Wendy's cooks a decent hamburger. So does Burger King, and there are folks who prefer either (or both) of their offerings to McDonald's. Then again, McD's has the most customers.
A similar predicament bedevils CNN and Fox Sports Net, who on a late-nightly basis find their flame-broiled sports highlights shows trailing the category leader, ESPN's SportsCenter. "That's the power of the brand," says Steve Robinson, managing editor of CNN/SI, which produces CNN's Sports Tonight and simulcasts it on CNN/SI, the TV arm of this magazine. "There are a lot of places to go at 11 p.m. for scores and highlights. Sports Tonight has been a solid show. At the same time, the ratings have been pretty static."
Nielsen ratings for October, for example, provide an accurate snapshot of the war at 11 p.m. While SportsCenter averaged a 0.9 rating (746,000 households), Sports Tonight was a distant second with a 0.3 (220,000 homes). During the post-presidential election quagmire, CNN preempted Sports Tonight with a political discussion show, The Spin Room. As the chad-induced hiatus continued, CNN executives decided to experiment with building a better burger. When the half-hour show returned on Dec. 18, it was with a revamped, discussion-driven format.
Topics now trump highlights at Sports Tonight. Hosts Vince Cellini and Fred Hickman have emerged from behind the desk to effect a more conversational style. Across the studio former New England newsperson Kara Henderson stands next to a video monitor, reading viewer e-mail or chatting (as Cellini and Hickman also do) with the occasional caller. Meanwhile, guests, who are athletes, coaches and/or journalists, opine, often at length, on the topic of the day.
It's as if Sports Tonight has plundered the most successful aspects of CNN's "Live" franchises—Larry King Live and Talk Back Live—and tailored them to fit the talents of Cellini and Hickman. "I like it" says Hickman, who, except for two years in the '80s, has been with Sports Tonight since its inception 21 years ago. "In the early days we were very cognizant of not being opinionated. Now our knowledge matters. Our opinion matters."
Whether CNN gains ground on ESPN, only time will tell. However, after two decades of finishing second in the burger wars, how much harm can be done by tossing a spicy Cajun sandwich into the mix?