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ESPN in job market

New show's prize an anchor spot

It is as if, in the 1980s, an alien empire dropped into America and seeded its offspring among the populace. Then, as the years passed, it engineered the youngsters' growth via specialized programming available only on one TV network.

Now, 20 years later, it's ready to harvest the best and brightest of this "crop" of the country's most articulate and best-looking young sports aficionados.

It all sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but, be assured, it's happening.

The first generation of American youth raised on "SportsCenter" -- the psychological sons and daughters of ESPN pioneers Chris Berman, Bob Ley, and Tom Mees -- has heard the call from the programmers and answered the call for "Dream Job," a TV show/competition in which the winner gets a one-year contract as a "SportsCenter" anchor.

"Dream Job" debuts Sunday (ESPN, 10 p.m.) and will run for six weeks, culminating with a two-hour finale March 28 (9 p.m.). "SportsCenter" anchor Stuart Scott will be host of the show.

Two of Greater Boston's own -- attorney Chris Williams of Boston, 31, brought up in the Franklin Park projects, and Nick Stevens, a Brooklyn, N.Y., comedian (via Braintree High) -- are among The Chosen. They've been summoned to New York, picked to be among the 12 most promising candidates to lead The Movement into the first decade of the 21st century.

This is what it's come to for the sports and cultural phenomenon headquartered in Bristol, Conn. The ESPN-pire has come full circle, calling home the viewers it's nurtured to take prominent roles in spreading the network's reach, which already encompasses ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPNHD, ESPN Deportes, ESPN.com, EXPN.com, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Radio, and ESPN Zone sports bars.

It's a concept that shapes up as a winner on two fronts: 1. The Empire gets six weeks of low-cost programming, and 2. It stands to reap the fruits of a nationwide talent search. After all, while the winner is guaranteed a contract, the 11 runners-up all may prove to be hirable in their own rights.

Don't doubt that it could happen. What may have started as a nice idea seems to have taken on a life of its own. Al Jaffe, ESPN's vice president for talent negotiation and production recruitment (translation: The Hiring Guy), is one of the four judges for the show. Tony Kornheiser, co-host of ESPN's acclaimed "Pardon the Interruption" and a Washington Post sports columnist, Kit Hoover, co-host of ESPN's "Cold Pizza," and Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington complete the panel. True to today's interactive TV mode, the audience also will have an online voice in determining which anchors say "aweigh" and which get dropped each week.

If there truly is a dream job among young sports fans, it's to anchor "SportsCenter," ESPN's trademark show, with its mix of news, scores, features, and highlights with a great dollop of pop culture tossed into the mix. Nearly 10,000 aspirants answered the first casting calls, held in 29 cities in September. In November, 150 were called back and the pool trimmed to 40. In December, that group had another test before being cut to the 12 finalists. If ESPN had cranked up its promotional machine, the original turnout would have swelled by a factor of 10.

"SportsCenter" has developed -- and lost -- some outstanding talent, including Rich Eisen (The NFL Network) and Keith Olbermann ("Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on MSNBC). In addition, ESPN has shown it won't break the bank to keep talent, such as recently departed Max Kellerman, boxing analyst and host of "Around the Horn."

If Williams and Stevens are indicative of the talent waiting to jump at the chance to anchor "SportsCenter," there truly is a pool of remarkably ready and capable replacements out there in front of their TV sets each night.

Williams gave up his job at Bingham & McCutchen in Boston to pursue his "Dream Job" once he made the finals. He's got a sports background: state champion (and Globe All-Scholastic) at 200 meters for Lexington High and presently a wide receiver for the Randolph Oilers of the Eastern Football League. As an undergrad at Emory University, Williams had aspirations to compete in the Olympic decathlon. A series of injuries pointed him to Georgetown Law School instead.

Lexington already has produced one "reality" TV personality. Ethan Zohn, the school's former standout soccer goalie, is back for an encore on CBS's "Survivor" after winning one season's competition.

Williams would love to duplicate that success, melding his talents into his dream job. "Law school helps hone your writing," he said. "And having a lot of facts and information in the memory banks is a must. There's no time to look down at a piece of paper when you're on camera."

He went to the casting call at Jillian's Boston only after his girlfriend told him, "You'll hate yourself afterward if you don't go."

Stevens, from Braintree, is a 30-year-old comedian living and working in Brooklyn. Why do I think "Seinfeld"? "I have a 1 in 12 chance to become a `SportsCenter' anchor. That's a long way from where I was a year ago," he said. "There are three short phrases that are guiding me these days: `Follow your dream,' `Be yourself,' and `Go for it.' "

He answered "the call" at the ESPN Zone in Times Square, standing in the sun 2 1/2 hours on a blazing hot day after his girlfriend told him he'd regret it forever if he didn't go.

"My life has been defined by the advent of cable," he said. "I remember the debut of NESN and the early days of ESPN when `SportsCenter' was shot in front of what looked like a cardboard backdrop and used only the most rudimentary graphics. This show is the chance to compete for something I want more than anything else in the world. I feel like I've been given the key to Wonka World, the chance to audition on a national stage to do what I want to do."

Stevens's father taught him basic math via point spreads. "I was quoting NFL lines, my picks, and the over/under at a family wedding when I was 5," he said. "My dad was beaming, and my mom was cringing."

He cut his teeth as a performer at the family-run Quincy Dinner Theater and as a stand-up comedian/Red Sox fan working in New York City.

"I always felt they were speaking my language on `SportsCenter,' " he said. "Anchoring the show is one of my small handful of, well, dream jobs."

The ESPN-pire is beckoning, and its offspring have heard the (casting) call.

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