Talking the talk: ESPN's hits, and misses

February, 3, 2012
2/03/12
12:44
PM ET
There's a lot of sports talk on ESPN during weekday afternoons, and last week the Poynter Review Project consumed a steady diet of it. I began at noon, with the last hour of "The Herd," a simulcast of Colin Cowherd's radio show, and after that switched between ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS until 6 p.m., when either "Pardon the Interruption" or "SportsNation" ended.

Granted, that's a somewhat artificial diet. I suspect most ESPN viewers (or at least the gainfully employed ones) watch a show or two, rather than sit down for six hours at a stretch. But a weeklong immersion was a good way to gather impressions about what works, what doesn't, and how ESPN's choice of formats shapes the conversations that make these shows soar or struggle.

ESPN has an enviable amount of talent at its disposal, from veteran interviewers to interesting guests. Nearly everyone on the air had an impressive knowledge of sports, good points to make, and proved entertaining company.

But too often it felt like conversations were cut short or dumbed down. I don't blame the panelists, but the shows themselves. Over and over, I saw interesting discussions abandoned because a show was charging hard to the next segment, or intriguing conversations that failed to develop because panelists and viewers alike were focused on countdown clocks or scorekeeping. Such devices discourage real conversation in favor of sports bromides and manufactured disagreements.

The week's best conversations came when the pace was less frantic. "Outside the Lines" was consistently smart and informative, whether the topic was Joe Paterno, how things go awry for place-kickers, or stem-cell therapy for athletes. It helps that host Bob Ley is a superb interviewer, with a sure-handed way of nudging conversations in the desired direction and a sense of when an apparent tangent is actually a more interesting topic. Take Tuesday's show, when Ley patiently steered former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart away from clichés about taking it to the next level, then followed writer Stefan Fatsis's lead into a good conversation about kickers' preparations.

We live in a hurry-up age in which not every show can move at the stately pace of OTL. But there were other times when ESPN personalities pushed more deeply into a subject in search of new insights and arguments.

On Tuesday's show, Cowherd argued that college coaches are often socially awkward and live in a bubble, which might help explain Paterno's reported bafflement about the sexual nature of alleged contacts between former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and boys. Cowherd flashed back to his days covering UNLV basketball under then-coach Jerry Tarkanian, whom Cowherd said was so immersed in coaching that he wasn't aware of the Iran hostage crisis -- even as it led the news every night. That was an angle on Paterno I hadn't heard before. The next day, Cowherd used the tiff between Peyton Manning and the Colts as a jumping-off point to discuss how difficult quarterback successions are for even the best-run NFL teams -- a topic that wouldn't have worked crammed into a quick bite. (The apparently tireless Cowherd also shows up on "SportsNation," but that show can barely catch its breath, and the audience chatter is a distraction.)

The Manning soap opera also led to a good conversation on the "Scott Van Pelt Show." On Friday, Van Pelt and co-host Ryen Russillo delved into Manning, Colts owner Jim Irsay and the best role for a team owner in today's age of constant communication. The conversation was engaging for a number of reasons: Van Pelt is thoughtful and curious, his rapport with Russillo feels easy and natural, and both are more interested in generating light than heat. But mostly, the segment worked because the two had time for an actual conversation.

Elsewhere, those conversations were harder to find. "Numbers Never Lie" is breezy and cheerful, but it's also a bait-and-switch, claiming to be "a nerdy show" but really just uses numbers as decorative elements for the kind of Just So Stories about teams' momentum and desire that you hear elsewhere. Wednesday's show was particularly aggravating: Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders used a relatively simple stat called "points prevented per drive" to demonstrate that the Patriots' defense bends but doesn't break. But fellow panelists Michael Smith and Hugh Douglas (another former pro) repeatedly cut him off with complaints such as "here we go with the decimals" and "you are making this game way too hard." It was pretend stupidity meant for comic effect, but by stifling any real conversation, it gave an uncomfortably convincing impression of the real thing.

Then there's "Around the Horn." Tony Reali is a slyly charming emcee, everybody seems to be having a good time, and the half-hour passes quickly enough. But "Around the Horn" is so full of countdown clocks, lightning rounds and tallying up points that the panelists -- many of them newspaper veterans known for lyrical writing -- struggle to have a real conversation. By boiling the talk down to scoring points, even in jest, "Around the Horn" encourages quick hits and contrived arguments, with nuance rare and insight hard to discover.

Take Monday's show. The gang was discussing Paterno, and panelist Woody Paige noted how former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes' secretary recalled the great coach's sadness after he was forced into retirement. It was a nice moment, but Reali cut him off because it was Tim Cowlishaw's turn. Later, Smith offered an evocative line about Paterno's legacy: "There's a 'but' with everybody. ... We're all going to leave with regrets." That could have been the start of a great conversation, but it was off to someone else. The format killed any chance for real discussion and deeper insight.

Sometimes shows rise above these limitations. "Pardon the Interruption" is also thick with segments, but it has fewer moving parts, and co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are so well-matched that you feel like you've dropped in on a years-long conversation. (Which you have.) Still, I found myself wishing I could watch them without timers and incessant reminders of upcoming topics. On Wednesday, the two dug into the Bruins' Tim Thomas refusing to visit the White House with his teammates. They brought up previous athletes who'd skipped the trip, wondered if Manny Ramirez knew there was a president, and pondered the difference between the president and the office of the president. Good stuff, and I would have listened to more, but the clock was running -- and so with that surface barely scratched, off we raced to something else.

The most pleasant surprise in the afternoon lineup is a recent addition -- "Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable," which features Le Batard (of the Miami Herald) and his father, Gonzalo, identified only as Papi. The two debate the sports stories of the day, with Papi playing the charming clown and the younger Le Batard in the unlikely role of straight man. "Highly Questionable" has the same on-camera ADD as the shows around it, but the goofy interplay between father and son fits the format. Even better are Le Batard's interviews: He's a fearless, slightly unhinged questioner, merrily needling guests and relentlessly pushing them into subject areas where you're not sure they or Le Batard really feel safe going.

The two Le Batards would be a poor fit for a show such as "Outside the Lines," but The Poynter Review Project thinks they are exceptions that prove the rule. In too many other cases, I found myself wishing the panelists had more time to address fewer subjects. That would let them make better use of the knowledge and passion that got them on ESPN in the first place.

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