Few television programs are as familiar to fans as ESPN's "SportsCenter." By filtering news through its pacing, theme music, anchor banter, graphics and set design, "SportsCenter" reflects and contributes to the national sports obsession.
To The Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, "SportsCenter's" quotidian elements offer a rich target for extreme parody. The result, a half-hour weekly program called "Onion SportsDome," starts a 10-episode run on Comedy Central on Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, preceding "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Will Graham, an executive producer and director of the series, said, "The fun part is there are 36 channels of ESPN running 24 hours a day, a whole world of sports media that is cultish and ripe to mock." He added, "The goal is for people passing it or watching it in a bar to think that it's real coverage."
Considerable work has been put into making the "SportsDome" come off as a warped, steroidal version of "SportsCenter." The look, rhythm and tone borrow from ESPN: the set pulsates red and blue, the music throbs, everyone speaks with speed and purpose. The well-groomed anchors (played by Matt Oberg and Matt Walton) read stories at a desk or beside a giant monitor.
''A lot of our job is an elocution exercise," said Oberg, who plays Mark Shepard, "to read the Onion jokes as fast and as loudly as possible."
Oberg, and Walton, as Alex Reiser (who is coming off a suspension as the series begins), speak to studio insiders, cut to field reports and stoke debates with well-rehearsed mock seriousness. Sound bites from news conferences convey the frequent banality of the real thing. Heart-tugging features (like one about a dying girl, a Phillies fan, whose last wish is to brutally heckle Mets third baseman David Wright) capitalize on every familiar, mawkish note.
''You can't do a silly version of 'SportsCenter,'" Graham said. "You have to skew it."
Like the Onion newspaper, which started in 1988, the taped "SportsDome" tweaks, twists and distorts reality. Highlights and big names (LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Bettman) are raw meat for the staff writers.
Bettman fakes his kidnapping (by NHL players), complete with a hostage video. O'Neal has a heart attack (his fourth of the season), which temporarily kills him, and a stroke, yet keeps playing against Oklahoma City. James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade demand 27 changes to NBA rules (dribbling is optional if your dunk is sweet).
Spinning real news leads to fake sports (the National Crystal Meth Hallucination League), contests (the NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick hunts down fans in the Sierra Nevadas) and debates (the maniacally argued "Who Would You Kill?" feature, sponsored by Smith & Wesson).
The cast includes actors and reporters who have worked in sports, like Danyelle Sargent (Melissa Wells), who was involved in minor controversies during on-air stints at ESPN and Fox, and Levan Reid, a current TV sports anchor in Boston, who portrays a ferocious studio expert named Doc Webb.
''We have the same tone and delivery that they're used to," said Julie White, an executive producer. "We have a great casting director who is always looking for talent that can work with our material."
The "SportsDome" is far from the first parody of sports or "SportsCenter."
Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night" sitcom on ABC used a "SportsCenter"-like show as a backdrop, but the satire was gentle, veering closer to homage.
NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has long mocked sports, back to John Belushi as a decathlon champion pitching "Little Chocolate Donuts" cereal and Harry Shearer and Martin Short as inept synchronized swimmers.
''SNL" has produced various "ESPN Sports Classic" sketches. In 1999, Tim Meadows played the "SportsCenter" anchor Stuart Scott, irate that his funky slang and overused expressions ("Boo-yah!") were being outdone ("Sweet sassy molassey!") by Ray Romano, playing a new anchor in an audition.
Even ESPN has unsuccessfully tried to find vehicles to mock itself, said John Walsh, its executive editor. "It's so difficult and challenging," he said.
The problem with parodying a program like "SportsCenter, Walsh said, is that "there has to be total knowledge and understanding of the stories you pick and do it in such a way that the understanding reflects the reality of what you're seeing every day."
But Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC anchor who was a "SportsCenter" star in the 1990s, said he wondered if it was worth trying to mock it at all. "How could you parody it in the shape it's in now?" he asked in an e-mail. "It's its own parody."
For the last three years, Graham and Smith have prepared their assault on ESPN by stocking the online Onion Sports Network with short, overheated reports (Evander Holyfield boxes a horse for the heavyweight title; Fenway Park plans a "massive antiquation" to return to its 1912 look) that add an extra dimension to recognizable, "SportsCenter"-like reporting.
''ESPN's coverage is so overhyped that it's a challenge to go further than that," White said. "We see them as our competition."
''SportsDome" moves into a Comedy Central programming lineup dominated by "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," which twit the network news culture and Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel, respectively.
The channel's embrace of mixing sports and The Onion could lead some viewers to object to the treatment of sacrosanct subjects; one report is a "Cops"-like parody about retired NFL players with concussion-related dementia, with updates that pop up throughout the show.
''It's always subjective," said Kent Alterman, the channel's head of original programming and production. "There's no absolutely right or wrong to anything. For me, a lot of it is, 'Is there a real satirical point that makes it defensible?' You can never predict who's going to laugh or not."