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Looking Back at ‘Any Given Wednesday,’ a Rare Bill Simmons Failure

What works for podcasts — notably longer, wider-ranging interviews — doesn’t work on TV.

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HBO/ Jordin Althaus

During the past week, Bill Simmons has been taking a well-deserved victory lap for the 1000th episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast and the success of The Ringer six years after its launch. He sat down for podcast interviews with both Recode’s Peter Kafka and The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg to look back at a very eventful six-year span, which includes selling The Ringer to Spotify for $250 million.

(Kafka’s interview includes a funny — or maybe not funny, depending on how you view Simmons — moment when he’s corrected on the amount of the sale, which is initially mentioned as $200 million.)

But on the way to that enormous success, there were also some notable missteps. This particular week is the sixth anniversary of Any Given Wednesday, Simmons’s HBO show that became a curious failure in his career. Premiering on June 23, 2016, the program was canceled after one season of 17 episodes (fewer than the 20 that were originally planned).

As Simmons said in his podcast interview with Feinberg, Any Given Wednesday was originally supposed to anchor a three-year, $20 million partnership with HBO. The second season of the show was scheduled for 37 episodes, presumably running throughout the year with periodic breaks as the premium network’s Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver do.

The debut episode of AGS largely drew attention for Ben Affleck’s guest appearance. Leading off with a big movie star and fellow Boston sports fan seemed like an excellent choice for Simmons. But the interview was more concerning than fun.

In less than five minutes of profanity-filled, apparently drunken (though Simmons insisted otherwise) conversation, Affleck clearly relished the opportunity to air some grievances with no concerns about foul language on premium cable television. He dropped 19 f-bombs in outrage over the NFL’s “Deflategate” scandal involving the New England Patriots.

Or, as the actor put it, “Deflategate is the ultimate bullshit fucking outrage.”

Charles Barkley was also a guest on the premiere episode, a choice with which no show can go wrong. Especially right after the NBA Finals, with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeating the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series. Barkley and Simmons also discussed the Hall of Famer’s top five NBA players of all time.

Despite two star guests, viewers weren’t curious enough about Simmons hosting a talk show to check it out. AGS drew an 0.12 rating, finishing 78th among original cable television programming that night in the 10 p.m. ET hour. The numbers improved the following week, perhaps because viewers wanted to see if the show was as bad as most critics were saying or they were hoping for another celebrity sports tirade.

However, the ratings steadily declined from there, bottoming out in late October. Soon thereafter, HBO decided the show couldn’t be salvaged and canceled it.

So why didn’t Any Given Wednesday work? Maybe people didn’t expect a sports talk show from HBO. (Game Theory with Bomani Jones is more of what Simmons would call “a content show” rather than a talk show. And perhaps Jones learned from Simmons’s failure and John Oliver’s success.) Was Wednesday a bad night? A bit too late following the previous weekend’s action and too early for the weekend ahead? Debuting in June, when the sports calendar is thin, surely didn’t help either.

According to Simmons himself, the issue was that TV interview shows don’t work anymore.

“There’s a million things I would do differently,” Simmons told Recode Media‘s Kafka. “Ultimately, I went into that show with the mindset of ‘These interviews I’m doing on my podcast are really hitting. People love them. This should work as a TV show.’ But the reality is podcasts have replaced shows like that.”

Simmons is right about podcasts making longform interviews obsolete on TV. But the picture is bigger than that. What works for podcasts — notably longer, wider-ranging interviews — doesn’t work on TV.

Podcasts can be taken virtually anywhere with you. You can listen while you’re exercising. While you’re getting ready for work. On the way to work. On the way home from work. You can listen at work, depending on your job. You can bring a podcast with you on a walk or anywhere around the house. It can provide entertainment or accompaniment while you’re fixing a meal or cleaning. Or lying down with your eyes closed.

TV largely requires your full attention. You have to watch it. You have to stay in front of the television. (OK, it’s more mobile with streaming apps and smartphones. But you could be at the mercy of Wi-Fi connections. And unless you’re content with just listening to the audio, the screen still needs your focus.)

When I reviewed the Any Given Wednesday debut for Awful Announcing, I was decidedly less harsh than the opinions of other TV critics and fans. Many commenters and Twitter reply guys thought I was far too soft on Simmons’ TV effort. That was fair. But in a previous job, I was doing videos in addition to writing and remembered how difficult it was at first. My perception of anyone working in front of a camera had changed.

So I was sympathetic toward Simmons. It couldn’t have been easy. Just because you’re talented at a keyboard or microphone doesn’t mean you’ll be good on camera. Sure enough, Simmons looked uncomfortable. He didn’t feel natural, especially doing commentaries with video clips and produced graphics. Simmons always has opinions, but they come out during conversations rather than carry a segment.

A TV viewer has every reason to expect that the person on camera is ready for the task. To many, it may have been a surprise to see how uneasy Simmons was and how awkwardly that first show fit together.

But nearly every late-night talk show evolves over time. Hosts, producers, and writers have to figure out what works for them and what the audience enjoys. What sounds good in concept doesn’t always succeed in execution. Bill Maher used to have a stand-up comedy segment on Real Time. But even if the comedians were funny, it was an awkward fit. People wanted comedy, but worked into a discussion of current events to make it more relatable.

AGW eventually moved closer to a comfort zone and had a strong combination of athletes, actors, comedians, and broadcasters in each week’s lineup. But on TV, the content has to fit within the format’s constraints. Podcasts have no such restrictions and Simmons’s fans were accustomed to that. So was Simmons himself.

By the time that truncated first season finished, everyone involved apparently realized that certain content doesn’t always work in different formats. Jurassic Park wouldn’t work if you just listened to the movie as audio, right?

Obviously, Simmons has moved far beyond Any Given Wednesday to greater prosperity. Some of that success has even been at HBO, where he produced the successful Andre the Giant documentary and the Music Box series of films that aspires to be a cultural equivalent to the 30 For 30 franchise. The failure of AGW was a pothole on the road to victory for himself and The Ringer. He won and has been celebrating that in the media this past week. And maybe that misstep six years ago played a role in an eventual triumph.

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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