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Dramatic turn in advertising

'ESPN Shorts' are hybrid act

There's something old and something new on ESPN's "SportsCenter" these days. The old is the network's signature personality, Chris Berman, who is continuing his Sunday night guest slots on the anchor desk, working with Stuart Scott. Berman also will be host of the 7:30 "SportsCenter" before each game of the Stanley Cup finals.

The "new" is something altogether different. Watch and you're not quite sure what you're seeing. Is it a feature? A commercial? A promo?

It's the latest wrinkle in the advertising community's quest to create something that catches our attention and keeps the TiVO generation from fast-forwarding through the break.

If you're a regular "SportsCenter" viewer, you likely saw the first of these initiatives: a four-part series called "The Scout." It was filmed as a six-minute short feature brought to you by Sears Craftsman products. In it, a baseball general manager sends out an older scout to bring back a major league prospect "or else." Instead of a player, he brings back a young groundskeeping prospect -- towing a Craftsman tractor behind the car.

Next up is a Miller Lite series titled "The Squeeze." It revolves around the Red Sox but also around too many old themes: 1918, curses, fans dying without seeing the Sox win it all.

In Part 1, the Sox are in Game 6 of the World Series when Uncle Mack, too antsy to watch the end of the game, steps outside as his three nephews watch the Sox force a Game 7. Unfortunately, Uncle Mack won't live to see it. He has had The Big One during the last at-bat. Now, Game 7 is the same day as Uncle Mack's funeral.

What are the nephews to do? Stay tuned for Parts 2-4.

Meanwhile, the segments, called "ESPN Shorts" have started a buzz in advertising circles.

"Other than the Super Bowl, there's no real desire on the part of most fans to watch commercials," said Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president of programming and production. "When commercials come on, there's an instinct for viewers to turn away if we don't get them quickly."

The "storytelling commercial" isn't new. Coca-Cola did something similar with its Mean Joe Greene ads years ago.

"We're telling a story, not doing in-your-face selling," said Shapiro. "It's an attempt to combat the technological revolution which ultimately is going to change the advertising model. There's subtle product placement. If we can keep the viewer watching and give him the message, we've scored on both counts."

Other potential advertisers took notice once Sears stepped up to be the trial horse. Sponsors now are lining up, said Shapiro, and negotiations are under way to continue the initiative.

For now, the segments run during "SportsCenter," where the format allows jumping from highlights to conversations to features and other longer bits. The goal is to have viewers caught up in the story of the "ESPN Short" before they realize it's a commercial.

"It's 60 seconds of content time and 30 seconds of commercial time," said Shapiro. As such, it leaves the show's producers with the option of taking back the minute (and running just a 30-second spot) if news calls for it.

"The concept fits with our Original Entertainment division," said Shapiro. "We've gotten into the movie-making, and these shorts call for the same planning: scriptwriting and approval, casting, and shooting."

Indeed, Court Crandall, who wrote the script for the movie "Old School," did the Miller Lite story.

"It's not a traditional infomercial at all," said Alison Lazar, manager of national ad sales and corporate communications for ESPN. "Media directors for ad agencies always are looking for ways to make their product stand out. They don't just want to be another commercial. They're always looking for the next big thing."

In soap opera tradition, ESPN hopes you stay tuned.

Chew on that

You know ESPN didn't envision Andre Agassi going out in three sets in the first match yesterday morning as the network kicked off its 88 hours of French Open coverage. It wasn't a boffo day for Wheaties, either, as the company unveiled an Agassi box . . . Saturday morning's edition of "Mustard and Johnson" on WEEI turned lively when "Curt from Medfield" checked in via car phone. It was Sox pitcher Curt Schilling calling to question whether hosts Craig Mustard and Larry Johnson knew whereof they spoke on Nomar Garciaparra's contract negotiations. "I told him we'd used the figures that have been in the papers, that Nomar had turned down a four-year, $15 million offer," said Johnson. "I loved it that he called, and wish more players would do it. There's one thing about radio: You can't claim to be misquoted. I know more players are out there listening. Having them call makes you more sensitive to the way you present information. It's the difference between having a conversation and gossiping, gossip being saying things about a person that you wouldn't say if they were in the room." . . . During his Sunday night interview on "Sports Final," Ty Law came across as a guy who knows deep down he's headed out of town. Law termed "absurd" the suggestion by Channel 4's Steve Burton (who traveled to Los Angeles for the interview) that he is restricting his interviews to black media members. But it was jarring trying to picture Law, as he said he'd do on the first day of training camp, meeting coach Bill Belichick and saying, "What's up, Bill? How are you doing?" . . . Credit Burton's back-to-back interviews with Law's agents, Carl and Kevin Poston, and Law with giving "Sports Final" a ratings bump this week. The show did a 4.3 rating while "Sports Xtra" stayed strong with a 3.6 . . . ESPN has Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals at 8 tonight and Thursday . . . ESPN has the NBA Draft Lottery tomorrow at 8 before its telecast of Game 3 of Nets-Pacers . . . The Globe's Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy join Bob Lobel on "Sports Plus" tomorrow (NESN, 11 p.m.). Among the topics: A "Who's Better?" segment debating the cases for Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com 

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