How "PTI" and sports arguing conquered the on-air world
Somebody somewhere is shouting. Somebody somewhere is raising his voice, his hackles, possibly spitting, genuinely agitated over Tim Couch getting cut by the Green Bay Packers. Or Phil Mickelson switching to a new set of golf clubs. Or whatever else whips an otherwise genial middle-aged man into an apoplectic froth, sometimes lasting an entire minute.
Like, for instance, Ken Jennings, better known as the dude who keeps winning on "Jeopardy."
"I'm tired of this guy, tired of this topic," Michael Wilbon harrumphs. "I don't even believe it! It's like pro wrestling. Totally trumped up. Get him out!"
"This is America," Tony Kornheiser counters. "You keep going until you get beat! This isn't communist land! I hate this guy's guts. But I admire him. He's an amazing guy!"
Back and forth it goes. Kornheiser and Wilbon sit at a narrow table, trading quips and barbs like baseball cards. They could be mistaken for patrons at a sports bar, co-hosts on CNN's "Crossfire," a pair of bickering spouses (er, maybe in Massachusetts). But no. The two longtime friends and local sportswriters are gabbing on the downtown Washington set of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," a rapid-fire yakfest that happens to be the hottest sports program on television.
Not to mention the most influential, at least judging from a quick tour around the dial."Hey, Keyshawn [Johnson]! You are passe. You're selfish. Nobody cares what you think. Shut up!"
"I am disgusted by this! This is disgraceful that George [Steinbrenner] would even ask for a [forfeit]!"
"Donald Trump has already done this. And he's done this better. If you can't make a guy look good in the promos - how creepy does Mark Cuban look? - then you've got no shot!"
Call it Sports, Interrupted: A raft of talk shows and talking heads, united by contention and divided by, well, just about everything else. From "Around the Horn" to "Rome is Burning," from "I, Max" to "The Best Damn Sports Show Period," the athletic airwaves are alive with the sound of scrapping. And no matter the topic, only one rule applies.
If it's worthy of discussion - and by discussion we mean debate, which is a nice way of saying argument - it's worth discussing at exceedingly high volume.
"Sports is doing what news has been doing for the last few years," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Look at who's doing best in the 24-hour news channel race: Fox. They've injected opinion into their prime-time lineup.
"You have Bill O'Reilly, Hannity and Colmes. Put these kind of dramatic situations into a show, and between that and just talking about statistics or whatever, the first is more compelling."
In the beginning, there was the word. And the word was slightly more sedate. Though the injection of rancorous opinion into broadcast sports coverage dates at least as far back as Howard Cosell - whose solo salvos remain the gold standard - the first notable national round table-style show didn't come until the late 1980s, with the debut of ESPN's "The Sports Reporters."
Less "Fight Club" than chummy cigar bar, "The Sports Reporters" featured stately moderator Dick Schaap and a rotating panel of columnists holding court on the week that was. Sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful, guests seldom went for verbal knockouts; quainter still, they usually allowed each other to finish their sentences.
"On that show, you got back-and-forth for a few minutes," says Kornheiser, a regular on the show. "[Wilbon and I] owe whatever we do on television to having done that show. But ['Pardon the Interruption'] is light speed compared to that."
Indeed. Premiering in October 2001, "PTI" changed the rules. The show was faster. Louder. More pugnacious. Argument wasn't the happy byproduct of conflicting opinions; it was the very lifeblood of the program, the raison d'TiVo.
A typical episode works like this: Wilbon and Kornheiser sit middle-left in the television frame, buttressed by the "Rundown," a scrolling list of topics. They have anywhere from a few seconds to a minute and a half to debate a subject before a bell chime - think the end of a boxing round - cuts them off.
Each subject's intro is loosely scripted. Everything else is off the cuff. The result is short, snappy and compulsively watchable, in part because Wilbon and Kornheiser play a series of "Gong Show"-aping games, in part because they needle each other at every opportunity.
A recent show had the duo taking sides over Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna, who missed three extra points in a 22-21 overtime loss to LSU.
Wilbon: "The kid was in pain!"
Kornheiser: "I'm in pain doing this show with you!"
"If we had a lamp and a camera, we'd still have a show," says Erik Rydholm, the co-creator and coordinating producer. "Tony and Mike can argue and argue, at high passion and volume and never take it personally. They have the view that you don't have to win an argument. It's just fun to argue."
In retrospect, putting sports arguments on television sounds like a no-brainer, along the lines of home-delivered pizza. Still, Wilbon was skeptical when ESPN senior vice president Mark Shapiro met him in Los Angeles during the 2001 NBA Finals to pitch the show.
The network offered both writers a two-season deal, with an option for a third. Tony, Wilbon told his colleague, the worst-case scenario is that "PTI" gets canceled after a few months - and we still get paid for two years.
"I said, 'The worst?'" Kornheiser recalls with a laugh. "That's the best thing that could happen. I'm not falsely modest. We do a good job. But I had no idea it would be this successful."
No one did. "PTI" became a surprise hit, nearly doubling the ratings of its bubble gum predecessor, the squeezably soft athlete interview show "Up Close." Today "PTI" often draws as many viewers as the "SportsCenter" that follows, roping in the 18-34 male demographic that advertisers covet.
Wilbon says the show works because it doesn't cover sports in mind-numbing detail, making it accessible to a wide range of viewers. Rydholm believes the chemistry between his co-hosts - forged during two decades of bickering in the Washington Post newsroom - renders them as endearing as characters on a sitcom (coincidentally, Kornheiser's nonsports columns have inspired a new CBS series called "Listen Up" starring Jason Alexander ... and Malcolm Jamal-Warner as Wilbon).
Steve Czaban, host of a nightly national Fox radio show and "The Sports Reporters" on WTEM (AM-980), says "PTI" and its ilk are driven by the same overheated engine that powers sports talk radio, the one spurring fans since time immemorial. Or at least since the inventions of beer and professional football.
"It's the barstool argument," Czaban says. "Often pointless. Usually loud. At the core, it's what sports is all about for fans. Listeners want to be able to choose sides, like in pro wrestling.
"The crucial thing is being able to absolutely go after the other guy's jugular but afterward not have any hard feelings. The sports argument is probably one of the ways in code that men get to say to other men, 'Hey, I like you.' Because I'm bothering to yell at you."
Whatever the reason, the elemental DNA of "PTI" - guys shouting at each other, usually about sports, occasionally about Britney Spears - has spread through television like the West Coast offense through the NFL, each new variant adding its own wrinkle.
"Rome is Burning" features a version of the Rundown, only with host Jim Rome reading canned takes into the camera. "I, Max" positions host Max Kellerman in an Hobbesian state of eternal conflict against the entire world, albeit a world consisting of Boston writer Michael Holley and Fox football analyst Jay Glazer.
"The Best Damn Sports Show Period" plays out like a cross between "The View" and "Animal House," frat house-style yukking between manly man jocks and manly man ex-jocks. Plus - ahem - Tom Arnold.
"I feel a little flattered and a little ripped off," Wilbon says. "I see other shows, and I'm like, 'My God, at least credit us with something.' One show took the bell. We got a call from a show in Australia. We don't talk enough about rugby. So they're going to use our format."
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, Tony Reali sits in the downtown D.C. studio of "Around the Horn," four flat-screen monitors arrayed before him. Each screen plays host to a satellite-linked sportswriter from a different part of the country, all yammering about the baseball-themed film "Mr. 3,000."
"Mr. 3,000 is one of those cheap baseball movies that never works," Los Angeles' Bill Plaschke blurts.
"It's a shame Bernie Mac is wearing number 21 on his back as a tribute to Roberto Clemente," ESPN's Woody Paige interjects. "Clemente would be ashamed!"
"Can I just eat nails?" Dallas' Kevin Blackistone asks. "Or smash my knuckles with a ballpeen hammer instead?"
As the show's host, Reali acts as moderator, scorekeeper and part-time referee; in lieu of a whistle, he wields a mute button. Which gets quite a workout.
"The mute button is a great invention," Reali says with a grin. "Definitely the star of the show. I'd love to apply it in real life. Maybe when your boss is chewing you out or something."
Billing itself as "the show of competitive banter," "Around the Horn" puts a postmodern spin on the "The Sports Reporters," turning sports arguing into a sport all its own. Topics move quickly, in the style of "PTI," with each panelist granted a few moments to make a point and/or take a shot at the other guests. Reali "scores" their outbursts, eliminating contestants until only one remains.
The ultimate prize? Fifteen seconds of blessedly uninterrupted air time. The philosopher Hegel once wrote of history as dialectic, thesis and antithesis clashing to produce a more perfect synthesis; "Around the Horn" works in a similar fashion, only instead of synthesis you get Chicago's Jay Mariotti, ranting about the Williams sisters.
"On one level, it's like the painting of a black square," Thompson says. "You're not only watching a show talk about sports but a spectator sport all its own. When somebody makes a point at the expense of someone else, that facial expression from the vanquished is the equivalent of a home run."
Viewers, of course, dig the long ball. Yet as an increasing number of programs swing for the verbal fences - even "Good Morning America" has filched elements of "PTI" - the entire high-decibel genre risks striking out through sheer overkill.
Already, ESPN teeters on the brink of self-parody with its slew of copycat debate parings: gruff Mike Ditka and gabby Michael Irvin; burly Sean Salisbury and bespectacled John Clayton; and folksy Skip Bayless and screamin' Stephen A. Smith.
Too much of a good thing? As tiresome as TYPING IN ALL CAPS? Spinal Tap going to 11? Wilbon can't help but wonder.
"We worried about that when they put 'Around the Horn' on," he says. "It's right before my show. They talk about the same stuff. But so far, we've been wrong. People can't get enough of sports talk."
Especially if it's loud. Back on the "PTI" set, Wilbon and Kornheiser bicker over the fallout from a nasty incident involving Texas relief pitcher Frank Francisco, who hurled a chair into the stands in Oakland during a player-fan altercation.
"It doesn't mean that every single day you risk a riot with fans going into the stands or players going into the stands," Wilbon bellows. "It's not an epidemic! It's not a rash!"
"You think this is an overreaction?" Kornheiser retorts.
"Of course it's overreaction! What do you think it is?"
Kornheiser lets the question hang, pausing for the pitch-perfect rejoinder.
"It's somewhat of an overreaction."
Wilbon turns to the camera, shrugging.
"You have to disagree with me a little bit," he says with a smile.
Article originally published in The Washington Times