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Keith Olbermann’s first SportsCenter producer, Norby Williamson, reflects on then and now

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ESPN Executive Vice President, Programming Norby Williamson will play a key role in Keith Olbermann’s new chapter at ESPN. The August 26 launch of the new late-night series, Olbermann (ESPN2, weekdays, 11 p.m. ET), marks Williamson’s reunion with the former SportsCenter anchor. In fact, when Olbermann joined the company in 1992, Williamson was his first SportsCenter producer. Front Row caught up with the programming executive to discuss this new initiative and reflect on those past SportsCenter days.

What makes Keith such a captivating talent?
He has tremendous editorial sophistication, knowledge and passion for sports. He can very quickly put things into historical context. He doesn’t lose the relevancy of news stories and issues in the current day, but he also can relay them backwards. He has a great sense of curiosity. That combination is rare.

Why bring Keith back now?
We’ve been talking about an ESPN2 late-night show for about a year. It’s an opportunity to create a dynamic choice opposite ESPN’s SportsCenter, similar to what we have during the day with ESPN’s SportsCenter and ESPN2’s other news and information shows. Ultimately, having Keith available and having the daypart available gave us the chance to put the two together. It allows us to create a consistent late-night companion to SportsCenter. Collectively, we think we will be able to grow the audiences on both networks.

What will be the programming impact of this new series?
We think it will do well. What we want is consistency. We have had some excellent programming in that time slot, but no consistency. What viewers will have starting August 26 is that consistency, drafting off live events. In terms of what will happen to the current programing we put there, most of it was not the original airing, so we plan to spread those shows around to make other dayparts stronger. Fortunately, we have a lot of shelf space and availability.

Norby Williamson

You mentioned drafting off live events. Can you talk a little more about that strategy?
In terms of scheduling, Olbermann’s show will use the same strategy and philosophy as the 11 p.m. ET SportsCenter. Currently, if an event ends at 10:45 p.m. for example, SportsCenter starts early at 10:45 p.m. We “draft” off live events if they go early or late. Olbermann’s debut show is a good example. We are launching the series on August 26 following US Open tennis on ESPN2.

Clearly, appointment television is challenging in today’s environment so we try to take advantage of the captive audiences we have for live events. We think that’s the best philosophy, especially in this time slot, to carry or increase our audience with the live event lead-in.

How did this come about?
I’ve known Keith for a long time. I was his first producer when he came to ESPN. At the time, Bob Ley and Dan Patrick were doing the 11 p.m. ET SportsCenter and Bob wanted a shift to daytime. (ESPN executives) John Walsh and Steve Anderson, as well as others, identified Keith as a potential anchor to fill that 11 p.m. opening. They ended up hiring him and I was producing the show. As a result, I have great respect for the passion, innovation and writing ability he brings on a daily basis.

We’ve been talking about a late-night show for a while and when he became available, he was one of the names on our list. It happened over time. During the last several months, we’ve had conversations with Keith and as part of those, it became apparent that what he wanted and what we wanted were similar and we were able to put this together.

What can viewers expect from the show?
They can expect to get smarter. We are going to dive deep and mine different angles. We plan elements of analytics mixed with sports science mixed with “Not Top 10” mixed with a little dose of strong journalism mixed with a dose of commentary and perspective.

Why produce the show from New York?
New York fits in well with our overall strategy. We have a major footprint in Los Angeles. With PTI and Around the Horn, we have a major footprint in Washington, D.C. We have a footprint in Miami with our ESPN Deportes presence and Dan Le Batard’s Highly Questionable series. We’ve been in New York at times in the past and it’s a logical extension for us to continue to sprout editorial hubs around the country.

Do you plan to use Keith on other ESPN shows or platforms?
Our plan is focus on this late-night show initially — get the show up and running — but we’d be foolish not to use him in other places down the road. Every commentator that we hire at ESPN contributes and creates content so that content can live on radio, TV, digital, or segments for other shows.

What are your recollections from producing SportsCenter when Keith originally joined ESPN in 1992?
He doesn’t drive so after we produced the shows back then, I would sometimes take him home. Since he’s in New York now, I won’t have to do that, but maybe for old time’s sake, I can drive him a few blocks in Manhattan. One thing that stands out is how on the fly, in the trenches, reacting to news, we are fortunate to have many people at ESPN who are exceptional. Mike Tirico, Bob Ley and Chris Berman are among those who excel in those situations. Keith is in that category.

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