ESPN announced its 2018 daily schedule at advertiser Upfronts today. We covered the nuts and bolts of the news earlier. These are my personal opinions about how things will fare.
1. Bomani + Pablo will succeed.
Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre will come on after First Take, and my belief is that the show will be a success. The metrics of this can be jumbled. TV ratings are the primary way the show will be judged, but the social media component is quite significant. This program will produce a lot of shareable nuggets from personalities who have big individual followings. Bomani’s presence boosted the ratings of Highly Questionable, and, according to Michael McCarthy, he was sought after by FS1 before re-signing with ESPN.
Right now, measurement mechanisms for online video views are inconsistent. Nielsen TV ratings have their flaws, but at least everybody is judged the same way, and publishers aren’t self-reporting their views. At some point, you’d have to believe ad sales for online videos are going to move away from autoplay nonsense that gets shoved in your face, and toward proven personalities with considerable engagement. Presenting sponsorships for professionally produced digital features should alone be able to make this show profitable, if ESPN has nimble ad sales.
Even on television, I think the show will work. While no formal deal is in place yet, it is widely presumed that Erik Rydholm will be producing the show. Rydholm created Pardon the Interruption, Highly Questionable, and Viceland’s Desus and Mero, and his staff also oversees Around the Horn, which is produced by Aaron Solomon.
Here is how those shows performed, versus other ESPN programming in the mid-to-late afternoon block — and versus First Take — three days last week in Nielsen ratings:
First Take – (10:00 a.m.) – 446,000
NFL Live (2:00) – 371,000
The Jump – (3:00) – 305,000
SportsNation (3:30) – 359,000
Highly Questionable (4:30) – 457,000
Around the Horn (5:00) – 511,000
Pardon the Interruption (5:30) – 735,000
The 6 (6:00) – 529,000
First Take – 428,000
NFL Live – 308,000
The Jump – 287,000
SportsNation – 340,000
Highly Questionable – 442,000
Around the Horn – 462,000
Pardon the Interruption – 689,000
The 6 – 393,000
First Take – 332,000
NFL Live – 311,000
The Jump – 383,000
SportsNation – 305,000
Highly Questionable – 385,000
Around the Horn – 462,000
Pardon the Interruption – 688,000
The 6 – 416,000
Note that Mike and Jemele were off last Monday and Tuesday, but that the trend, dating back far before then, has been that PTI dramatically outdraws the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. The Rydholm-produced shows in the ESPN late afternoon block have for years and years started, with Around the Horn and later Highly Questionable, by outdrawing the program before it and concluding with PTI handily beating the ensuing SportsCenter. Even though they are down from their peaks in the last couple years, they remain the best performing shows in ESPN’s day block.
What will be sensitive for this show is not its metrics, but the extent to which it gets panned by the MSESPN and/or stick-to-sports crowd. If you just finished watching First Take, Bomani and Pablo are undoubtedly going to be a change of pace (and the ESPN2 alternative at the same time is the third hour of the Mike Greenberg re-air, which may not be palatable to those viewers either). Don’t expect a debate show from them. Highly Questionable and Desus and Mero are not debates; they’re camera-facing conversations with punchlines. Nevertheless, my prediction is that within six months you’ll be able to point to an audience and refute the argument that they’re not drawing. They may not hold all of First Take’s audience, but I bet they do better than the very stick-to-sports NFL Live.
2. I don’t know who’s gonna watch that Greeny show.
It was Sept. 28, 2016 that Richard Deitsch first reported that ESPN was “mulling” breaking up Mike & Mike and giving Greenberg his own television show. The formal announcement came today, and the show won’t air until 2018. What does it say about the new, more dynamic ESPN if it takes them this long to launch the show that will anchor its early mornings?
There is no way to write this without sounding disrespectful to Greenberg, whose run at Mike and Mike was a considerable profit driver for ESPN for a lot of years. He’s a profoundly talented broadcaster in the sense of timing, cadence, preparation, and presentation. There just doesn’t seem to be anybody out there who thinks this show is a good idea. (Aside from those who greenlit it, of course.)
Mike and Mike has been able to set news tone at ESPN for years in large part because the most powerful and/or recognizable names in sports appear as guests. However, the interviews are rarely incisive. Questions can be more like balloons than softballs. For example:
What will make this show unique? Why will it draw you away from your laptop or phone? Or the Today Show? What profound information or opinions will you glean that will make you think or laugh at something you didn’t consider from the night before?
There isn’t an easy answer for what ESPN should do with this time slot. If the current morning SportsCenter format was working, they would’ve kept it on ESPN instead of moving it to ESPN2 and adding Sage Steele. And Lord knows how many lineups they’ve gone through with daytime SportsCenter over the last 10 years; it’s just a very challenging spot.
This show is going to be under a microscope. According to Jim Miller, ESPN is paying Greenberg $6.5 million per year. There are a lot of traditional anchors that were let go or marginalized in part to make way for this show, and it’s been in the works for so long that there’s even more pressure to nail it. Can Greeny and friends seize the proverbial conversation? We’ll see.
3. ESPN has depleted a lot of its bench, and it isn’t currently replenishing it on ESPN2.
SportsNation, Highly Questionable, First Take, and His and Hers all launched on ESPN2 before moving over to ESPN (His and Hers got rebranded into SC6). On the announced version of the new ESPN2 lineup, there is not presently any generalist conversation show with rising talents. Instead, there is a morning SportsCenter followed by hours and hours of re-airs. Three hours of Greeny. Two hours of First Take. Ninety minutes of NFL Live.
There are people you can see ESPN giving more reps on radio and studio shows — Sarah Spain, Kate Fagan, Will Cain, Mina Kimes, Dominique Foxworth, Clinton Yates — but they are no longer building programs driven by dynamic personalities on ESPN2. Is there a young producer along the lines of Erik Rydholm or Jamie Horowitz — who developed SportsNation, First Take, and His & Hers before the shows he’s made for FS1 — that can create compelling new programming? Maybe something new will come along between now and 2018?
Speaking of Horowitz, Robert Seidman of Sports TV Ratings made the salient point that ESPN reacted because Undisputed siphoned off a third of First Take’s viewership, precipitating its move to ESPN. Undisputed has also helped to hugely boost The Herd’s ratings for the three hours after it. So far, the numbers for these shows aren’t going to challenge ESPN in the immediate term — Undisputed’s high was 158,000 viewers last week, while The Herd’s highest viewership was 127,000 — but they’ve had some strong momentum. (Disclosure: The Big Lead’s editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality at FS1.)
4. I’ll never understand why ESPN flips it to SportsCenter instead of the NBA Countdown crew after playoff games.
This technically has nothing to do with ESPN’s announcements today, but it’s something that has been mind-boggling for years. After Saturday’s ABC telecast between the Warriors and Spurs — a remarkable game in which the Warriors erased a 25-point deficit, with ample conversation topics — ABC moved pretty quickly to news. ESPN’s SportsCenter featured Tim Legler analysis from the Bristol studio before having Steve Levy host on-site coverage, conversing with Michael Wilbon and interviewing Stephen Curry.
Why not put Wilbon and/or Stephen A. Smith, who also has a bunch of SportsCenter spots after these games, on the Countdown crew with Beadle and Jalen, and hope there’s something for them to duke it out about? Why does Levy, or any other SC anchor, need to be there?
ESPN doesn’t have anybody like Charles Barkley, and who knows if they ever will. Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith are also great at getting the best out of him, and providing foils. But nobody cares what they have to say before the game. It’s all about their postgame, where they regularly get ample time to flesh out their thoughts. Countdown should really have a postgame show all season, but this is especially true when the playoffs heat up and are clearly the prevailing story in sports.
5. You and I care a lot about ESPN’s daytime lineup, but in the grand scheme of things it’s window-dressing compared to the games and postgame.
On a really good day PTI will hit a million viewers. NBA telecasts on ESPN double or triple that in the regular season and triple or quadruple it or more — for a stretch of time that is five times as long — in the playoffs. The SportsCenter’s that come after them rate very well deep into the night.
The biggest issues for ESPN remain the fact that all of their live rights skyrocketed this decade, while they are starting to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in subscription revenue at a concerning rate that they did not foresee.
Getting cast pejoratively as “liberal” may hurt ESPN on the margins in viewership — Linda Cohn thinks so — but wholly apolitical shows like NFL Live and PTI have not been impervious to ratings declines. If you’re a big sports fan, you need ESPN’s selection of games. Period. Cable subscriber losses are systemic in the industry. They disproportionately affect ESPN because at over $8 per month for ESPN and ESPN2 they have by far the highest fees, but there’s no one out there calling up Comcast and cutting the cord because he’s triggered by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith on his television.
For a general summary of the live rights fees impacts, read about how the threat of Fox Sports sent NBA rights fees way up for ESPN and Turner. Is the ongoing Cavs and Warriors oligopoly a net positive because interest in the NBA Finals will soar, or does this harm the greater good when regular season curiosity is at a total minimum?
ESPN doesn’t get as formidable a Monday Night Football package as you’d expect given what they pay for the rights; will numbers rebound a bit because the lineup at least features more divisional matchups this year, or was last year’s diminishment in the face of the election the new normal? Will the College Football Playoffs do better when they’re off New Year’s Eve?
Still, ESPN is committed to those games, and life for them and everyone else with a lot of rights would be a lot worse off without them.
[Display image via Bill Hofheimer/ESPN]