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Scott Van Pelt on new midnight SportsCenter: The key is not sucking in the first 5 minutes

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Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick made hosting SportsCenter an art. Craig Kilborn used the gig as a stepping stone to late-night fame. And a multitude of other slick and quippy hosts have contributed to the sports vernacular over the years while describing home runs and slam dunks. But none of them were formally handed their very own SportsCenter and instructed to have fun. Until now. 

On Labor Day, the day before Stephen Colbert steps behind the Late Show desk, Scott Van Pelt gets the keys to a new midnight edition of SportsCenter as the network tries to make the special showcase a destination for sports-crazed viewers who’ve just finished watching the night’s big games. The 49-year-old Van Pelt has been with the network since 2001, anchoring SportsCenter and providing expertise in a wide array of sports coverage, especially golf. But while some of his ESPN peers have aggressively pursued the fame — or notoriety — that comes with clever catchphrases, hyperbole, and convenient contrarianism (read: trolling), Van Pelt has been a reliably thoughtful and reasonable figure on television and the radio, where he filled three hours of airtime every day with Ryen Russillo until recently. In that regard, Van Pelt might be the perfect guy for ESPN to entrust with bending the format of the show without breaking it. 

The midnight show will have a slightly different look and feel, with Timbaland producing a special version of the SportsCenter theme to announce to viewers that Van Pelt’s isn’t the 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. edition of the sports-highlight show. Van Pelt spoke with EW about his new job and his mixed feelings about leaving radio. But before long, the conversation veered off topic and just became two guys talking about their favorite teams and their shared loathing of Jeffrey Maier, the New York fan who helped the Yankees beat the Orioles in 1996 when he interfered with a Derek Jeter fly ball that was subsequently ruled a home run.

That’s as mad as I’ve ever been in my life at the outcome of a sporting event,” Van Pelt says. “I think I set a record for the most times the f-bomb was used in a newsroom setting. He later worked at ESPN! I think he had some internship. I remember saying after, and I wasn’t even kidding, I’m like, ‘It’s a good thing I didn’t run into that kid because I would’ve assaulted him.’ Good god. Sports in a nutshell. Here we are yelling at each other over this thing that happened 100 years ago. We’re all older than we used to be, but there’s just something about it. Things linger with you… the games are still interesting and they’re endlessly worth discussing and remembering. That’s the reason why we get to do a show at midnight.”

Van Pelt’s midnight SportsCenter just might be a conversation worth having.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the show. You kick off on Labor Day?

SCOTT VAN PELT: Yeah, we follow the Ohio State/Virginia Tech football game. 

That’s not a bad lead-in. 

And I believe that we’re going to be the show on Mondays that follows Monday Night Football, which means we’re gifted a massive lead-in. So we just have to try not to suck in the first five minutes of the show. You know, save the sucking for later, and then maybe [people will] hang out for the end. Listen, so much of any TV success is based on where you’re positioned, and obviously following live events is huge. It means your start time won’t always be 12 o’clock on the button, but you’re going to get a big audience of sports fans.  

I assume you’re in the midst of a crunch right now, working on the show, figuring what it is and what it is not. What have you been focused on most?

It’s been really interesting to see the latitude that we’ve been charged with from on high, to look at [SportsCenter] differently, in terms of the approach and the presentation. I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it again, the 7th is the first show — it’s not the finish line. I think when you start something new, there’s this inherent danger in thinking it has to be fully formed. I look at great shows like a Daily Show as an example, and where it ended wasn’t at all where it started. It became something along the way, so we have the benefit of a template of SportsCenter that’s been used over the years, and we’ll lean on some of it, and then we’ve got the freedom to do completely different things, which is really exciting, pretty liberating, to think that you get that wiggle room. And we’ll live in that space and the stuff that works, we’ll repeat. And the stuff that we hate, we won’t do again. 

So I flip on ESPN at midnight on Labor Day or some other night. How will viewers will recognize that yours isn’t the typical SportsCenter show they’ve watched for years?

In the same way that say a Keith Olbermann made the space and the time his with his approach and his thoughts on the day, we’ll do the same. Many of the elements of SportsCenter will be similar, but we’ll take a different pass at the highlights. In other words, the 11 o’clock SportsCenter highlight would be the same one that runs at 1 o’clock in the morning, and my request was to have the ability to do it differently, something that we find more interesting about a highlight or something specific that we want to point out. You’ll see a different highlight of the same game in our hour in many cases. And we’ve got the space for some of the elements from radio that I love. I did something every day on radio called One Big Thing, which was simply taking a notion or a storyline from the day and talking about it. Well, the best example I can think of right now is something on the Redskins. Rather than just doing video of Robert Griffin, soundbite from Gruden, soundbite from one of our experts, maybe, to a degree, rip off the Daily Show, and you just grab soundbites over the course of the timeline of this, play them out, and then react to them from my perspective. This is my longwinded way of saying it will be the day in sports seen through my eyes and the eyes of our staff.

You mentioned the Daily Show twice, which is not the worst model for building a show like this. That show was a view of the world through Jon Stewart’s eyes and obviously he had his own slant on things. Do you envision this show being that type of opinionated show for the sports world?

I’m really hesitant to invoke his name and that show, just because it’s so well done. Since the Daily Show‘s been on, every network has sat down in rooms and said, “Let’s just do the Daily Show with sports.” Well, good luck. First of all, you need Jon Stewart. There’s one of him. But your question was about opinion. Well, I won’t shy away from what I think about things. Had we been on throughout the bulk of this Brady/Goodell NFL nonsense, I would’ve said what I think, which is that I think it’s preposterous. The whole thing’s insane. And I would’ve weighed in as such. 

You mentioned Olbermann, who made the SportsCenter show something special along with Dan Patrick. But I feel like ESPN has done what they could on occasion to sort of reign the anchors in, to keep them from becoming bigger stars than the show perhaps. What’s changed, if anything, in your opinion, that basically allows them to hand you this platform? 

Well, I think if you take sort of and perhaps out of what you just said, you’d be right. It was evident that was the fear, post Dan and Keith: Let’s not let any one particular or two particular people be bigger than the four letters. I guess in theory, I understand it. But I never got it, because people like who they like. And it’s not a bad thing that you have anchors that people at home want to watch and are interested in knowing what they think about things. No one ever said this to me specifically, but I think over time, the stance softened just because that that’s how people consume things. Look, they made stars out of two guys that yelled at each other on ESPN2 in the morning. They weren’t afraid to let those guys’ opinion be the star of that hour. The whole landscape of what a show is and what media is has changed in the last 10 years, hasn’t it? You know, we lost Stuart Scott, which was awful on so many different levels, and… I don’t know, I suppose [ESPN] said, “You’ve been here awhile, there are people that like you…” But the fact that they’re willing to give me this stage, so to speak, and empowered me to go be me, is pretty remarkable. Because it hasn’t been done like this before. So I try not to think about it, because if you focus too much on that, you think, “Jesus, let’s not eff this up.” 

I know you had mixed feelings about leaving the radio show.  

No doubt.  

Did you have to be persuaded?

I said, “No. No, I’m good [where I am].” Because I loved radio and loved what it was with [Ryen] Russillo. The truth is that I don’t know that Ryen and I could have continued on as it was because I think Ryen needed and deserved to make it more his own space. [But] my hand wasn’t forced. I wasn’t told to do anything. It was just, “Here’s what [SportsCenter] could be. What do you think?” And as you talk through this, and they explained elements of radio — some of the serious and some of the silly — that they wanted to create room for that in this hour, you realize that you can have the power of that brand and what SportsCenter means behind that message that reached some on radio. And as I get closer to it, I feel far more excited about it. I don’t find myself reminiscing and feeling the pangs of leaving radio. I don’t handle change well, especially as I get older, but now it’s like, “All right, here we go. This is going to be fun.” 

The press release mentions “refined desk lighting and overall positioning for a differentiated intimate feel…” 

Want me to put that in English? It just looks different. Again, my whole point was, if I’m at midnight, what’s different? If it’s just the same thing as the 11 and the 1, why are we doing it? So if the show’s going to be different content wise, heck, it ought to look different. So graphically it’s different, the lighting’s different. They could’ve just put in a big, bold font, IT LOOKS DIFFERENT. I don’t know, it’s like when you sell an apartment: Cozy lighting. That means it’s small, right? Differentiated just means it’s dark. The set is darker.  

You’ve talked about how this is not a typical late-night talk-show where you’re going to have actresses and actors as guests. But I saw you tweeted that there’s a surprise guest on opening night. Feel free to tell me who, but is that something people watching can expect: guests in some type of traditional sense?

Yes. When we sat around as a group and brainstormed, we said, “Who do we want on? Guestwise, who interests us?” Our feeling is, let’s try to get the biggest people we can. Aaron Rogers is on the first week. I figure opening week of the NFL, people will be interested in what he has to say, given who he is, how their season ended, Jordy [Nelson] getting hurt. We’re going to have Bill O’Brien on because I’ve known Bill for a long time, and I thought he’d become a star through Hard Knocks and I love the way he approaches life. I’m not trying to be coy about our first guest, but I’m just going to wait until later this week to put it out on Twitter, but it’s someone I know people who watch our [radio] show would be interested in hearing from. But just because you can get an athlete or coach or analyst on, is it worth doing, in a way that makes your show better? I don’t think guests are not important, but they’re not an absolute necessity every night to fill our time. 

What about when pop culture overlaps with sports — like the upcoming Will Smith movie about NFL concussions — is that something you’re aggressively interested in? 

Yes, for sure. That’s a great example. It’s a hot-button topic. Would we have Will Smith on to talk about it? Sure. Independent of him even being on, that could be the topic for a One Big Thing [segment]. What about this film has the NFL scared? Ought they be, et cetera? But what I’ve come to feel about the idea of pop culture and the idea of doing a highlight and making references and things of that nature is that sprinkling it in is great. It just can’t be tablespoons of it, right? I’m of the opinion that a little bit is probably a lot better than a lot. Again, I just have to be careful because this is still SportsCenter, and if you’re a guy sitting at home waiting to see highlights of the Royals game, I can’t be off on some eight-minute tangent. The show is at its core who won today and why and how, and that tricky balance will be the ebb and flow that we’ll have to feel out as we go.

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