After cancellation of HBO show, Bill Simmons faces uncertain TV future
- An examination of what Bill Simmons's TV future might hold at HBO, plus a look at NFL and World Series ratings, the best journalism of the week and much more.
Bill Simmons was a splashy hire for HBO in June 2015, and as par for the course with such hires, the publicity machine kicked into overdrive, especially in cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where Simmons’s face could be seen on giant billboards and speeding buses. The Hollywood trade publications went all-in too, including a June 17, 2016 cover story in The Hollywood Reporter where Simmons stood solo on the front of the magazine under the header of “Return of the Bro Whisperer.” The piece inside, well reported by Lacey Rose, examined his acrimonious split from ESPN and what the future held at HBO as it neared the launch of Any Given Wednesday, a weekly sports show featuring a mix of the host’s opinions and interviews with pop culture and sports figures. Michael Lombardo, the then-HBO president of programming who brought Simmons to the network, said the former ESPN writer was tailor-made for the HBO Now era. Simmons, acknowledging that there was a subset of the sports press and audience who did not believe he could carry a show solo, added, “Competitive Bill is definitely fired up about that. I know how these things go and how easily you can fail, but I really think this has a chance.”
On Friday, just four and a half months after its debut, HBO canceled the show. The primary reason was obvious: AGW never found a large audience. The website Sports TV Ratings compiled a chart of the show’s first run viewership showing AGW reached a first-run high of 362,000 viewers on June 29 but steadily fell to below 200,000 viewers. The nadir came on Oct. 26 when AGW drew 82,000 viewers against heavy sports competition, including the World Series. The show’s last episode will be Nov. 9, with a total run of 17 shows.
“We loved making that show, but unfortunately it never resonated with audiences like we hoped,” Simmons said in a statement. “And that's on me. But I love being a part of HBO's family and look forward to innovating with them on other ambitious programming ideas over these next several years—both for the network and for digital.”
Simmons declined comment through his longtime communications representative, Lewis Kay, who said there would be no comment at this time beyond the joint statement with HBO. An HBO spokesperson said they were “not setting up [HBO president] Peter Nelson interviews right now regarding Bill Simmons's role and future programming initiatives.” The HBO spokesperson did say that Nelson, Simmons and Bill Simmons Media Group president Eric Weinberger talk and see each other regularly. Nelson said in a statement that HBO was still committed to Simmons, and was “excited to bring his unique vision to bear on an array of new programming initiatives under the HBO Sports banner in 2017.”
When the news broke on Friday, I received a number of emails, texts and DMs from ESPN on-air talent, featuring a few delivering a heavy bucket of schadenfreude. There were many on-airs at ESPN who believed Simmons acted like television was easy and were happy to see the news. Undoubtedly some of those messages were motivated by financially jealousy given Simmons drew an annual salary at HBO believed to be in the $7–9 million range.
As I wrote last week, the notion posited by some that HBO should get out of the Simmons business seems shortsighted even with this failure. Given his ability to draw a big audience (his podcast averages around 400–500,000 listens based on industry sources) and his connections in the sports documentary film world, cutting total bait would be silly. But his immediate television future is very unclear.
Over the weekend I paneled a half-dozen network and cable sports producers, on-air people, and a couple of agents to get some suggestions on what they think should be Simmons's next move. What was interesting was the differences in how each group saw it.
The on-air people believed Simmons would return to linear sports television at some point, and his best strategy would be to partner with someone so he could be more in a co-host role. “With that kind of money HBO is paying him, I don’t think he can just do digital content,” said one longtime on-air sports television host.
The producers I spoke with believed Simmons was not a good fit for linear television and that his strengths as a writer and podcaster do not translate to television. “Internet personality doesn’t equal television personality, and the so-called internet faithful never came to television,” said one network producer.
Another producer questioned whether his digital popularity—and the popularity of others who have digital success in sports—could translate on the world’s largest consumption platform. The producers believed he should stick with his strengths: writing and podcasting.
One agent I spoke with predicted Simmons would never appear on HBO in a regular role. Instead, the agent said, Simmons would make a deep dive in the video space for his website, The Ringer, and turn his successful podcast network into a video play. “He succeeds if The Ringer succeeds,” said the agent. Another agent said Simmons’s future is in writing, podcasting and producing documentaries. “He has a big, loyal digital audience but that doesn’t translate to linear TV,” another agent said, adding that he thought Simmons would have to transition away from anything suggesting “Sports Guy” and move to something different.
It’s easy, of course, to Monday morning quarterback this, and Simmons still comes out a winner here because HBO’s involvement helped him fund The Ringer. As I have always said, I respect how Simmons used his media fame and brand to create real and sustaining jobs for writers, editors and podcasters. That’s a far more important legacy than any book, television show or podcast, and more worthy of support than the litany of hot take debaters. It’s also worth noting even for Simmons haters that a number of behind-the-scenes people who are not millionaires are out of jobs because of HBO’s decision. (I’d feel the same way for people behind the scenes working on a show co-hosted by Skip Bayless.)
I think Simmons is too competitive to never again appear on television. I’m not sure how many appearances he will make on HBO but I could definitely see him being part of specials or being a one-off guest. For the moment, I’d expect him to retreat back into The Ringer and write much more than he has over the past 12 months. I expect him to push heavy on his own podcast and find more places to add talent in the audio/video space. I’d also expect a 30 for 30-style documentary announcement soon from HBO. All of these will be positive steps to put Any Given Wednesday in the rear view. Keep in mind: Rebranding with a large audience is infinitely easier to do than with a small one.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. I spent the weekend in Baton Rouge with Verne Lundquist and the SEC On CBS crew for a piece coming Tuesday, including video of Lundquist discussing his final year in the SEC and how he prepares for games. Hope you like it.
1a. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp compiled NFL viewership numbers through Week 8 of the regular season, and primetime numbers continue to sink. Karp reported that ESPN is having its least-viewed season of Monday Night Football since it picked up the package before the 2006 season. MNF is averaging 10.6 million viewers per game, down 19% from the same point last year. NBC’s Sunday Night Football has averaged 19.4 million viewers, down 18% from the same point last year and the network’s lowest figure since 2009. CBS saw a 16% drop for its Thursday Night Football viewership.
Karp said the declines for the CBS and Fox Sunday telecasts have not been as great. CBS has averaged 17.2 million viewers, down 7% from last year and its lowest mark since 2012. Fox has had a 4% decline for its game telecasts and the lowest figure for the network through Week 8 since 2008.
1b. Karp said both Fox and CBS have declined in the 4:30 p.m. ET national windows on Sundays, which is traditionally the most-watched window of the week. CBS is down 11% while Fox is down 6%.
1c. ESPN’s College GameDay produced a beautiful feature on LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye, who survived the crash that killed Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Producers Nancy Devaney and Jon Fish and reporter Tom Rinaldi get major props here.
1d. Alabama’s 10–0 primetime win over LSU drew a 6.0 overnight rating, the highest-rated college football game of the weekend and tied for the second highest-rated game of the season (with Clemson-Louisville on ABC) behind Notre Dame-Texas.
1e. Here is something you did not see on CBS’s Alabama-LSU broadcast but I thought was worth passing on. I watched the game from the CBS booth high above Tiger Stadium and in the second half, the CBS camera operators spotted a 20-something woman in the stands who was either sleeping or, more likely, had taken in a few too many adult beverages at the epic LSU tailgate prior to the game. (Having experienced an LSU game for the first time, I bear witness to the incredible tailgate scene and a delicious local delicacy called Boudin balls.) Throughout one of the breaks, the shot was set up by the director to show this woman in the crowd, an obviously memorable shot given the impossibility of being asleep at a close game at Death Valley. This would have been GIF city, trust me. But at the last moment, the producer of the game, Craig Silver, decided to kill the shot. He did not want to put a target on this woman and have her embarrassed following the game. This was a singular decision during a sports TV broadcast of a million decisions, but a thoughtful one. I think many producers would have shown her, especially because it would have been picked up as an easy highlight nationally for an Alabama-LSU package. Respect to Silver.
2. World Series grades for Fox, TBS and both production teams.
2a. The 2016 World Series averaged a 13.1 rating and 23.4 million viewers on Fox, the highest-rated and most-watched World Series since 2004 when the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals in four games (15.8 rating and 25.4 million).
2b. Game 7 (40.045 million viewers) was the most-watched baseball game since Game 7 of the 1991 World Series (50.3 million viewers). It is the most-watched baseball telecast in Fox Sports history. The game peaked at 49.9 million viewers between 11:30 p.m.—11:45 p.m. ET, prior to the rain delay.
2c. Game 7 on Fox Deportes averaged 565,000 viewers, the most-watched baseball game and most-watched non-soccer sporting event in that network’s history.
2d. Here was Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes's final call from Wednesday night.
2e. Game 7 earned a 51.2 rating and 71 share in Chicago, the highest baseball rating on record in the market. Cleveland posted a 48.6 rating and 69 share for Game 7.
2f. The front pages for the Chicago Tribune from 1908 and 2016 after the Cubs won:
2g. Ad Age writer Anthony Crupi reported the median age for Fox’s coverage of Cubs-Indians was 53.6 years. That tied the 2012 Giants-Tigers World Series as the youngest-skewing MLB World Series in the last five seasons.
2h. Sportsnet (Canada) had its largest World Series audience in network history with an average audience of 2.66 million viewers tuning into Game 7. The company said 7.89 million Canadians watched some part of Game 7 on Sportsnet, and the 2016 World Series set a record for Sportsnet as the most-watched World Series in network history (1.26 million viewers).
3. Episode 85 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a roundtable sports media discussion with John Ourand, media reporter for the Sports Business Daily, and Jimmy Traina, writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback.
In the podcast, we discuss why NFL ratings have dropped this season and what it means for 2017 viewership; whether there is any validity to viewers protesting some players kneeling for the national anthem; what HBO will do with Bill Simmons’s “Any Given Wednesday;” ESPN’s declining subscribers and how much lower that number can go; whether FS1’s all-debate, all-the-time strategy will be successful; New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir leaving the sports media beat; the future for Mike Francesa and Mike Greenberg; the SI-Fox partnership; and much more. A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3a. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger was suspended for six months without pay last week for the comments he made on Philadelphia's 97.5 The Fanatic regarding the Eagles' game against the Cowboys. As part of an SI Media Podcast last week, Baldinger said the punishment was too harsh: “I think the punishment is far too great. The punishment just doesn't fit the crime. It's far too severe. When I saw that this was blowing up ... I honestly thought that I was prepared to make a very honest-felt apology to the NFL, to the Dallas Cowboys, to Ezekiel Elliott. And I was very much prepared to do that in person, to make a public statement, however they wanted me to do it. And I was prepared for maybe a one- or two-week suspension. That's what I thought the punishment should be. When I saw that it was six months, I was like, they've taken my livelihood away from me. It's too harsh for what I said and the spirit that I said it.”
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Tim Layden on the journey of California Chrome.
•From ESPN.com's Tom Junod: Eugene Monroe has a football problem.
Some memorable Cubs-Indians pieces:
• SI’s Tom Verducci on the storm, the speech and the inside story of the Cubs’ Game 7 triumph.
• ESPN’s Wright Thompson on the final wait for Cubs fans.
• ESPN’s Wayne Drehs: I postponed open-heart surgery for the Cubs.
• The New Yorker’s Roger Angell.
• The MMQB’s Tim Rohan on football in the border town of Brownsville, Texas.
• Man promised his dad if Cubs ever won World Series, they'd listen together. His dad died in '80. He kept his promise.
• Tampa Bay Times sports writer Tom Jones embedded at a barber shop with NBC’s Sunday Night Football analyst Tony Dungy.
• Here’s the final San Antonio Express sports column for longtime writer Buck Harvey.
Non sports pieces of note:
• New York Times columnist Dan Barry wrote a remarkable piece on a Latina hotel worker in Nevada. The best piece I read this week.
• The Washington Post asked, “When was America great?”
• Jason Diamond of Harpers Bazaar.com re-examined the literary brat pack of Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Donna Tartt and Jill Eisenstadt.
• Via The Washington Post: The 15 states that will decide the election.
• From SeattleMet’s Ciara O’Rourke: A growing crisis is coming for adults in the U.S. with a disability like autism who live with parents or another family member and who are at least 60 years old.
• Via NYT's opinion page: Imagining America on Nov. 9.
• Via Politico Magazine: How Trump Took Over The Media By Fighting It.
• Via The Globe and Mail (Canada): How Bill and Hillary raised and earned millions from Canada’s corporate elite.
5a. TNT's coverage of the Warriors' win over the Thunder last Thursday drew 3.8 million total viewers. That’s part of a strong start for Turner’s NBA coverage: TNT had averaged 2.7 million total viewers through its first six games, up 40% vs. last year’s season-to-date coverage (1.9 million viewers).
5b. The NCAA women’s basketball Final Four has a new announcing team (Dave O’Brien, Doris Burke and Holly Rowe) and a new host (Maria Taylor). ESPN said it will air 140 women’s basketball games across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Longhorn Network and SEC Network this season.
5c. FS1 will air the USA-Mexico match on Friday at 7:45 p.m. ET as part of the final round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying. Coverage begins on FS1 at 7 p.m. ET with a 60-minute pregame show leading into the match at 8 p.m. ET. After the game, FS2 features postgame analysis and commentary.
5d. ESPN sent out a long release last week on its men's college basketball assignments for 2016–17. The company will air more than 1,100 games across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, SEC Network and Longhorn Network. Here’s the 17,000-word release.
5e. ESPN announced it has re-signed men’s college basketball analysts Dan Dakich, Fran Fraschilla and Jay Williams. Dakich agreed to a three-year extension, Fraschilla a four-year deal and Williams signed a new three-year deal.
5f. CJR examined whether sports writers should enter the political sphere on social media.