The day after the United States' first reported case of mad cow disease, the sports-themed morning talk show Cold Pizza (ESPN2, weekdays, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. ET) asked the question on everyone's mind: Will this affect my next trip to the concessions stand? "Hot dogs and hamburgers are traditionally the menu choice of thousands of sports fans," explained co-anchor Kit Hoover. "But with mad cow disease striking portions of America's beef supply, how safe is it to eat traditional game-time favorites?" Hoover went on to note that beef was being recalled in some states, but rather than displaying a simple, color-coded map of the United States to show us which ones, the screen cut to a graphic featuring the logos of the six NBA and three NHL teams located in the areas affected by the recall. It was easy enough to match a basketball team to its host city—for teams like the "Los Angeles Lakers" and the "Portland Trail Blazers," the name of the city is part of the logo—but for a more casual sports fan like me, the NHL logos were far more cryptic. Thanks to the celebrity of the Mighty Ducks, I knew to be careful of beef around Anaheim, Calif., but I'll have to cross my fingers and hope I don't find myself eating a tainted footlong in "Silver Crown" or "Shark Biting Hockey Stick."
Upon first glance, Cold Pizza looks and acts like the Today show or Good Morning America. There is a busy, informal set with a news pod for in-brief stories and cozy interview nooks for the lengthier segments. The tone is light—anchors Jay Crawford and Kit Hoover's back-and-forth is reminiscent of the neutered banter you find on Live With Regis and Kelly—but, like most morning shows, the reach of the program extends to politics, business, and entertainment. All of which throws into relief the strange fact that, on Cold Pizza, every topic is filtered through the prism of sports. Thus the 2004 election merits attention when President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney get the vote out at the Sugar Bowl while the war in Iraq receives coverage when an old man tries to send baseball equipment to troops suffering from boredom. Weekend movie grosses are recast as the "Box Office Scorecard," which makes the information seem like the results of a bowling tournament. Even the otherwise straightforward news briefs are similarly altered with the bleacher bum in mind: While reporting on one of the Democratic Iowa caucus debates, Cold Pizza included a sound bite of Sen. John Kerry daring Bush to challenge him on issues of national security, and I'm convinced it's because Kerry ended his challenge with the taunt, "Bring it on!"
But after a few segments you find yourself thinking, where are all the athletes? A typical segment features a secondary source like a sports historian or a journalist or a guy who was childhood friends with Mike Tyson's cut man's sister. When coach Joe Gibbs came out of retirement to return to the Washington Redskins, Cold Pizza brought in sports psychologist Dr. Grayson Kimball and New York Post writer Paul Schwartz to explain the possible reasons behind Gibbs' return. "It's really just their passion," said Kimball. "They've been coaches their whole life. That's all they know." Schwartz concurred. "Coaching is not what they do," he said. "It's who they are." In addition to being astounded at the inanity of the commentary, I found myself wondering the obvious: why didn't the show just talk to Gibbs? C'mon Cold Pizza! Get your head in the game!
Weirdly, when Cold Pizza does feature an athlete, it's often to talk about something other than sports. New York Giants receiver Amani Toomer recently appeared on a recurring segment called the "DVD Report" to talk about the DVD release of the movie S.W.A.T. The segment set up Toomer as a big movie buff, but when Toomer was asked if he was a fan of Samuel L. Jackson (which he said he was) Toomer blanked on the name of the movie that made Jackson famous. "I thought he played a great role in … um … um … what was that?" said Toomer. "Pulp Fiction!" exclaimed Jay Crawford. Then, while discussing S.W.A.T., Toomer inadvertently undermined the need for the entire segment when he hinted that S.W.A.T. wasn't exactly worth talking about. "I didn't think it was a great movie," he said. "It was one of those movies where if you see it once, you're pretty much good." Not the most insightful commentary, but I felt sorry for the guy; asking an athlete to critique films is like asking Roger Ebert to return kickoffs.
I realize that all of this is supposed to be loose, irreverent, and fun, but loose, irreverent, and fun should be left to professionals. For years, media critics have bemoaned the fact that news is becoming more like entertainment, but Cold Pizza makes me worry that my entertainment is being ruined by news—or if not news, then a network's desperate bid to create original programming.