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“AROUND THE HORN” IS NOT A BETTER SHOW NOW — IT’S A BORING SHOW
If ratings mean anything in TV — and they mean everything — it’s obvious the original, prime version of the ESPN talk show was livelier, more fun and more relevant than the current unadventurous slog
The essence of sports is debate. And it’s perfectly OK, while debating, to have fun with the art form and engage in a spirited argument. That was our successful mission on an ESPN show called “Around The Horn,” and during my eight years as a daily panelist, no one raised a voice any louder than when Tony Kornheiser challenged Mike Wilbon on “Pardon The Interruption” or Dan Le Batard tore into a guest on his program.
Which is why our ratings shot upward, quarter after quarter, and provided a valuable lead-in for Kornheiser and Wilbon. This allowed the network to combine the two afternoon shows and sell an advertising block known as “Happy Hour.” Sure, Woody Paige’s chalkboard was sophomoric, allowing me to take some easy, harmless shots, but mostly, the banter was about sports. Common feedback from people in stadiums and airports was something like, “Do you and Woody really hate each other?”
“Only during those 30 minutes,” I told them with a smile.
I made my money. I made my impact. I made my enemies. And ESPN profited with a cornerstone program before dinner time.
Yet somewhere along the way in recent years, while the show’s ratings dropped by hundreds of thousands of viewers a day, a perception spin was applied by host Tony Reali and the producers. Today, they claim “Around The Horn” is a smarter show than in the “shouting” past. I would say it’s a boring show, an unadventurous show, a woke show, a cartoon show, a less watchable show, a show too reluctant to challenge true power players in the sports industry, a show that has strayed from vital continuity to invite a cast of dozens to the panel and, sorry to say, a show that plays to the soft and network-obedient instincts of talkers who often sound like fanboys/girls.
I know dozens of people who watch sports on TV and consider themselves thoughtful and savvy. They no longer watch “Around The Horn.”
Neither do I, though I was on 1,700 times and helped build the thing from the ashes. And I mean literally — the roof at Carnegie Deli caught fire during our first staff meeting in midtown Manhattan.
I watch “PTI.” I watch “Real Sports” and Bob Costas’ quarterly show on HBO. I’ll turn on Stephen A. Smith as a reminder of what real yelling is. But the “we’re smarter” propaganda spread by “ATH,” in an otherwise fine profile about Reali in The Athletic, is a weaksauce justification for the harsh truth found in the ratings. ESPN knows about the numbers but doesn’t care, because the production is low-maintenance and doesn’t require major salaries.
One of many problems with sports media in 2022 is a disease known as pseudo-intellectualism. Too many people are trying too hard to be too smart on the air, not realizing they come off as glib and smug. It’s an Ivy League mentality that, in most cases, isn’t conducive to attracting viewers. Stephen A. didn’t attend an Ivy, and sometimes, the A in his name stands for Ass. But the cool kids involved in “ATH,” both front-facing and behind the scenes, have to know Smith is the one making $12 million a year.
The word I’m looking for is relatable. Costas, who went to Syracuse like many top sportscasters, doesn’t strain to display his intellect. But he also has a way of lighting a mass fuse, judging by the floods of viewer reaction — negative and positive — to his TV work during the baseball playoffs. No one on “ATH” lights a fuse. Back in the day, a few of us did, every day.
No one out there cares about your pedigree or diploma. No one cares if you’re straight or gay. No one cares if you’re male or female. No one cares if you’re young or old. The viewers respond to panelists who alternately make them think, make them mad, make them laugh.
We did that on “Around The Horn” for a long time. That isn’t happening today, and the result is lost relevance.
Praise Reali, a good guy in a tough racket. But also acknowledge Reality.
When 331 million people live in America and fewer than 300,000 are watching the ESPN blowtorch on a given afternoon — and a lot of them are sitting in a bar or dentist’s office with the sound turned down — well, don’t tell me the show is better. The show is just sort of there, bro.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.