'New American Sportsman' needs to adjust its scope

Friday, October 18, 2002

The "New American Sportsman" aired its sixth episode Monday on ESPN2. I haven't seen all the shows, but I've had a mixed reaction to the programs I have watched.

That's probably because I grew up thinking Curt Gowdy "was" the American Sportsman. To people like me, the original American Sportsman was the television entertainment equal of "I Love Lucy" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

It takes a lot of nerve to revive a classic. Comparisons to the original are inevitable. Congratulations to ESPN for having enough nerve to air a 60-minute outdoor show on prime time.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to interview Gowdy, and he agreed that an outdoor show with "American Sportsman" production qualities aired by a major network on prime time would draw a strong audience. We may have been wrong.

Though the "New American Sportsman" and the two outdoor shows in the block that follow it gained 37 percent in the ratings within two weeks of the Sept. 9 debut, the latest rating share was only 2.6. That means fewer than 200,000 households are tuning in.

The folks at ESPN couldn't tell me what kind of ratings the original "American Sportsman" drew, but it aired on Saturday afternoons during an era when it had no competition other than poorly done local fishing shows.

Nowadays, you can watch hours of fishing and hunting shows on Saturdays and Sundays, and there's even a channel dedicated to outdoor shows. For the most part, outdoor shows are much better than they used to be. The camera work has improved, but content and scripting of most shows could still use some help.

Where the "New American Sportsman" differs from other shows of its ilk is in production values and scripting. The introduction, which host Rick Schroeder does from the streets of New York, is brilliant.

Since this is the first season, I'm willing to cut ESPN some slack when they do something like last week's show. San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan goes home to St. Croix to fish for marlin. Duncan apparently has only one day to devote to fishing, which is terrible planning. The weather is rough. Both Duncan and his wife get seasick. There are no fish. The short segment is not good television.

Gowdy told me years ago that the original "American Sportsman" would not hesitate to pull the plug on a segment that didn't work. The "New American Sportsman" should be diligent in that regard and maybe, with experience, they will be.

In the meantime, they should forget about darting animals. The debut segment featured darting a rhino in Africa, another segment has shown an actor darting an African lion and there's an upcoming show on darting an elephant and fitting it with a tracking collar.

You can watch that sort of research done better on Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. Unless you're telling me what the research reveals or how sportsmen are funding it, I don't need that stuff on the "New American Sportsman."

It's legal in some African countries to hunt lions and elephants, and the exorbitant trophy fees are being used to curtail poaching and pay local villagers a stipend that makes large, disagreeable neighbors easier to abide.

If a hunting show features lions, elephants and rhinos, it should explain how poaching for ivory and rhino horns conflicts with livestock, the expanding human population and how diminishing habitat threatens wildlife.

The viewing public may not be a quick study, but celebrity athletes and actors think the "New American Sportsman" is a hit. Mike Antinoro, senior coordinating producer, said ESPN has received numerous calls and e-mails from agents trying to book their clients on the show.

"We don't just pick guests for their celebrity status," said Antinoro. "They're excited about what they do for fun, and that translates to compelling television."

One other tip for ESPN. If you're serious about reviving a classic, don't put it in a viewing block with "Fish On," a saltwater fishing show that features three beautiful women in skimpy bikinis fighting fish.

"Fish On" has good camera work and editing, but I haven't seen a single show where the women were dressed for cool weather and I don't expect to see one. Both Antinoro and George McNeilly, director of communications for ESPN Outdoors, said the sports network is trying to attract a different audience with "Fish On."

In that case, they need to put it in a block with The Best Damn Sports Show Period.

Jiggle-and-giggle fishing probably works fine with arrested adolescent sports fans, but lumping it with the "New American Sportsman" demeans an outdoor classic that takes itself seriously.

Ray Sasser is the outdoors columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

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