Will Bill Simmons Salvage His HBO Show?


Bill Simmons has seven episodes of Any Given Wednesday remaining in 2016, and they are of critical importance for setting the tone for the future of the show, and possibly even preserving it. By traditional metrics, the show has thus far not achieved success. The content has been evolving. Judgment of that, both internally and amongst viewers, is inherently subjective. There have been promising flashes, but in aggregate the show has not resonated with the general public relative to resources and expectations.

Simmons appears aware that this is “go” time.

In a Boston Globe Q&A last week, Chad Finn asked Simmons what he learned from writing on the first season of Jimmy Kimmel Live. “[T]here are two TV shows: the show you thought you were gonna do, then the show you eventually end up doing,” he answered. “And how you handle the transition between those two versions determines whether it’s going to live or not. But Jimmy had it so much harder than me — he had to host a new show five nights a week and his office was in a basement with no windows. He started to turn this weird color about three months in… he kinda looked like rice pudding. But look at him now!”

Just from a presentation perspective, there have been noticeable changes from the June premiere. For one, he’s been dressing progressively nicer. In the first episode, he wore an unbuttoned shirt over a tee. By episode 4 with Aaron Rodgers, the shirt was mostly buttoned. Of late, he’s been wearing a jacket.

The show has added a small studio audience that laughs and applauds. On his weekly individual commentary essays, the screen originally shifted between highlights, graphics, and cuts of Simmons looking into the camera. Now, he is heard but not seen on them. “Winners and Losers” at the opener provides structure to a guest segment, and also enables it to feel more like a conversation than an interview. These have all been positive changes, but there is more that can be done.

The commentary essays in general do not feel essential to me. The latest one provided advice to Cubs fans in these playoffs, which mostly served as a vehicle for Simmons to talk about himself and the 2004 Red Sox. There were references to Swingers and Major League. He’s talked about these things once or twice before.

The graphics — this one featured Curt Schilling’s head superimposed on a baby because Bill wanted to name his kid Curt Pedro Simmons at the time, but luckily had a girl — are of a strange sensibility, and the scripts are not clever and profound enough that you’d realize he has multiple Jon Stewart Daily Show alumni on his staff.

Last month, Simmons used Les Miles’s firing at LSU as a peg to rail against golden parachutes for fired college football coaches. While this topic has a lot of merit, as Football Scoop noted, Simmons omitted the fact that Miles had offset language in his contract so if he gets another coaching job LSU is on the hook for far less than $12.9 million. (THR reported that Simmons is making $7-9 million annually, and USA Today wrote that his deal was for three years and north of $20 million total; if HBO opts to cancel the show before the end of the deal, he would fall somewhere between Les Miles and Charlie Weis.)

There are multiple ways the show could substitute for the commentaries. Interviews could go longer and therefore have more time to breathe. For example, the interesting conversation with Mark Cuban and Malcolm Gladwell easily could’ve had more time. Or, maybe there could be produced feature segments, comparable to 30 for 30 shorts that ran on Grantland, which could contextualize random history or shine a light on compelling quirky stories off the beaten path?

Many of the conversations have been worthwhile, and the guest list has featured a diverse array of people in sports, business, and entertainment. Aaron Rodgers was great (my critique about Simmons not asking him about his brother notwithstanding). Doug Baldwin’s quote about an NFL owner warning players not to protest on “his stage” made national headlines (though, it’s possible this quote was an Internet hoax that then permeated through locker rooms). Overall, the program has not yet given us a reason why we need to see them on television instead of waiting for various curators to tell us what mattered most and find it on YouTube. And, anecdotally, there’s not been much buzz there lately either.

It’s been a couple months since major news relevant to one of his guests — Derrick Rose traded to the Knicks when Charles Barkley was on, or Dwyane Wade going to the Bulls after Chris Bosh was in-studio — broke in between Tuesday afternoon taping and Wednesday night airing. Nevertheless, the show would feel like it has more urgency if it aired live, or at the very least taped on Wednesday afternoon. There is nothing about the show, executive produced by former NFL Network executive Eric Weinberger, that is so graphically intricate or wowing to justify the lengthy turnaround.

Every Thursday after the show airs, the Sports TV Ratings proprietor tweets out this viewership table, which is trending in the wrong direction:

Prior to October 5th, when the program lost two-thirds of its lead-in, it had its three lowest viewership totals on-record. Tonight’s episode will feature Bob Costas and Al Michaels, which should be very compelling, but unfortunately for the program it is going head-to-head with Cubs-Dodgers.

In late August, there was a torrent of bad press about the show, and it felt like things might be irrevocably spiraling out of control. An HBO spokesman responded to a particularly critical story by Michael McCarthy in Sporting News — which noted that Michael Lombardo, the former HBO president who brought Simmons aboard, was no longer in charge at the network, and opined that the “clock is ticking” — with what is what is referred to in conversations about coaching hot seats as the dreaded vote of confidence: “Bill is an authentic and unique voice. He is building a connection to the HBO subscriber base. We are excited to see the show unfold in the coming weeks and months.”

Ad Age noted the following metrics shortly thereafter:

"But live-same-day ratings only tell about 10% of this particular ratings story. HBO insiders say “Any Given Wednesday” improves on its original live deliveries by a factor of 10 when DVR playback, encore telecasts, on-demand views and HBO Now streams are baked into the mix, bringing the average weekly total audience to around 2.4 million viewers — a lift that is nothing short of remarkable."

The Sporting News update noted that corresponding number for Bill Maher was 4.4 million. HBO reps did not, as of publication, acquiesce to a direct request by email and phone for an update on these metrics, and declined to either comment or make an executive available for comment on this story. A rep for Simmons did not respond to an email seeking comment.

To be fair, Simmons in retrospect picked as bad a time in recent memory to launch a sports studio show. The election circus, combined with a dreck NFL season, has crushed everybody. It’s no coincidence that the biggest breakout stars of The Ringer have been former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, who host the Keepin’ it 1600 podcast.

Simmons is spread very thin. His television show is in conjunction with a nascent web site, a podcast network, and his own weekly podcasts. When you launch a media business, all of a sudden you don’t just have to deal with content and distribution. There’s payroll, taxes, lawyers, human resources, advertisers, etc., etc. Yes, he has large support staffs in these endeavors, and chose to juggle all these things at the same time. But, when you compare his television show to John Oliver’s, think about it: When do you ever see Oliver’s work outside of Last Week Tonight? Is it any surprise that this focus, and years of training in performance art, yields a better product?

Simmons is a lightning rod, and there can be a lot of schadenfreude in sports media circles when he struggles. This is in part because he was constantly immersed in political battles against ESPN’s old guard, and in part because he has been critical of other professionals’ work over the years. As we have previously noted, he has gone after people like Chris Berman and Mike & Mike over softball questioning, but has not exactly interrogated any of his own guests. In Jim Miller’s oral history of ESPN, he had this to say about Joe Buck’s ill-fated HBO show:

With Any Given Wednesday, we are transitioning from the “it’s early” phase to a crucial stretch for results. In his concise answer to the Boston Globe, Simmons was making the case, which he has made before, that Jimmy Kimmel Live faltered out of the gate but gained its footing in no small part because it was afforded patience from ABC bosses. Now, Kimmel has as stable and secure a job as exists in television.

While I wouldn’t say it’s a probability that Any Given Wednesday does not make it to 2017, imminent cancellation is not out of the realm of possibility. How much improvement he needs to show and will exhibit, and how long of a rope HBO will give him, is a difficult thing to determine because both sides are notoriously impervious to leaks. If television viewership does not improve soon, at least part of his future will presumably be determined by how cooperative he is with creative suggestions from above.

As I previously wrote about the launch of The Ringer, anybody who is in this field should be rooting for Simmons to succeed. He has used his pull to create jobs and exposure for dozens and dozens of young talents, and if his show endures it would set a precedent for more risk-taking opportunities in the future of sports media. Let’s see how these next few months play out.