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‘SportsCenter’s’ New Dynamic Duo

Today (Feb. 6), ESPN sports journalists Michael Smith and Jemele Hill will debut as hosts of SportsCenter’s 6 p.m. show, the first African-American tandem to host a regularly scheduled daily block of the iconic sports-news program. Smith and Hill, formerly hosts of ESPN2’s daily sports talk show His & Hers, spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about their new SC6 show. Here’s an edited transcript.

MCN:Will theSC6show differ much from what viewers are used to seeing from you onHis & Hers?

Michael Smith: Well, it’s not going to be as different as the switch makes it seem. I would say SportsCenter is going to be more different. We’re doing the same [His & Hers] show — it’s just going to look different. And by that I mean it will look better: better facilities, better design, better presentation and better execution. We would never for a second think that there wasn’t room for improvement on His & Hers, but the powers that be were clear that they do not want us to come and just update the news, deliver the highlights and set the table for the Duke-North Carolina game coming up after us on ESPN. They wanted us to continue doing exactly what we’d done on His & Hers practically verbatim. It’s going to be an adjustment for some hardcore viewers of SportsCenter who strictly just want the news and what happened during the day while they were at work and away from the Internet, but we’re going to be here to entertain. We think we’ll win over those who may be skeptical rather quickly.

Jemele Hill: This will be more relaxed and informal. And I think one of the things that has been a hallmark of our partnership is that we can talk about serious issues, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I think that will be the underlying sprit of this new SportsCenter.

MCN:Having said that, if there is breaking news during that time period, will the show take a more traditionalSportsCenterlook and feel?

JH: Absolutely. For those not familiar with [His & Hers], we had breaking news happening on our show all the time — our show was surely up to the minute. And we did just as good as anyone in terms of not only breaking that news, but then immediately rotating it to discussion mode. I think what will also make this SportsCenter unique is that I think we’ve seen previous SportsCenters where if some breaking news happens, then the next pivot is to an expert or to someone closely associated with that story. That’s not to say there won’t be room for us to do that, either, but we can immediately pivot into the mode of being analysts. So it’s like you’re reducing a layer that used to be there on SportsCenter. We’re not going to deviate from giving you news — His & Hers was a news-of-the-day sports show. SportsCenter will be a news-of-the-day show.

MCN:What does the transition from sports talk show hosts to hosts ofSportsCentermean to you?

MS: For us, the SportsCenter brand and what it represents to the company and to sports in general is self-explanatory, but what it means to me and Jemele is really a confirmation and a culmination of a lot of dedication. It’s also a destination that we never would have anticipated reaching in only four years when we did our first podcast. We started that podcast because nobody was falling over themselves to pair us together on television. We did it because we wanted to put our voices together and create something unique, and to think that four years later we would not only have a show but have, with all due respect, the show, which is SportsCenter — I can’t even call it a dream come true because we never dreamt it.

MCN:His & Herstackled some very hot topics on race and sports. How important is it to you to continue to do that onSportsCenter?

JH: We never shy away from those topics and issues. We do them not because we feel obligated, but because they are important to us. So that will definitely continue on [SC6]. I realize that for some of the traditional SportsCenter viewers that will be a bit of a departure to see the hosts of the actual show have opinions on those issues, but this idea that sports needs to remain completely separate from politics is a lie and has always been a lie. And I think you know by discussing some of the issues all we’re doing is bringing to light and getting a perspective on things that are relevant.

The immigration ban is as much of sports story as it is a news story because of the ties to certain Olympic athletes and the fact that most sports leagues have some kind of international base. So not surprisingly, those leagues are concerned about what it means for their athletes. We have had some of the most thoughtful conversation about race and gender, and there’s no reason that that won’t continue in that time slot.

MCN:What are the biggest challenges facing the sports news and talk genre right now?

MS: I would say fear to embrace something new and something different and fear to stay the course. In the beginning for us, how many people thought that we were hurting our viewership or we weren’t going last very long by keeping it 100, as they say. And not only did we last, but we’ve been promoted. I say all of this to say that the decision-makers have to give people an opportunity to know the talent, learn to like the talent and learn to embrace the talent, but also to encourage the on air personalities to get better at being themselves. So I guess I would just like to see more people stop trying to do what you think the viewer wants and just have the conviction to stay the course and put your on air talent in the best position to succeed.