Varnish Remover

Making the SportsCenter Team

Talent Search, produced for ESPN Inc. by Wieden & Kennedy.

Posing as a casting call for potential anchors, Talent Search, produced for SportsCenter on ESPN, is a pointed, witty put-down of sports, television, and politics.

Making no concessions for the uninformed, the spot assumes viewers are familiar with its principal players and references. Only in the setup scene does a character get a chyron ID: We’re not supposed to instantly recognize the ubiquitous SportsCenter producer who tells us that sports personalities do not automatically qualify as sports anchors. Reinforcing the idea is the first candidate–Washington Bullet Gheorghe Muresan, who, besides being the NBA’s tallest player ever, is known as one of its least articulate: The Bullets use him in an ad whose entire point is that he can’t even manage to recommend that viewers buy tickets to a Bullets game.

That Muresan has made it to the interview lineup augurs well for the man who follows him. The chyron that accompanies our first shot of this next candidate, whom we see over the shoulders of the interviewers, further lowers the bar: This is “mid-season recruitment” in progress–anyone halfway decent could break in.

The middle-aged man on the casting couch doesn’t identify himself, but he tells us that he won a gold medal in the Olympics and a Rhodes scholarship, that he played for the Knicks for 10 years, and then: “I was a U.S. senator for 18 years.” Some viewers will recognize Bill Bradley; others will know only that the candidate is a senator who used to play in the NBA. As with Muresan, you either get the reference or you don’t. The spot makes sense either way.

The interviewers share a glance–the mention of politics didn’t go down well. One of them, clearly a better talker than Bradley (and he has proof–the conspicuously inconspicuous Emmy behind his shoulder), presses on: “How about any writing experience?”

Three books, says Bradley, one of them on the best-seller list, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. There’s no pleasing the skeptics: “But no TV writing,” observes one. The political stuff doesn’t impress them, and given that they are probably making big money, why would they want their taxes reformed anyway?

A wider shot of a basketball in addition to the Emmys suggests that Bradley should be talking more about his career in sports–but he doesn’t seem to get it. The next question, “Any experience in front of an audience?” elicits mention of another political achievement. Yes, says the candidate, all wide-eyed: the keynote address to a Democratic National Convention.

The interviewer’s reaction is a sharp comment on the disconnect between popular culture and politics: “Ah,” he says, unawed. “I meant a large audience.”

Bradley concedes–but there’s a twinkle in his eye. Proof that he’s skeptical about politics? Perhaps he quit the Senate (a fact that some viewers would know) because he wanted a job in something that really mattered–like sports? The closing chyron, “This is SportsCenter,” reminds us this show gives sports an attitude. That other stuff on television–politics–is boring, long-winded; and politics vs. SportsCenter (or the State of the Union speech vs. the O.J. verdict?) is no contest.

What’s in this for Bradley? The self-deprecating, nonpolitical portrayal earns him advance exposure with what would be a hard-to-reach constituency if he ran for president in 2000. That’s Bradley’s real casting couch. For Dollar Bill, the big game is in the future, when he hopes to anchor a lot more than ESPN.