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Here's the deal: Collins to remain at NECN

Chris Collins was named primary sports anchor at New England Cable News Wednesday, signing a new contract that will make him the sole host of the revamped half-hour "Sports Late Night" at 11 on weeknights.

"In a television environment of increasingly indistinguishable sports personalities, Chris is one of a kind," said NECN vice president and news director Charlie Kravetz in making the announcement. "He has a way of talking to viewers that is intimate but authoritative, and he seems to invite the public into the real world of sports, behind the hype, inside the locker room, and into the lives of athletes."

The move completes a restructuring of the NECN sports operation that began when "Late Night" co-host Mark Ockerbloom left for Channel 25 last fall. Collins has been going solo since then.

The promotion makes Collins the first African-American lead sports anchor in this market. It's a milestone in Boston television, although it was a given that Collins was destined to assume a No. 1 role.

"Most people seemed to assume I was the No. 1 sports guy at the station anyway," Collins said yesterday. That may be because he carried himself that way and had that type of presence on camera.

"There's a big upside to remaining at NECN," said Collins, who had some outside interviews during his contract talks. "People keep asking me, `When are you leaving?' But my goal always was to get home to Boston [he grew up in Peabody], and being here has been everything I expected it to be and more. Every day is a challenge in this market. If you're a member of the sports media, you have to love the way the city embraces sports."

Collins has a simple goal: "To be able to compete with the best. To me, that's the best part of the business: trying to get the good stories and good guests."

Both weekend anchor Mike Giardi and incoming reporter Laura Behnke will be key contributors to the nightly sports.

Collins's deal is for two years, giving him some flexibility should a national or other big offer come along. Giardi wasn't able to move to Channel 7 last year because of his NECN deal.

"I only wanted a year, and the station wanted three years," said Collins. "I like this job, the vehicle we have to deliver sports, and the work environment here. You'd have to be crazy not to listen to a national offer, but my goal was to get back here, not to leave. We've got air time when other people are cutting back on sports."

Collins graduated from Temple University and began his TV career in Alexandria, La. He came to Boston from WDJT in Milwaukee, where he was sports director.

Weeknights, Collins has normal-length sports segments at 5, 6, and 9, then the half-hour show at 11, which re-airs later.

So how will "Sports Late Night" be different when it relaunches on Monday? "I know Charlie and [sports director] Morrie Levine have a bunch of ideas that we'll be discussing," Collins said.

Tackling a challenge

Most televised sporting events do their best to get out of the way of the National Football League, figuring that going head to head in a battle for viewers means they'll be fighting for leftover audience scraps. The NFL simply steamrolls the competition in any time period except Sunday night.

So give the figure skating folks credit. They're taking on the NFL tomorrow night in prime time. If the NFL wants to put its divisional playoffs in prime time on a Saturday night (Rams-Falcons is on Channel 25 at 8), so be it. The US Figure Skating Championships are going to go on as scheduled, and ABC and US Figure Skating are confident they'll get viewers.

Last year, the US women's championships went up against the Patriots-Titans Saturday night playoff. The ratings score in Boston: 42.4-5.2. It was a lopsided win for the football game, but the Boston skating audience was respectable -- only a 10th of a point below the 5.3 that the event did nationally. The year before, when the skating event was held a week later and not up against football, skating did an 8.9 rating in Boston, well above the 6.3 national number.

We'll see the men's and ladies' short programs tonight (ESPN2, 10:30-12:30). Tomorrow, ABC takes over with the dance and men's finals (Ch. 5, 4-6 p.m.) and pairs and women's finals (Ch. 5, 8-11 p.m.). The final hour-plus of each ABC telecast will feature live competition.

It's the 42d consecutive year ABC has televised the event, and the coverage reflects the history of sports on TV, going from tape in the early years to live. This year, the coverage will be available in high definition and also, for the first time, will use the overhead Sky Cam.

One of ABC's segments tomorrow night will focus on the perils of pairs skating and the danger of head injuries. Analyst Dick Button, who suffered a brain injury four years ago while practicing for an exhibition skate at the US Championships in Boston, said, "It can happen on the simplest of moves. And it happens when you don't expect it, not only in pairs but in all forms of skating, cycling, and all sports."

Button lives for today, refusing to compare skaters from different eras. "That would be like comparing a Bugatti from the 1920s with a Lamborghini," he said. "What hasn't changed is that the sport is a fascinating combination of theater and competition. You put the two together and the result can be either explosive or magic."

Nasty personal story

Duke Castiglione of WCBS-TV in New York was at the center of the Randy Johnson media firestorm in New York this week. Castiglione, son of Red Sox radio voice Joe Castiglione, and his cameraman were the ones blown off by Johnson on a Manhattan sidewalk as the new Yankee was en route to a physical exam Monday. Johnson was so out of line that the resulting clips -- both audio and video -- became a national story. Usually, the last thing a media member wants is to become part of the story, but in this case it was unavoidable. That said, Castiglione, either on his own or at his producer's behest, didn't leave well enough alone, insinuating himself back into the story during Tuesday's news conference introducing Johnson as a Yankee. Castiglione's "We met yesterday" line rekindled the nastiness and did nothing for media professionalism. As an observer from another TV market (not Boston) noted, "The story wasn't that Johnson refused the interview; it was his behavior toward the photographer." That said, it was quite a week for Castiglione, who was surprised to receive a call on-air from Bill Cosby, who won some "I Stumped Duke" T-shirts by stumping the sportscaster on a series of questions about Stonehill College, Castiglione's alma mater.

Icing on the cake

"Inside Hockey East," a show that's long overdue in this market, makes its debut tonight (NESN, 6, with a re-airing following the Boston University-Boston College hockey telecast at 7). Six shows are planned, with a new one every other week until April 1. Each will originate from a different campus. Eric Frede hosts the show with longtime Maine radio play-by-play man Dan Hannigan. Tom Caron, Andy Brickley, and Corey Masse will work the BU-BC game . . . Because of the new Hockey East show and the college hockey game, the Globe's "Sportsplus" show will air at 7 tonight on NESN, with Caron hosting and former Patriot Tim Fox joining the Globe's Ron Borges and Nick Cafardo to preview Sunday's Patriots-Colts AFC divisional playoff game (Ch. 4, 4:45 p.m.) . . . ESPN is bringing in Lisa Leslie as a women's basketball studio analyst to work with Rece Davis and Stacey Dales-Schuman. She'll replace Nell Fortner.

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

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