Originally created 03/09/99

Show has critics' praise, but needs more viewers

Spend enough time with television and you will become suspicious of most things about the medium, including the numbingly familiar campaigns to save another supposedly worthy series and the proclamations that such-and-such a program is bending the rules of TV in fascinating ways.

So you can imagine my queasiness at saying this: Sports Night (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on WJBF-TV Channel 6), ABC's frequently praised but less frequently watched first-year hybrid of comedy and drama, needs and deserves many more viewers. It is as interesting and rewarding as any show on TV, the season's best new series and one of TV's finest live-action, as opposed to animated, sitcoms.

With 16 episodes aired, Sports Night does not yet need the praise, just the people to watch it. There is, it seems, the beginning of a groundswell for the show, but the folks who supply my anecdotes are apparently not also Nielsen families. It was in 55th place in a recent week, with half as many viewers as the sixth-place Touched by an Angel.

Those who do watch find many reasons to celebrate Aaron Sorkin's ultrasavvy backstage portrait of the production of a nightly sports highlight show not unlike ESPN's SportsCenter.

There is the trademark deft, stylized, overlapping dialogue; the skill and charm of the six-person core cast making that dialogue sound, if not exactly natural, then hypernatural and right for the frenetic, backstage-at-a-TV-show world in which it exists; a visual vibrancy, with cameras that actually enter the set and angular close-ups that get tighter and tighter; and there is the almost overwhelming density of it, a near clutter of ideas and themes and stories that demonstrate that TV-series rarity -- trust in viewers' intelligence -- and make other programs look anemic by comparison.

On numbers alone, "Sports Night" would not survive to next season. That 55th-place showing is all the worse for it being nestled all season in perhaps the most nurturing spot in the ABC lineup, between the No. 28 and 10 shows, Spin City and NYPD Blue.

Still, Sports Night seems likely to be around next fall. It has the piles of critical praise, the kind of thing that has eventually translated into an audience for other slow-starting shows treated with network patience. It is on ABC, which doesn't have a lot of other options. And it is a product of Walt Disney's Touchstone Television and airs on Disney's ABC, which means the potential payoff for the company is greater.

But more viewers would definitely help the cause, and it would be a good thing for the viewers as well. This show is one answer to anybody who has ever complained about the bone-wearying formula of series television.


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