After 'Who's Now,' question for ESPN is 'What's Next?'

This is a command performance column -- the command having been issued by the hundreds of viewers who asked me to say something about the Who's Now segments that ran on SportsCenter throughout July. No single topic has ever drawn the volume and intensity of unsolicited complaints to either my or my predecessor's mailbox that this sports popularity contest has. On the other hand, the Who's Now elimination tournament to determine the "Ultimate Sport Star" was one of the most trafficked user-participation features ever posted on ESPN.com.

"I feel dumber after watching the segment," wrote one viewer, who said Who's Now had finally cured his "addiction to ESPN." So many viewers wrote me claiming a similar cure that Who's Now began to seem like a sports addict's Lourdes. Yet in the final balloting that pitted golfer Tiger Woods against basketball's LeBron James, 370,270 votes were cast, anointing Tiger the "most 'Now.'"

Nearly 5,000,000 votes were cast throughout the Who's Now tournament, but no one can say how many voters actually watched the daily five- to nine-minute SportsCenter segments in which panels of ESPN analysts and Hollywood stars debated the relative merits of individual swimmers and quarterbacks, skateboarders and soccer stars, on the basis of both on-field performance and off-the-field "buzz." Voters may simply have gone straight to ESPN.com, seen the pairings and clicked on their choices.

Similarly, there is no valid way to extrapolate from either the volume of criticism or the volume of votes whether this contest drew more people to SportsCenter than it drove away. What I think one can conclude, though, is that Who's Now cracked open a huge divide within ESPN's audience. Judging from my mail, the gap is not one of age, and I do not think it can simply be described as one between casual and serious fans, either. "Casual" is as hard to define as "Now."

I think the word that most divided people was "buzz" -- the designated term during Who's Now for an athlete's pop culture status. In the segment's graphics displays, voiceovers and discussions, producers and panelists seemed to define buzz as the technoid hum of money, media celebrity and sex appeal, as if that were the zero sum of popular culture. Which was buzzier -- a Super Bowl quarterback hosting "Saturday Night Live" or an Olympic gold medal swimmer posing for "Playboy"? The divide was between viewers who thought it was fun to have that question "debated" on SportsCenter and those who found it silly but no fun at all.

No one will be surprised to find me on the no-fun side of the aisle, but what matters now is the divide itself and what SportsCenter executives think about it.

The executive who supervised the Who's Now series was Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating producer for the 6 p.m. and weekend morning editions of SportsCenter. Jacobs said the idea of mixing and matching athletes from different sports in a fan-voting contest originally came from a highlight supervisor: "We -- the SportsCenter management team -- thought it sounded like a fun way to actively involve our fans. We liked the idea of combining on- and off-the-field performance, and then we threw in a little pop culture, because we believe that is how people consume sports today. People don't pay attention to sports just 'between the lines.'"

Asked how divided he thought the SportsCenter's audience was over Who's Now, Jacobs said, "We don't really know. We clearly went into this with the belief that a majority of our audience is interested in both on the field and off. I don't think there is just one person reading about Tom Brady's personal life in 'Us Weekly.' I think there's a large number of people who care about Tom Brady and Gisele [Bundchen]."

What does he make of the criticism that has been leveled at the segment in the mainstream press, online and over sports radio?

"I think in this case there is a disconnect between our critics and some of our fans," he said. "There are certainly some fans who haven't liked it, and I respect that, but some of this negative response has also been driven by media critics."

Did the criticism provoke discussion or reconsideration of the impact the segment might have on SportsCenter?

"Yes," said Jacobs, "but not once did anyone say we should stop it. I heard much more of people in conversation saying, 'If we had to make the decision again, we would certainly do it again.'"

Any regrets?

"I'm not sure we know enough yet," Jacobs answered. "It's not defiance of criticism. We just don't know what the percentages really are. The only thing that matters is what we believe will make people watch SportsCenter more often and longer. Our goal is to make SportsCenter better all the time, and the only way to do that is to take some risks."

Any worries about taking risks with SportsCenter's news credibility?

"You're asking the wrong person, because I worry about everything," he said. "But as someone who lives and breathes SportsCenter, I am extremely proud of our coverage over the last month. I think we have done top-notch reporting and analysis on Michael Vick, on [Tim] Donaghy, on the [Kevin] Garnett trade, on the NFL camp openings, on the baseball trade deadline.

"SportsCenter is a big tent. And I think our audience is really smart. They can draw the distinction between when we are covering Michael Vick and when we are having Mike and Mike dance with the Grambling Marching Band," he said.

Jacobs' last remark referred to another risk taken with SportsCenter last month -- having Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic of ESPN's "Mike and Mike in the Morning" radio show serve as anchors for the 6 p.m. SportsCenter on July 23. I tuned in that evening, interested to see how the duo would behave as anchors on a day when the top news stories included breaking news on the NFL commissioner's suspension of Vick and the NBA referee gambling scandal. Mike Greenberg, a former anchor, read the news in a professional manner and then joined "co-anchor" Mike Golic in passing opinion upon it, thus utterly blurring the distinction between anchor and commentator.

It wasn't their fault. Much of that SportsCenter was spent promoting their morning show, and they were doing what they were asked to do, just be Mike and Mike.

Still, many viewers wondered, as I did, if this was a sign of what's next on SportsCenter.

"It was not a sign of anything other than we wanted to try something we thought would be fun," said Jacobs.

That fun came at a cost.

"I'm confused by the July 23 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter," wrote a viewer from Oklahoma. "I thoroughly enjoy Mike and Mike's radio show, the simulcast on television and most other things they do. However, SportsCenter is where I, and many others, get my news, highlights, etc. I don't find it the appropriate forum for opinion and antics."

A viewer from Massachusetts, who also enjoys Mike and Mike on radio, thought having "two desk anchors on SportsCenter not be objective can only inflate the perception or reality of the show's subjective reporting."

Like Who's Now, the Mike and Mike anchoring stunt exposed an audience divide of clear significance but uncertain proportion. Both experiments took serious risks with the confidence of viewers who look to SportsCenter primarily as a news source.

"ESPN is not just taking a news story here and running with it or sensationalizing it," a viewer wrote of Who's Now. "They are simply creating a story and then reporting on it as though it is real news."

The same writer from Tampa concluded with a plea that resounded through almost all the messages I received about Who's Now: "ESPN, please try to remember that we are all looking to you to tell THE STORY (in an entertaining manner, of course) about our favorite teams, players and leagues, not for you to CREATE the story."

In recent months, several ESPN producers have said to me that the news divisions of other networks get a pass for the same kinds of gimmicks and promotions that SportsCenter gets skewered for. Other networks, for instance, routinely promote their evening reality shows by having Survivors, Idols and Bachelorettes as guests on their morning news shows, and no one raises an eyebrow anymore.

True, but that is because broadcast networks draw a far clearer distinction between their half-hour nightly news shows and their softer morning and magazine shows. It is much easier for the broadcast networks to protect the journalistic integrity of a nightly half-hour news program than it is for ESPN to protect the integrity of 12 hours of daily programming, all called by the same name: SportsCenter.

With all genuine and due respect for the SportsCenter producers who try daily to find a balance between sports news and entertainment, I think that SportsCenter's big tent is bursting at the seams from the strain of trying to reconcile irreconcilable audiences and values within one show.

I wish ESPN would consider adding to its lineup a crisp, half-hour, nightly news version of SportsCenter -- just news and highlights, without gimmicks or sponsored segments or recaps, without self- or cross-promotion, with a consistent anchor team accountable for a consistent tone, with spare to no use of instant commentary. A prime-time island of clean, clear, straightforward news on which ESPN's journalistic credibility could securely rest.

On most nights, such a show is already lurking within the expanded 60- to 90-minute editions of SportsCenter. Many viewers probably use their DVRs to seek and carve out just such a show, but ESPN's producers could do a better job of it than we can, if they would.

I know viewers can go to ESPNEWS for updated half-hour news, but ESPN is the parent channel and SportsCenter is the face of the franchise. If viewers like those who wrote me about Who's Now were provided a reliable half-hour nightly news, I suspect ESPN could take all the risks it wanted with the other editions of SportsCenter and still reduce complaints so significantly that this ombudsman could retire.