Monday, February 08, 1999

More viewers needed for 'Sports Night'




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Got milk? Who cares? Not Dana Whitaker. She's too busy running a man's world, as boss of the all-sports newsroom on ABC's Sports Night.

        “She's passionate and loves her work. She's a wonderful leader, and very driven,” says Felicity Huffman, who plays Dana on the show (9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 9, 2).

        You'd think a comedy set in an ESPN SportsCenter-like place would attract millions more men than women. Not so for Sports Night, thanks to empowered producers Dana Whitaker and Natalie Rosen (Sabrina Lloyd) supervising sports anchors Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles).

        “Its nice to see a woman dealing in the work world, and not just dealing with relationships,” she says.

        Put it this way: Dana Whitaker isn't The Nanny. She's not the good little sitcom spouse cleaning up after a Tim Allen, Ray Romano, Bill Cosby or a D.L. Hughley.

        “I'm so lucky and so grateful ... every day when I open that script that I'm not the wife or the girlfriend going, "Honey, you forgot to pick up the milk!'”

Strong characters
        Aaron Sorkin's Sports Nights scripts are unlike anything else on TV today. His half-hour comedy feels like a one-hour drama. It's built on strong character relationships, not can-you-top-this one-liners. Sports almost are incidental.

        “Aaron just writes great stories. I think that's why anybody watches anything on TV,” she says.

        “You don't tune in ER to watch the surgery. And you don't tune in Sports Night to see what the Bengals did. You tune in because of the characters and the story lines, and Aaron does that brilliantly,” says the actress, who is married to William H. Macy (Fargo, and ER's former Dr. Morganstern).

        These little one-act plays by Mr. Sorkin also give the audience credit for following the story. Scenes often start in the middle of a running conversation, as if the characters have been discussing the problem for a while. The writer quickly gets to the emotional truth” of scenes, says director Thomas Schlamme, whose credits include ER, Chicago Hope, Friends, The Larry Sanders Show and The Wonder Years.

        “If you have to stop and do jokes all the time, then you have to stop and set up those jokes — and you're not going to get as much accomplished in an episode,” Mr. Sorkin explains.

        Sports Night is shot on film by one camera, like Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders. Adding to the realism are the sports caps, helmets, balls, media guides and memorabilia around the fictional Continental Sports Channel set. (Have you seen the bat signed by Pete Rose behind Casey's desk, or the red boxing glove autographed by Muhammad Ali? Both are fakes.)

Getting viewers
        Last week, 10.4 million Americans watched Sports Night, half the audience for Friends, TV's top comedy. Sports Night ranks No. 56 of 154 prime-time shows this season, second to CBS' Tuesday movie (No. 25), but ahead of NBC's Will & Grace (63), Fox's Guinness World Records: Primetime (73) and WB's Keri Russell drama, that other fall TV Felicity (119). The good news is that Sports Night wins ABC's target demographic, ages 18-49.

        “Ten million people is 9 million more people than saw A Few Good Men in 11/2 years on Broadway,” Mr. Sorkin says.

        To assure a long run on TV, Sports Night needs to attract a few million more good men — which could happen during summer reruns.

        “The truth is,” Mr. Schlamme says, “this show's success will come a year from now when finally every wife has forced her husband to watch a sports show.”

        Got that? Watch Sports Night. And remember to get milk.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.