HBO officially announced on Friday that Any Given Wednesday, Bill Simmons’ very hyped sports talk show, has been cancelled and will air its final episode on November 9. This news isn’t shocking to anyone who’s been paying attention to the low ratings and dismal reviews of Simmons’ first television endeavor since his highly-contentious departure from ESPN in 2015.
Still, while the premium cable channel is moving on from this particular project, the HBO Sports Executive VP, Peter Nelson, made it clear that they remain committed to being a part of growing the Simmons brand.
“HBO is committed to Bill Simmons, and we are excited to bring his unique vision to bear on an array of new programming initiatives under the HBO Sports banner in 2017. Bill is an award-winning executive producer in the documentary arena, and we will work closely with him in developing new and engaging content for our subscribers.”
For his part, Simmons acknowledges his role in the show’s failure to connect with audiences in the way that he and the network had envisioned.
“One of the many reasons I joined HBO was to see if we could create a show built around smart conversations for sports fans and pop culture junkies,” said Simmons. “We loved making that show, but unfortunately it never resonated with audiences like we hoped. 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.”
It’s a little easier for Simmons to bite the bullet and admit defeat here because he knows that HBO is still committed to moving forward with him on other projects, presumably of the film variety. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten that he is the creator of ESPN’s incredibly successful 30 for 30 documentary series, and the trajectory of his career speaks for itself in terms of his involvement in groundbreaking aspects of sports media.
He was one of the first personalities to embrace podcasting back in 2007, and the now-defunct Grantland changed the landscape of digital sports media. The fact that nearly every major sports blog on the internet now crosses over into covering pop culture can be almost entirely attributed to the uber-successful model that Grantland put forth.
With all of that being said, there are some major flaws in Simmons’ approach to making successful TV programming that he will need to address if he wants to take another crack at it in the future. And since I’m a fan of the brand that he’s built (and I’m admittedly also a huge Boston sports fan) I figured I’d offer up a list of mistakes made this time that he could avoid next time around.
1. Bill Simmons Shouldn’t Have Hosted The Show
Simmons is a great writer, and from everything I’ve gathered, he’s a fantastic boss. His staff have glowing things to say about the opportunities they’ve been given over the years, from his former Grantland employees to the people who currently work for him at The Ringer and Any Given Wednesday. And that’s all not to mention that he has a keen eye for editorial talent and developing a voice surrounding his projects.
He’s a producer and a creator and visionary, but he is not a host. He always appears slightly uncomfortable on camera, and while his interviews on podcasts seem to flow naturally and with ease, his interviews on AGW never benefit from the same fluidity. The one-minute, mini-monologues that he delivers as questions on a podcast seem to drag on for hours when you’re watching on a screen.
The show had incredible guest pairings that somehow were swallowed up by the pace of Simmon’s interviewing. Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban. Larry Wilmore and Bill Burr. Bob Costas and Al Michaels. There were so many missed opportunities there, which we will circle back to later. But what Simmons should have done was the Tyler Perry thing where he brands the show with his name and hands hosting duties off to someone else ie. Bill Simmons presents Any Given Wednesday with Tanya Ray Fox.
Has a nice ring to it, right?
2. They Didn’t Try Hard Enough To Create Viral Moments
Let’s face it, the virality of a late night show is as important as just about anything these days. It’s the reason that a show like Garbage Time with Katie Nolan is still on the air. She speaks out on important topics and engages on social media and despite the fact that the show airs very late on the ratings-anemic Fox Sports 1, she has about 20 segments that have garnered over 200k views. Meanwhile less than a handful of AGW’s videos have topped 200k, and Bill Simmons is a far bigger name than Nolan. For now. He also presumably worked with a much larger budget and definitely had a much bigger staff.
If you go so far as to compare the online performance of AGW to HBO’s other late night vehicle, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the numbers aren’t even close. Week after week, Oliver creates delivers impassioned, relevant, funny and sometimes controversial content to viewers that can easily be digested online in 5-10 minute increments. And those segments on YouTube are being viewed millions of times each.
It looked like the show had a real shot at capitalizing on the super-viral Ben Affleck DeflateGate rant, but that turned out to be the show’s peak in terms of water cooler moments. The formula for internet success is by no means simple, but it’s also not as difficult as Simmons was making it. People want to see someone who is passionate. They want debate with an identity, be it seriousness or hilarity. They want structure to what they are watching. You’ll notice that in the few highly-viewed segments the show did produce, they followed that formula.
3. Simmons Narrates Like He Writes
Watching the vignettes and narrated packages on the show was like listening to a high school kid read their A+ paper out loud to the class. They were rigid and packed full of flowery imagery and historical references and almost always lacked the one thing that any segment like that must contain: information that we didn’t already know. Take this example from a recent episode:
The Charlie Sheen joke would probably have earned a chuckle or at least a half-hearted snuff if it were inserted to a column. But in this format, it falls utterly flat. I’m willing to bet that Simmons wrote this as a column and then just read it word for word.
That just doesn’t work. If you’re going to voice over a package like that, you need to have layers and dynamism to your voice. Bill has never been a television reporter, and you can tell by the lack of intent in his narration. Reporters and commentators always joke about their “TV” voice, but it’s for good reason. The TV voice adds gravitas, and employs perfectly timed pauses and starting and finishing phrases with a slight exaggeration that would be out of place in conversation, but translate very well on television.
4. The Show Lacked Episodic Continuity
Another thing that John Oliver’s show does very well is they establish what it is going to cover, and then they meticulously dig into it. Simmons’ show often wavered between catering the topics to the guests and trying to get guests to talk about the topics he knows a lot about. It didn’t seem to adapt with the news cycle, and in this age and stage of sports media, that’s a mistake. There have been enough ruminations on the 1980’s Celtics and whether Phil Jackson was overrated to last us a lifetime.
What people want is a conversation about why Roger Goodell is still in power after botching yet another domestic violence situation, or who’s Team Kevin Durant or Team Westbrook in the best pop culture frenemy battle we’ve had since Heidi and Lauren on The Hills.
Here’s a perfect example of how they almost got a great moment and then blew it.
You see where that clip gets cut off? Immediately after, Simmons transitions into freaking mailbag questions. NO NO NO NO NOOOOO. WHY ARE WE NOT REVISITING THAT LITTLE REDSKINS SITUATION?! Ugh. Here are two of the most famous broadcasters in the history of sports broadcasting having an awesome “Grumpy Old Men” moment regarding a super relevant topic, and Simmons blows right past it so that we can hear a 30-second, undeveloped thought from Bob Costas on how to fix baseball? Al Michaels just shit all over the NFL’s color rush uniforms and he’s on a roll. Let it ride and see where this goes!
5. The Show Needed A Round Table Discussion
Back to the missed opportunities that I mentioned a while back. Perhaps the best thing about Larry Wilmore’s cancelled The Nightly Show (gone way too soon, IMO) were the round table discussions that closed out every episode. With Wilmore as the moderator, a panel of show writers and a guest would discuss the most controversial topic of the day or week, providing unique perspectives on the same issue. And by using writers as part of the panel, and because the writers were comedians and had obvious mutual respect for one another, they were able to break up the tension that can sometimes arise in those kind of debates.
Now imagine a five-minute round table with Jay Glazer, Malcom Gladwell and two millennial comedic show writers talking about the recent revelations regarding former NFL player Kevin Turner’s horrifically advanced CTE. Or how about Joe Rogan, Anthony Anderson and a couple of different writers discussing what the hell Joe Maddon was doing in Game 7 of the World Series and what would’ve happened if they’d lost?
Simmons had the right idea by trying to facilitate a meeting of the minds, but he failed to find a compelling way to do so.