What should a sports recap show be in 2012? 

What should a sports recap show be in 2012? 

A few weeks ago I was watching the Sports Night episode “The Apology,” which features a scene in which novice producer Jeremy Goodwin is assigned to assemble his first-ever package of highlights from a Major League Baseball game. Jeremy has trouble getting his cut down to the requisite 30-40 seconds, because he wants to include every foul ball from the first at-bat—an at-bat that ended in a groundout—as well as several atmospheric elements, like a moment where a batter tapped the dirt off his shoe and spat. The top plays and the final score alone don’t capture the entire battle of the Cubs versus the Marlins. “The storm clouds are gathering!” Jeremy explains.

Sports Night writer-producer Aaron Sorkin means this scene to be an example of how a romantic sports fan like Jeremy is something of a misfit, even among the sports fans who put together a nightly highlights show. But watching “The Apology,” I kept thinking: Man, I would watch the hell out of Jeremy’s version of Sports Night.

I’ve written before about my dissatisfaction with ESPN and SportsCenter, and with sports broadcasting in general, for mucking up what should be the slam-dunk job of showing, explaining, and summarizing games, without a lot of extraneous bluster. I’ve also hailed MLB Network and its more analytical studio shows for doing at least some of what Jeremy Goodwin would prefer, by sometimes dedicating several minutes of airtime to a single at-bat or a single play, explaining the mechanics of it all, and how it affects the game as a whole. My fondest wish is for a daily sports show—all sports, not just baseball—as informative and fun as the best of MLBN.

NBC Sports Network’s new weekday morning show The ‘Lights isn’t exactly what I’m looking for, but there is something fresh(ish) about it. Launched immediately after the Olympics, The ‘Lights aims to be an improvement on the ordinary highlights show, offering a concise recap of the previous day’s games, surrounded with as much as information as the screen can hold. During the Olympics, commercials for The ‘Lights touted the show as offering “all the sports in half the time,” by “letting the highlights do the talking.” The implication? Nothing unnecessary here; just clips, scores, and stats.

And that’s mostly so. The ‘Lights runs for two hours every Monday through Friday morning, repeating the same 20-minute program six times (though minus commercials, it’s more like a 16-minute program, with a break in the middle). It’s a brisk show that does more or less what it promises: just highlights, catching sports fans up on everything significant that happened the day before. 

The innovation of The ‘Lights—small but notable—is the way the show uses the screen. Ever since TVs started getting bigger and clearer, news and sports programs have looked for ways to fill all the extra space. Producers have added info-crawls at the bottom, and “up next” listings on the side, and pop-up graphics here and there. The ‘Lights has all of that and more. Take, for example, a typical baseball game recap. With SportsCenter on ESPN or Quick Pitch on MLB Network, the highlights run, and then the show’s host may throw to a brief post-game interview, and a screen with relevant stats, like the box score, the divisional standings, and a team’s recent trends. The ‘Lights dispenses with the throw. The highlights run constantly, filling up about two-thirds of the screen, framed by the usual graphics—a crawl, an “up next,” today’s date and time, etc.—along with the other data that used to be relegated to its own screens. Even the post-game interviews shown on The ‘Lights pop up in a box on the side of the screen, while the highlights roll on. (Also in that little corner from time to time: tweets about the games from athletes and celebrities.) According to what I’ve read, this kind of no-wasted-space presentation on a sports-highlights show is common in Europe; if so, it’s a good model for the U.S. to copy.

But The ‘Lights doesn’t innovate anywhere near as much as it could. It still backs video clips with the same generic chugging guitar soundtrack that nearly every sports-highlights show uses—the one that gets cut abruptly if there’s “sad news” or “a scary moment yesterday.” The organization of The ‘Lights is familiar, too, with the big game of the previous day followed by a hunk of highlights from one sport (baseball right now), a snippet of another sport, and then another hunk of highlights from the first sport. Even the statistics and data that have been crammed onto the screen are largely conventional: golf leaderboards, baseball wild-card races, quarterback yardage, and the like. There’s not much here for real stat-heads.

The ‘Lights’ biggest concession to the norm, though, is its use of a host. It’s just the voice of a host, granted, but MLB Network’s Quick Pitch has shown that highlights work just fine when narrated exclusively by the TV and radio announcers who called the original game. Quick Pitch only does this a few times an episode, but honestly, that whole show could be “found audio” and it’d be fine. And the same is true of The ‘Lights, which uses original audio roughly once or twice per highlight, relying on noted boxing announcer David Diamante to fill in the rest of the story. And this being a post-SportsCenter world, Diamante throws in the occasional comment or catchphrase—like saying “whole lotta glove” when a fielder makes a great play. The effect is reminiscent of the old CNN Headline Sports of the ’90s, when Van Earl Wright would breathlessly growl and yelp over a rapid-fire package of video clips for a couple of minutes every half-hour.

Give The ‘Lights credit: It serves its purpose, which is to supplant the morning SportsCenter by giving sports fans the kind of clear, illustrated rundown that ESPN apparently considers to be a waste of its time and talent these days. And for people who are eating breakfast, or running on a treadmill at the gym, or sitting in an airport waiting to fly out on a business trip, The ‘Lights is vastly superior to watching ESPN’s massive army of anchors, reporters, and commentators bloviate. It’s a step in the right direction, even if it’s just adding some technological bells and whistles to an old-fashioned highlights show.

Yet there’s still room for something truly new, even in the realm of breezy re-packagings of yesterday’s footage. More actual, informed analysis would be welcome on any sports program, and wouldn’t necessarily interrupt the flow of a show like The ‘Lights. Skip the post-game interview and the tweets; insert some unexpectedly telling stats and a few words from someone who can properly explain them.

Barring that, it’d be great if highlights shows went back to trying to tell stories, in the tradition of NFL Films, or Howard Cosell. Sports reportage has given us some of the best writing of the past century, as writers have converted games into gripping drama, complete with larger-than-life characters and remarkable twists of fate. Maybe The ‘Lights is the wrong venue for that kind of approach to sports—or maybe it’s just right, provided it could run longer than 16 minutes—but someone in the broadcasting business right now should be thinking about the next great way to capture an audience that’s already fanatically devoted to the subject.

Sports has been Nielsen-proof, for the most part; while viewership has been going down for most TV shows, the numbers for sports broadcasts have largely held steady or risen. And historically, sports shows have pioneered new technologies and storytelling techniques to TV. How great would it be to start each day with a sports highlights show as intense and exciting as an episode of Game Of Thrones? Just picture it: “Falcons. Saints. Week 13. The storm clouds are gathering.”

Let’s go to the videotape.