Ratings for Bill Simmons’ “Any Given Wednesday” on HBO keep looking bleaker. As we’ve moved into peak sports season, just one of the past six episodes drew more than 200,000 viewers, thanks to a massive lead-in from “Deadpool.” This week’s episode attracted just 82,000 viewers, the low mark for the inaugural season.
The ratings decline does not surprise too much. On “Any Given Wednesday” in October, his target sports fan audience is off watching sports. His last episode was up against the NBA and the World Series. Simmons, as a countermeasure, spent 15 minutes on hockey? That said, potential fans aren’t scurrying to YouTube in droves to find out what they missed.
We can quibble about the show’s core problem. Simmons’ charisma? Underwhelming, hackneyed scripted segments? Softball interviews? But, that core problem is extant and the show is not producing viral, shareable content.
Ben Affleck’s Deflategate rant has been the only moment to organically make it to this site. That’s fewer than the number of posts critiquing the show. That’s fewer than the number of videos we have posted from John Oliver’s non-sports show.
Simmons can blame the struggles of ESPN NBA Countdown back in 2014 on the show’s producers. Perhaps ESPN nixed the “Grantland Basketball Hour” before it had a chance to flower. But, Simmons was given autonomy and control for “Any Given Wednesday.” Maybe HBO was not that great of a fit, but this failure will stick to him.
HBO has a decision to make. Simmons sort of resembles an underperforming college football coach. He has multiple years remaining on a reported $20 million-plus contract. The President (AD) who hired Simmons is no longer in charge at the network. HBO can let Simmons blow up the show and start over, or move in a different direction.
HBO could also cancel his show and leave him in weird limbo doing special segments and the occasional NBA coverage. There is HBO’s reported stake in The Ringer to consider.
If HBO cuts Simmons loose, where does he end up?
We can rule out a short-term return to ESPN, while John Skipper is at the helm. Bridges were burnt. Being an embittered ESPN outcast basically is Simmons’ brand at this point. Maybe the climate in Bristol changes if his 30 for 30 co-creator Connor Schell or another more Simmons-inclined figure moves atop the pecking order. But, that possibility seems a while off, if ever.
NBC Sports and CBS/Showtime seem like long-shots as well. Simmons told the Boston Globe he thought the Roger Goodell incident scared networks off. CBS/Showtime felt the NFL issue was a conflict. NBC Sports did not even contact him.
The thing that surprised me is that I thought Showtime was really going to get involved. And I think the football thing scared them off — I know it did, there’s no question. That became a football decision for them. Football is their biggest partner; they basically told me that [Showtime declined to comment]. If I learned anything over these last two years, it’s that the NFL is a powerful entity. It really is. NBC [a major NFL television partner] never even made a phone call to me. There’s a gigantic list of people that reached out. I never heard from NBC. Not an e-mail, anything.
Viceland just received a hefty nine-figure investment … from Disney, which probably precludes Simmons. Turner has the same parent company as HBO. If Simmons wants to prove himself in traditional television and not retire to podcasting and the occasional column (maybe?), that would leave FS1.
FOX is also an NFL partner. Though, this is the network that features Pete Rose (banned from baseball) and Alex Rodriguez (one of baseball’s most notorious PED users) on its pregame coverage. Maybe they don’t shy off from potential NFL blowback for hiring Simmons.
Simmons would fit the recent mold at FOX of hiring big-name, opinionated former ESPN personalities such as Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, and Jason Whitlock to front its network as a counterpoint to the WWL. Could Jamie Horowitz bring in Simmons and pair him with another Boston sports fan, Katie Nolan?
FS1 salvaged Nolan from the wreckage of Crowd Goes Wild. She eventually got her own show, “Garbage Time.” It hasn’t brought in large ratings, on once a week after midnight. But, the show did win a Sports Emmy. Nolan mentioned in May her desire to expand her role to a daily, late night format.
Simmons tried to hire Nolan when he was running Grantland. He also made an appearance (see above) on Garbage Time last year. It’s not a huge stretch to see them working together.
Both Simmons and Nolan have faced a similar struggle, converting their large, invested Internet followings into television viewership. It’s not a guarantee combining forces would work any better. Pairing them on a project would be a risk. Though, it’s the sort of risk FS1 is in a better position to take than other networks.