Keeping it real on 'Sports Night'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

"Sports Night," a series depicting what goes on behind the scenes of "Sports Night," a show that looks a lot like "SportsCenter," first aired on ABC on Sept. 22, 1998. It got rave reviews and picked up a couple of Emmy Awards, but never moved beyond the middle of the pack in the ratings. The 45th, and final, episode aired on May 16, 2000.

Sports Night
It says a lot when you can put an entire series on six DVDs.
Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and wrote much of the series, says he aimed for realism, even spending some time at the ESPN campus in Bristol. But he also, obviously, was attempting to produce a funny and compelling series that would be wildly popular.

Recently, the complete run of "Sports Night" came out in a six-disc box set. If every episode of "SportsCenter" were released in a DVD set, the box would be the size of an 18-wheeler. So that's one difference. Any others?

In Reel Life: "Sports Night" is a "SportsCenter" competitor.
In Real Life: Sorkin got the idea for the series from watching "SportsCenter" in order to wind down after a day of writing a screenplay. "You are the origin [of the series]," Sorkin told Keith Olbermann in an Esquire interview. "I sat in this hotel room for 13 months writing 'The American President.' To keep me company, I would have 'SportsCenter' on. I'd watch the Big Show four times in a row, and I thought it was the best-written show on television. It turned me into a big-time sports fan." Sorkin first thought of writing a book with themes and plots similar to "Sports Night," and then a movie. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories." Finally, he realized a TV series would be the ideal vehicle.

In Reel Life: Co-anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) has a special signal he gives to his son, to tell him that it's time to stop watching Dad on TV and go to bed.
In Real Life: "SportsCenter" anchor Chris McKendry says she doesn't have a special signal for anyone, but suspects that some of the other anchors do. "I do remember that when I was anchoring the Sunday Morning 'SportsCenter,' ['Sunday Sportsday'] my co-anchor, Jack Edwards, would sometimes make a reference to the Simsbury A's. He'd say something like, 'They're as sharp as the Simsbury A's.' That was for his son -- it was his son's Little League team."

In Reel Life: The "Sports Night" offices tend to be neat.
In Real Life: "Our cubes are messy," says McKendry. Charley Steiner, talking about the show a few years ago, said pretty much the same: "I don't see any of their tapes piled up on their desks like at our place."

In Reel Life: There's often a lot of tension and panic just before the show goes on the air.
In Real Life: "Sometimes it's like that," says ESPN's Gus Ramsey, who produced "SportsCenter" from 1994 to 1999. "Say, if we're broadcasting a game before the 11 o'clock 'SportsCenter,' and the game ends early, we might be rushed because we have to go on the air at 10:50 instead of 11. But it's not every day."

In Reel Life: There are four rundown meetings a day, starting at noon. The last one is at 10 p.m.
In Real Life: "That's overkill," says Ramsey. "For the 11 o'clock 'SportsCenter,' the first meeting of the day is at 3:30, then there's a later rundown meeting, around 7 p.m., for the coordinating producer, producer, and the people involved in building the scoreboard and graphics." At ESPN, the "talent" -- the anchors -- work in the same "pod," or four-cubicle setup, as the producers, and are pretty much discussing the show all day, hence making so many meetings unnecessary.

Chris McKendry, Kenny Mayne & Trey Wingo
All smiles on the "SportsCenter" set.
In Reel Life: There's a lot of technical talk about segments being in the "10s" and "30s" (or "10 block") and so on.
In Real Life: Each "SportsCenter" has seven segments per hour (divided by six commercial breaks), and the "10s" and "20s" terminology was lifted right from "SportsCenter," says Ramsey. Now, though, segments are called the "A's," "B's," "C's," and so on. Ramsey gave an example of why this system is useful. "Say we have the Red Sox playing the Blue Jays, and we have the highlight on page B4 (of the script/rundown) and the score on B5. If the game's running late, we can easily communicate to everyone that we're moving B4 and B5 to another specific slot in the show. And if a show is shortened, it's easy to eliminate segments."

In Reel Life: There's a real bond between Dan and Casey that goes way beyond the snappy banter.
In Real Life: "The thing that 'Sports Night' has that's so true in real life is the relationship between the co-hosts, the two-man patrol in the middle of war," Olbermann told Esquire. "Dan [Patrick] and I used to have that bunker mentality."

In Reel Life: Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey have a huge office that has a great view of the New York skyline.
In Real Life: Hollywood fantasy, according to "SportsCenter" anchors present and past. "Kenny Mayne and I sit back-to-back in a cubicle like prairie dogs!" says McKendry, who adds that seniority is the key to getting your own office. And things don't look so good for the Bristol-based anchors at ESPN. "Dan Patrick and I had cubicles that overlooked the Otis Elevator Testing Shaft," Olbermann said. "And that is when we had windows!" [Note: visitors to Bristol may notice, close to the ESPN campus, a very tall tube that looks like a grain elevator. It's not. It's where the good folks at Otis literally test elevators. That's what Olbermann's talking about.]

In Reel Life: Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) is the young, very talented and hard-working producer of "Sports Night." She's constantly on the move, giving short instructions to people as she walks through the office.
In Real Life: "When I visited ESPN, I was very impressed with a particular producer who was juggling about a hundred things at once," explained Sorkin. "She was the inspiration for casting a woman in the role of producer of 'Sports Night.' "

But things aren't quite as hectic for "SportsCenter" producers as they are for Dana. "There are a lot of people who you have to talk to," says Ramsey, including the anchors, the people who cut tapes, the folks who do core panels and other graphics, and those in charge of "bumps" (the short "coming up next" segments) and "teases" (the show's opening sequence). "But you do have time to eat dinner and watch a game for a while."

In Reel Life: Before the show goes on the air, there's a general call for the "first team" to get to the studio.
In Real Life: Doesn't happen, says McKendry. "We know when we're on the air, and we don't need to be reminded when to get to the studio. The only page you'll hear comes about 10 minutes before the show: 'Six o'clock tapes are on their way down.' That's it." There's also no "first team" (or second or third, for that matter) at "SportsCenter."

In Reel Life: Before and after almost every show, people say to each other "Good show," meaning either, "Have a good show," or "We had a good show."
In Real Life: Says McKendry, "Before the show, the producers usually say something like, 'Have a good show,' and afterward everyone thanks each other."

Sports Night
Dana (middle) is the brains of the outfit on Sports Night.
In Reel Life: The main characters spend a lot of their time talking about relationships and personal stuff. The gang is very close, not only professionally but in what little personal lives they have.
In Real Life: The "SportsCenter" staff, in Ramsey's experience, isn't this close in their personal lives. "Mostly because of volume," Ramsey explains. "We have so many people who work on a show, it's hard to know everybody and know everyone well.

"When I was doing the 11 o'clock with Dan and Keith, we were friendly, but we weren't hanging out together all time.

"A lot of the production assistants, though, live in the same apartment complexes and may hang out more together."

In Reel Life: Before the show, and during breaks, Dan and Casey are surrounded by what one web wag calls "fluffers" -- people who comb the co-anchors hair, brush their collars, and generally primp the two guys, who look perfect to begin with.
In Real Life: "We don't have 'fluffers,' " says McKendry. "The only time I had someone to help me like that (during a broadcast) was when I was covering the X Games, because it was so cold. We have makeup people, but it's done before the show."

In Reel Life: Dan and Casey need lots of help getting dressed for the show every night. They have a head wardrobe person who selects their outfits, and an assistant who delivers them.
In Real Life: "SportsCenter" anchors get dressed all by themselves, and choose what they wear each night. "We have a woman who helps us with our wardrobe," says McKendry, "but it's months in advance."

In Reel Life: Dan and Casey write their own scripts.
In Real Life: As do the "SportsCenter" anchors. "You either write it or you have nothing to say," says McKendry.

In Reel Life: Often, during breaks in the live "Sports Night" broadcast, the anchors leave the set. Other times, they work out personal problems on the set. Sometimes, they just banter.
In Real Life: "You can't leave the set because you're attached to it," says McKendry. "Your mike is connected. And in a two-minute commercial break, you don't go out and have a personal crisis, because you're focused on the work. During the two minutes, that's when you're getting your shot sheets (play-by-play rundowns) for the highlights coming up. Or changes to the show."

In Reel Life: The "Sports Night" production staff refers to commercial breaks as "c-breaks."
In Real Life: "We don't speak in code," says McKendry. "I've never heard that term before. We just say 'break.' "

In Reel Life: In the pilot episode, Casey says he's sick of reporting on the crimes committed by athletes.
In Real Life: Sorkin said this was inspired by the Latrell Sprewell choking incident. One of his friends said, "If we're not disgusted by this, we should at least give the appearance we're disgusted by it, if only for the sake of our children." Steiner said the pilot struck a chord. "I could relate to [it] because we have the same disgust as everyone else."

In Reel Life: In the pilot episode, Jeremy (Joshua Malina) comes in for an interview. He's grilled about what the Knicks must do to contend in the upcoming season, and is expected to respond with astonishing detail.
In Real Life: "That's spun from ESPN lore," says Ramsey, "about Al Jaffe, our guy in charge of hiring just about everyone. For the PAs (production assistants), the most talked-about part of the interview process is asking those type (trivia) questions. I came in as a producer, and before I met Al Jaffe, I spent two days cramming my mind full of stats and trivia. But as a producer, I didn't get any of those. I got questions about content and presentation."

Chris Berman
We don't need no stinkin' fluffers!
In Reel Life: Dan and Casey have to anchor the 2 a.m. "West Coast Update." To kill time between shows, they play poker with the gang. (Episode 10, "Shoe Money Tonight")
In Real Life: Doesn't happen, Rich Eisen told the Washington Post.

In Reel Life: Romance is always in the air -- Dana and Casey, Jeremy and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), etc. Jeremy woos Natalie by setting up a candlelit dinner (with Chinese food) at her desk. (Episode 6, "The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail")
In Real Life: "I guarantee you there are people who work here who are going out together," Eisen told the Washington Post. "But they are not having candlelit picnics in the pods, like on the show."

In Reel Life: Dana plans to go to see "The Lion King" on Broadway. In a display of total idiocy and ignorance, she doesn't realize she needs to buy tickets way in advance for the most popular show on Broadway. Somehow, though, "Sports Night"'s head honcho, Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) miraculously comes up with tickets for that day's matinee. (Episode 9, "The Quality of Mercy at 29K")
In Real Life: Alert viewers may understand why Isaac/Guillaume might have a pair of the impossible-to-get ducats. He was the voice of Rafiki the Mandrill in the 1994 Disney movie, "The Lion King," and played the role again in 1998's "Lion King II: Simba's Pride."

If Dana had worked for Disney, she could have gotten the tickets herself. The corporation allows employees to internally purchase tickets for sold-out shows.

In Reel Life: Isaac has a stroke, and is away from work for a while, but eventually returns. (Episode 19, "Eli1s Coming")
In Real Life: Guillaume had a stroke and collapsed on the "Sports Night" set. His absence from the series, and his subsequent return and recovery, were built into the script. For example, on the show, Isaac is often frustrated about how hard it is to do simple things like walk across a room, and at one point he exercises on a treadmill.

"I figured that since I hadn't died, the only way for me to go was in the opposite direction," Guillaume told Time. "Still, some days are better than others. Just picking up my legs and moving across the room requires a tremendous amount of forethought and planning." He also told Time that using a treadmill was among his rehab exercises, and that he had to undergo speech therapy.

Sports Night
The "Sports Night" crew definitely had more backstage drama than "SportsCenter".
In Reel Life: Isaac is frustrated because he can't remember the lyrics to a show tune ("How Are Things in Glocca Morra" from "Finian's Rainbow"), saying that he has a comprehensive knowledge of musicals. (Episode 38, "Celebrities")
In Real Life: Most people, when they think of Guillaume, think of Benson, the character he played on "Soap" in the 1970s, then again in the long-running spinoff, "Benson." (In that role, he won several Emmy Awards.) But he's also been a star on the stage, scoring a 1977 Tony nomination for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls." He also starred in "Porgy and Bess," "Purlie" and "Phantom of the Opera."

In Reel Life: There's a critical error in the script. The "s" in "bulging disk" is missing. This could have resulted in an embarrassing on-air mishap, but it's caught in time. ("Eli's Coming")
In Real Life: Pulled right from the "SportsCenter" misplay book. During one broadcast, a TelePrompTer typo dropped the "s" in "disk." As a result, anchor Steve Levy did say, on the air, that a player was out of action with a "bulging dik." Olbermann, co-anchoring, "was crying he was laughing so hard," Rich Eisen told the L.A. Times.

In Reel Life: Isaac hires a "ratings expert," Sam Donovan (William H. Macy). Dana leads the "Sports Night" crew in hating him, even when he improves their ratings. (Episode 25, "When Something Wicked This Way Comes")
In Real Life: This is another stumper. These folks are TV pros, are third in their time slot, and they don't think they could use some help?

Ramsey explains that this is a very unrealistic reaction to someone who's there to help lift the ratings. "We have consultants. We scrutinize the ratings every day. We have a ratings research department to help us figure out what works and what doesn't work. Just in the last year, we've made a lot of changes, and that's driven by what the ratings people tell us.

"Some people are anti-change, but obviously if the ratings are down, something's wrong. A few years ago, we started putting music under our highlights. Some people didn't like that. Now, ["SportsCenter" and other ESPN shows] would seem strange without it."

In Reel Life: Michael Jordan is scheduled to do a five-minute live interview. He wants to promote his new cologne, "Jordan." The other sports news shows won't do it, because it's clearly promotional, but "Sports Night" will. (Episode 35, "The Sweet Smell Of Air")
In Real Life: "Certainly there are PR releases about athletes being available for interviews," says Ramsey. "For example, you might get a press release saying that Peyton Manning will be on the satellite and talking about his new video game. Someone like that, you do the interview."

In Reel Life: The company mistakenly includes in its press kit instructions to Jordan to keep the interview focused on cologne. The "Sports Night" crew wants to him to talk mostly about basketball and other topics. So they set up practice interviews to try to figure out how to do this.
In Real Life: With athletes who are promoting products, says Ramsey, "You throw them a bone and ask them a question about their video game, then move on to something else. Sometimes they won't do the interview unless you agree not to discuss a certain topic. But it's highly doubtful that Jordan wouldn't talk about basketball."

Stuart Scott & Rich Eisen
When all said and done, let the pros handle the sports news.
McKendry says the practice interview scenario is bogus. "I go over my talking points and the line of questioning I want to follow with one of the producers of the show, to make sure I'm covering all the ground. But we don't role play our interviews."

In Reel Life: Dana and Sam almost get together -- but Sam ends up skipping town. (Episode 37, "And The Crowd Goes Wild")
In Real Life: Macy and Huffman have been married since 1997. He hasn't skipped town on her.

In Reel Life: CSC (Continental Sports Channel) is purchased by a company called "Quo Vadimus." Despite the poor ratings of the show-within-a-show "Sports Night," the new owner decides to keep the show on the air. (Episode 45, "Quo Vadimus")
In Real Life: The last few episodes of "Sports Night," in which the characters weren't sure whether their show would stay on the air after CSC was put up for sale, mirrored, to a certain extent, the uncertainty of "Sports Night"'s fate late in its second season.

As it turned out, ABC wasn't as patient with the "real" "Sports Night," canceling the show. There was some talk about the series being picked up by a premium cable channel (Showtime or HBO), but it never panned out. The series is now rerun on Comedy Central. The episode schedule is here.



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