ESPN Starts Having Fun Again With 'Outside the Lines' Send-Up, 'Different World' Homage

You know who’s having a cool, stealthily viral last few months? ESPN.

Let me rephrase that, because “a stealthily viral last few months” could be interpreted as commentary on the delicate handling of a diphtheria epidemic on the network’s Bristol, CT campus. What I mean is that, on the air and in the digital realm, ESPN has returned to highlighting the parts of its brand identity that are - what’s the word I’m looking for here? - fun.

Younger audiences reared on recent-era ESPN probably won’t believe this, but there was a time when ESPN was consistently, compulsively fun. Highlights were fun. Live remotes were fun. Even “The Sports Reporters” was fun, Lupica’s presence notwithstanding. I miss that ESPN, the one that existed prior to the hot-take-over of the network by loud-talking loudheads who loud-erize every conversation.



Unfortunately for fans of the ESPN of yore, it happened around the same time highlight consumption started migrating over to digital channels. What was left for TV? Games (kind of the point of the entire endeavor), “Outside the Lines” (always excellent), highlight-clip curation via “SportsCenter” (just fine, but no longer high on the priority list), pre-game shows in which the participants either over-laugh at each other’s jokes or freeze out the person nobody likes, and TONY ROMO LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT TONY ROMO TONY ROMO IS CHAD PENNINGTON WITH BETTER MANNERS AND A TAN HE’S NO ANDY DALTON I’LL TELL YOU THAT.

(Related: I spent a whimsical and rewarding seven hours in the ER the day after the Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs in January. The waiting room TV was tuned to whichever ESPN channel hosts the day-after debates. The volume was way up high. Our healthcare system is screwed.)

I could be imagining this recent attitudinal shift, or wanting it to happen badly enough that I’m cherry-picking from among recent brand smoke signals. That said, a pair of recent ESPN clips, both obviously produced with digital-supersharability in mind, give me hope that the TV arm of the brand hasn’t been permanently hijacked by the angry-spittle set.

As the show that showcases the brand’s deep-dive reporting unit (and thus the network’s journalistic conscience), “Outside the Lines” is the single piece of ESPN programming that hasn’t evolved over the years - because it hasn’t needed to. It arrived on air fully formed and credible. Last week, however, it unveiled its first in-house investigation, in which it shone a light on the scourge of bad NCAA brackets.

I’m so used to OTL’s straightforward approach that it took a moment before I realized that the clip is a self-send-up. In it, Jeremy Schaap drops in on a host of ESPN personalities, querying them about their crummy NCAA tourney picks. The solemn narration, the quick-hit interviews - the format is classic OTL. The dissolving serious-journamalist faces, clearly, are not.

Everybody plays along in his or her own way: Scott Van Pelt doubles down on his usual deadpan, while Michelle Beadle strikes the unapologetic tone of a White House spokesperson. Attitudinally, the clip lands right where the late, great “This Is SportsCenter” ads once did. That’s a good place: “Jimmy Key? What’s he, like, 45? I could hit him.” I’m going to be rewatching these for the next six hours now.

Though the approach is very different, I’m also finding a lot to like in the various pop-culture homages dotingly created by the “SC6” gang. I don’t watch “SportsCenter” as much as I used to, because the team of physicians, life coaches and aestheticians keeping me functional has suggested that watching nine hours a day of anything isn’t healthy. In the years since I’ve been a regular viewer, “SportsCenter” has reoriented itself around the personalities of its hosts. Ergo: “SC6,” the dinner-hour “SportsCenter” that puts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith front and center.

This week, “SC6” turned its attention to the most iconic of the three credit sequences of “A Different World,” re-creating it with help from a handful of cast members (Sinbad!) and ESPN personalities. Even if you’re not a child of the 1980s, you’ll be pretty well awed by the attention to detail - not just in the facial expressions and choreography, but in the period garb. The time that went into this can probably be measured in weeks; at no point does anybody seem to be having less than - here’s that word again - great fun.

Hill and Smith aren’t done any favors by the PR description of the clip (“Michael Smith and Jemele Hill are at it again”… oh, those crazy kids!), but that’s the only nit to pick with the presentation. For the next re-creation, I’d like put in a request for one of the "Rocky III" training sequences. Thanks in advance.

I don’t know if bits like the “Outside the Lines” self-investigation or “SC6” paying tribute to the “Different World” credits will bring anyone back to ESPN’s TV arm. OTL diehards don’t need a yoo-hoo! reminder to tune in; similarly, if you dig the personalities around whom “SC6” has been built, you’re watching them regardless of whether they devote resources to a meticulous re-creation of the traffic jam from “Weekend.”

That said, the two videos cast light on what had been a dormant side of the ESPN brand, the side in which sports isn’t mere fodder for staged arguments. Here’s hoping this becomes ESPN’s default mode once anew.
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