Bill Simmons has produced 2.5 hours of television for HBO. Early reviews have been unkind. “Any Given Wednesday” has been termed both “lame” and a “mess.” The show has been ripped for HBO cheerleading. Others have been silent, perhaps sweating the next round of hires at The Ringer.
HBO’s ratings expectations are unclear. Though, “Any Given Wednesday” has held serve with its lead-ins at best. The numbers for the first five shows trend downward.
Harsh reactions may be premature. It’s a small sample of content. Simmons also started a sports show at the height of summer, which is a dead zone. There’s little going on in sports. People take vacations. July can be a tough time to maintain an established audience, much less build one. Taking a week off after week four didn’t help the momentum.
That said, “Any Given Wednesday” does have some issues to work out. To build an audience, the show must produce essential, engaging content. Stuff people are going to tell friends about and share over social media. Stuff sports fans must watch. That hasn’t happened yet.
“Any Given Wednesday” is led by interviews. The trouble with those is even if the interviews are good, you are dependent on the guest. Some, such as Charles Barkley or Joe Rogan with UFC, will bring their own audience. Others won’t. Some will do something outlandish. Most won’t. You can see this play out in the YouTube view numbers.
Sometimes you get a strong guest doing something notable, Ben Affleck on Deflategate. That virality will be rare. The show can’t bat .200 with its main segments.
“Any Given Wednesday” is driven by Simmons’ personality. But, Simmons – and he has had enough TV at-bats to confirm this – is not that charismatic on television. He’s a captivating, funny column writer (hard enough on its own). He’s a quality podcaster. Both forums offer space to expound, to explore, and to connect thoughts.
Television is the tightest of word limits. Creating that neat artifice is hard. It’s even harder to be funny while doing so. Deflategate has played out for everyone else. The premise doesn’t blow anyone’s mind. But, the primary reason the sketch below falls flat is Simmons can’t ham it up on the same level as Rapaport, a professional actor.
“Any Given Wednesday” was sold as Simmons being edgy. He’s not edgy. Simmons is rebellious. He rejects authority. He’s fractious. He will flame other media members and his former employer. But, Simmons has been a multimillionaire and a multimedia mogul for some time. It has been almost a decade since he was an original, provocative, boundary-pushing voice in sports media.
Some saw Simmons as a Bill Maher of sports. Maher is edgy. He attacks conventions. He will polarize with unpopular stands. He will make his guests and his audience uncomfortable. Simmons is not Bill Maher. He won’t ruffle athletes or his celebrity friends.
Simmons said the same thing others were saying about Roger Goodell, in a sloppy fashion that did not meet the standards of his employer.
A good parallel for “Any Given Wednesday” is “Last Week Tonight.” Both shows face a similar challenge. They are on for a half hour, once a week. Every news story has been picked apart by the time it airs. Any timely joke has been made on Twitter. You have to take a different approach.
John Oliver does what the rest of the media doesn’t. He takes a comprehensive, mutlifaceted look at a specific topic. It’s funny and irreverent. But, it’s also considered and very well researched. He makes you laugh and does the defining TV work on whatever topic he’s tackling. He changes the conversation. Those pieces get shared on social media and in real life. He has a “steaming, profane Ben Affleck” video or better every week, without a celebrity.
The scripted segments are where “Any Given Wednesday” has potential. Those need to be much stronger. Topics must be fresh. Insight has to be novel and essential. The rest of the sports world has come to terms with Deflategate. Move on. “Baseball HOF sanctimony” and “James Dolan’s ineptitude” are well trodden. “Tim Duncan was good at basketball” isn’t going to set social media alight.