Last week, a radical experiment took place in the world of sports programming: Fox tested a show for its new sports network that was not built around two guys arguing with each other in staged debate.
The show, tentatively called Red, White and Truth, is to be hosted by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock. It was ordered up by none other than Fox News president Roger Ailes. He was apparently inspired by this interview, which was itself occasioned by Bob Costas reading an excerpt from a Whitlock column on Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who had just committed a murder-suicide, and gun control during a Sunday Night Football game.
Whitlock told me that the show would be a combination of interviews and panel discussions—“a mishmash of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher,” as he described it. “I think there’s an opportunity to pump the brakes and be provocative without it being a shouting match.”
Whitlock’s many strongly held opinions include a high one of himself: Earlier this year, he wrote a column bemoaning the fact that as an online columnist he’s ineligible for a Pulitzer Prize. He is also better known for lead-footing the gas than for pumping the brakes. (This over-the-top interview, in which he compared ESPN.com’s treatment of him to that of Kunta Kinte, cost him his job on the network.) Which makes you wonder if Whitlock is the right man to carry out his own vision. But before we dismiss this whole project entirely, let’s take a closer look.
It’s hard to reduce the subjects discussed during the show’s test run to a sentence or two, which is sort of the point. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail that went out to the panel participants:
The tearing down of Jason Collins is now underway. His ex-fiancee criticized him in a magazine interview, questioning his priorities. She says Collins has yet to meet with her privately and discuss his sexuality and explain why he lived a lie with her for eight years. Her criticism is certainly justified. However, should we in the media expect to find a perfect man when we examine Jason Collins and his motives for announcing his homosexuality in Sports Illustrated X months ago? Many in the media have already suggested Collins came out of the closet as a means to play in the NBA for one more year. Are Collins' motives and character relevant?
The basic idea is simple: Replace pointless, contrived arguments over insignificant issues with genuine, original thoughts and conversations about subjects that actually matter.
A worthy cause! But is it even remotely possible?
After all, it’s not as though we have arrived here by accident. Live events may drive sports-network revenues, but no matter how many rights your network holds, you’re still left with a lot of airtime to fill. Is there an easier, cheaper way to do it than to pre-program a couple of sports guys for outrage and then just flip the switch? Sports is the 24-hour news cycle’s ideal co-conspirator; there’s always something going on. And if it’s worth reporting on, it’s worth arguing about.
“You can get TV magic when you can find a duo who find a way to make one plus one equal three,” said Jamie Horowitz, a producer at ESPN. “That’s a forever challenge, but when you get it right you get a PTI or you get a First Take.”
Of course, one sports fan’s TV magic is another’s TV nightmare. First Take is the debate show taken to its logical, debased extreme. It’s the Jerry Springer Show of sports, only instead of pitting guest against guest, Skip Bayless does the wet work himself, trying to bait athletes into insulting other athletes or shouting at his hopped-up co-host, Stephen A. Smith.
Is it too optimistic to think that Whitlock might be on to something? Maybe we’re all getting sick of the manufactured outrage, the mindless debates. “When you think about it, the fact that a bunch of middle-aged men—and we’re talking mostly about middle-aged men—can work themselves into a state of high dudgeon over a dozen or more sports topics each day is really kind of silly,” Costas told me.
ESPN knows this. They want the ratings bonanza provided by shows like First Take, but they’d rather have their brand defined by more thoughtful commentators. That’s why they just ate a big pile of crow to bring back Keith Olbermann, who has basically done everything short of keying executives’ cars in the parking lot of ESPN headquarters. (The re-hiring of Olbermann underscores another reality of the sports-show-entertainment complex: There just isn't enough talent to fill the hours.)
Is the race to the bottom finally coming to an end? The fact that Fox Sports 1 seems to be positioning itself as a less brainy alternative to ESPN—“Jockularity,” is the unfortunate catch phrase coined by the network’s CEO—isn't exactly heartening. In the absence of encouraging signs, all we have is the increasingly inescapable reality that it’s time for a better sports show, one that doesn't assault our senses and insult our intelligence. Wouldn't it be funny if we got a show matching that description, and we had Roger Ailes to thank for it?
Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.