Tucked in among the football highlights on Sunday's edition of NFL Primetime was a very revealing statement. In discussing the guarantee of victory made by Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau, ESPN analyst Tom Jackson blurted, "It doesn't matter what he said, it only matters what we say he said." A similar arrogance has convinced ESPN it can air a steady stream of talk shows that insult viewers accustomed to quality sports programming. It's one thing to try something new and produce a movie based on the vulgarity of Bobby Knight or a show revolving around the dubious talents of Jay Mohr. It's another to give every single (male) sports columnist in the country a televised forum. On the same subjects. At maximum decibel level. This ugly trend reaches its nadir with Monday's heavily promoted offering, the debut of Around the Horn.
Full disclosure time: I worked at ESPN in production full-time in the early '90s, when there was just the lonely single channel, rather than a family of networks. I continue to work for ESPN on an occasional basis, most recently this past June on World Cup soccer coverage. I have the greatest respect for the creative talents of the overworked, underpaid staff and fully understand the challenge of feeding the gaping maw of programming time.
Around the Horn is ESPN's latest addition to the white noise of nonstop sports commentary, joining Pardon the Interruption, another show featuring sportswriters shouting opinions; The Sports Reporters, featuring sportswriters shouting opinions; and The Sports Reporters 2, featuring you know what. And then there's Focus Group, which lets fans throw half-baked opinions into the mix, not to mention NFL2Night, NBA2Night, NHL2Night, Baseball Tonight, College Football GameDay, NFL GameDay, NFL Primetime, Monday Night Countdown, and approximately 700 hours of SportsCenter, all of which feature five minutes of "analysis" and "debate" for every 30 seconds of actual sports action.
Like another cable giant, MTV, ESPN seems to have forgotten its original mandate. Remember when you could tune in to ESPN and actually have a good chance of seeing sports? Sure it might be bowling, or rodeo, or Australian-rules football, but at least it was action, competition, well-trained athletes giving their all for the sport they love. Now, thanks to an unfriendly economy, punishing rights fees, and a programming department led by one Mark Shapiro, who apparently thought the debate team counted as a varsity sport in high school, ESPN is far more interested in showing you people talking about sports rather than the sports themselves. The network has become the Worldwide Leader in Hot Air.
Even for the most obsessive geek, Around the Horn is pointless noise pollution, the ThunderStix of sports programming. Its host, Max Kellerman, is excellent talking boxing on Friday Night Fights, but his wise-guy persona and shrill voice are unsuited to moderating a show dedicated to bombast. At least The Sports Reporters (Version 1.0) featured the late, inimitable Dick Schaap, who managed to lend an air of grace to the proceedings. He would be appalled to know his legacy was a raft of second-rate rip-offs, each one trying to top the next in words per second.
Then there's Kellerman's panel of sports columnists, beamed in from four newsrooms around the country. In addition to Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, who may be a loudmouth but is at least a funny and knowledgeable one, there are T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Woody Paige of the Denver Post. (The Dallas Morning News' Tim Cowlishaw will rotate in.) They spout off on the news of the day, giving opinions that will no doubt change by this time next week. You'd be hard-pressed to find men who have more carefully cultivated images as jerks, both in print and in person.
Kellerman's job is to award or deduct "points," based on whether or not he agrees with the panel's weighty assessments. (Sample: "Curb Your Enthusiasm is better than The Sopranos.") As if four attention-starved nitwits shouting at the same time wasn't confusing enough, the viewer is supposed to process pinging sounds indicating points scored or detracted. Each point then translates to a second of "face time" at the end, where the writer gets off one last scripted bon mot while his bosses gleefully add up the free advertising their newspaper is getting. About the only good feature is the mute button, which Kellerman occasionally busts out to silence one of his unruly panelists. You'll likely find the one on your remote control more useful.
Around the Horn undercuts the show immediately following it, Pardon the Interruption, with a similarity bordering on outright thievery—although after Horn's half-hour, PTI hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon come off like MacNeil and Lehrer. Both shows breathlessly give judgments on issues like whether or not Yao Ming is a bust (after all, he's played three whole games). Both incorporate the show rundown into the screen (Horn boldly puts its rundown on the bottom, rather than along the side). Both shows use graphic icons meant to brand the program in corporate packaging. Both shows are even produced at the same Washington, D.C., studio.
One difference—PTI devotes five minutes of its show to an interview, usually with an actual athlete or coach who is otherwise mere fodder for the unending blather. Monday's subject was Grant Hill, who is not only an incredibly gifted athlete but on all accounts a well-rounded human being. Hill effortlessly projected a dignity and wisdom that was jarring when juxtaposed with supposedly learned, experienced writers hurling playground insults at each other. If only ESPN could get back in the business of showing such athletes doing what they do best.