A major news story was developing, but all the network had scheduled to air early the next day were replays of the previous night's SportsCenter . ESPN rushed to go live, and the results were eye-opening: Ratings shot up, even though viewers had no advance notice of the additional coverage.
ESPN has added special live programming as needed for major news events in the years since. It all culminates Monday, when the network begins airing live editions of SportsCenter from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.
Chris McKendry figures the demand is obvious after her recent experience during rehearsals for her role as co-anchor in the noon-3 slot. Twice in a few days, she was called into live duty, first for Tim Donaghy's sentencing, then for the baseball trade deadline.
Just when it seemed ESPN was everywhere, it's more than doubling the amount of live SportsCenter broadcast each weekday, from 4 hours to 10.
Success won't be measured only in ratings, said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. Instead, the gauge will be the impact on ESPN's long list of properties. Will more people view snippets of SportsCenter online during the workday now that a fresh edition airs every hour?
McKendry recalled the debate when she joined the network around the launch of ESPNEWS in 1996.
"There was a lot of fear of cannibalizing the product," she said. "We found out it didn't. Instead, it made people more addicted."
Indeed, fans can already get live coverage on ESPNEWS in the morning and early afternoon. But Williamson believes they want the SportsCenter format, with its ability to delve deeper into issues.
Unlike the nighttime SportsCenter broadcasts, which have to squeeze all the day's news into an hour, the morning and afternoon editions might devote 80 percent of the telecast to just four topics, he said.
As a particular issue is discussed, different analysts could be used from hour to hour to keep things fresh, said Hannah Storm, who joined ESPN to co-anchor the 9-noon shows.
"We're going to have the opportunity to really mix things up," she said.
The debut of the new SportsCenter editions coincides with the Olympics, which will allow ESPN to provide news and analysis of events that won't air in the U.S. until that night. Because of the time difference, competition will be ending in Beijing when SportsCenter is on the air.
While ESPN is limited by TV rights contracts on when it can televise highlights, Williamson said viewers should expect lots of in-depth coverage.
ESPN originally planned to air live editions of SportsCenter starting at 6 a.m., but the network scrapped that idea. The first 3 hours would have mainly rehashed the previous night's news, Williamson said, so continuing to broadcast replays in the slot accomplishes that goal.