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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.

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BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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