 5:35. Everything is pretty firm and square at that point, but often times stuff changes and you have to roll with it and they give that to you when you get down to the show.
“we’ll have two analysts duke it out over a topic”
How much of a role does social media play in the production of the show?
In the NCAA men’s national championship game, Luke Hancock had an incredible performance for Louisville. When he was draining threes near the end of the first half I was following it on Twitter and there were a number of well-known athletes and celebrities that were tweeting about him. Obviously we’re going to be talking about Louisville and Luke Hancock on the show the next day, so why don’t we show the tweets? We do that a lot, especially if LeBron tweets or if it fits into a certain story. It’s also a really good gauge when you’re working at a national level because it helps to think about what the masses are talking about.
We use Facebook to do live fan votes on our show. It’s really cool because we’ll have two analysts duke it out over a topic and people will be able to go to Facebook and vote. It’s a great vehicle to get people involved and also to build a following for a show. You want people to feel like they’re coming to a party that they don’t want to leave. As anchors shift and change every few hours it’s important to create a dynamic where people want to continue to watch your show.
What goes on during a broadcast that as viewers we’re blissfully ignorant of?
The show is a series of blocks: the A block, the B block, the C block… And each block is a segment of the show—the amount of space between commercials. Something that happens all the time is that a story will break during our show. One of the producers will be like, “Hey, I need you to go down to B12 and I’m going to send you this wire copy, we’re going to break the story, and we’re going to do it in the next block.’ In that situation we’re also working with researchers who are down there in the studio with us. So, there’s a lot of traffic when producers are talking to us in our ear during a show. There’s only a short amount of time for them to communicate to us when we have a change coming up.
“In reality there’s probably a million things that can happen”
Describe what it’s like when news breaks during the show.
In a perfect world, in breaking news, a producer will say “Hey, here’s what’s going on. We’re going to send you information about it.” So hopefully you have enough time. You usually start with a voiceover—they’ll play video and we talk over it. If there’s wire copy, you take that information and what’s accurate according to ESPN and we’ll have it written out that way.
What are some things that could go wrong during a telecast?
In reality there’s probably a million things that can happen. If for whatever reason you go to black or there’s some sort of freeze. On a personal level, you never want to make a mistake—you always want to be on your A game. There are times when lines get crossed when we don’t see the game or the highlight before we go out there because of time. You’re going by the shot sheet with the details of video that they’ve given you and there are times that the shot sheet doesn’t match the cut. When those things do happen, you just do your best and make it work.
“it’s also challenging to stay journalistically sound”
After the show ends, do you analyze your performance, just as athletes study game film?
We normally have a post meeting, which consists of half the group from the morning meeting getting together in one of our manager’s office to break down how we think the show went. Some anchors watch the film on their own too; some may not. I usually try to do that at some point and make my own little critiques. It could be anything from ‘Here’s what I want to do better in this segment’ to ‘I hate that outfit and I will never wear it again’ or ‘Don’t ever pick that Facebook question again’.
What time is your day over at the office? Do you then go home and watch more sports?
Usually between 8:15 and 8:30 at night. Sometimes I watch more sports, but there are days when I go home and watch Mad Men or House of Cards or The Voice. You cannot have your job run your life, but we gravitate to that. There are a lot of times in free time that I end up going to games.
How much faster is the speed at which news breaks and develops compared with just a few years ago?
It’s crazy. It really is crazy. It’s not like you can necessarily just say anything. You have to be aware and smart and responsible about what you’re saying when you’re tweeting. It’s changing things positively, but it’s also challenging to stay journalistically sound. That adds to stress too. You might know something and you could easily throw it out there, but you can’t because there’s a right way to do it.