When news broke that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was upholding Tom Brady’s four-game suspension on Tuesday, everyone in our industry understandably had something to say, with thousands of collective hours spent writing and talking about Brady, Goodell, the federal court system and, yes, balls.
What a time for Bill Simmons to be caught in contract limbo.
The Simmons we knew at ESPN would have written six thousand words about Goodell, Brady, their back-channel dealings that fell through and why the NFL still feels the need to release statements by printing, scanning and saving a document as an image, thereby making it as difficult as humanly possible for media to reprint the commissioner’s ruling without typing the whole damn thing in again. Oh, and balls.
The ESPN-era Simmons would have been thought-leading and debate-embracing the hell out of this week’s DeflateGate news, hosting three different podcasts on the topic with other Boston-area celebrefans, doing regular spots on ESPN Radio and PTI and probably turning the Grantland Basketball Hour television program into 17 ways the Brady news will impact the Celtics this season.
Dumbest part of DeflateGate (Day 192): People actually think Brady should have given his private cell phone to the NFL… aka, Leak Central.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) July 28, 2015
When he was officially hired by HBO, Simmons said he considers the company, “the single best place for creative people in the entire media landscape,” so it makes perfect sense that a guy with as much freedom as Simmons had on a tight ship like ESPN will feel like he’s hopping on a never-ending booze cruise at HBO.
When he finally starts at HBO, Simmons is going to be himself in as many different ways and on as many different platforms as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if he already has 50,000 words in the can about his experience at ESPN or the summer he had off from work and decided rent an RV and take a driving tour of the Road Rules seasons in chronological order. It’s going to be a Simmons explosion come October.
This, from HBO’s release when Simmons was officially announced, speaks to the many different projects Simmons could be juggling for the it’s-not-TV TV station when he officially begins.
HBO will be Simmons’ exclusive television home. The overall agreement, which begins in October, provides for a comprehensive partnership on a variety of platforms between the network and Simmons. Among the elements of the new deal will be a talk show set to premiere in 2016 that will air on the main HBO service, as well as the HBO digital platforms HBO GO® and HBO NOWSM. Topical and spontaneous, the show will feature stories and guests from across the sports and cultural landscapes.
Simmons will also have a production deal to produce content and assets for the network and its digital platforms, delivering video podcasts and features. In addition, Simmons will be consulting with HBO Sports, working closely with HBO Sports president Ken Hershman on non-boxing-related programming, including the development of shows and documentary films for the network.
Let’s work backwards on that segment of the HBO release. Simmons has been lauded for his involvement with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentaries, so HBO seemed like a logical place for him to land all along, given the network’s long history of amazing documentaries. Simmons won’t be bleeding in to the HBO boxing world too much, per the release, but it’s hard to imagine him staying too far away from the hype machine of a big-ticket fight when the chance arrives.
Obviously Simmons will be charged with bringing back his podcast, and a video podcast makes the most sense for HBO to push it through HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as traditional audio podcast avenues. It wouldn’t make sense for HBO to give a Simmons-hosted podcast away for free, but the potential for a free audio-only version on iTunes and other download sites could satiate The Sports Guy’s fans who don’t have HBO, keeping him as relevant as possible outside the paywall, while giving those with the pay channel a premium-level Simmons experience.
There are an unlimited number of ways Simmons could go with HBO in terms of creating unique sports-related features, so rather than posit some of those ideas here and give them away for free ourselves, let’s just agree there are a lot, and wait for Simmons or HBO to call directly to find out the ones we might be thinking of right now. (You have my number, yes?)
The first part of the HBO statement above, however, is the most intriguing. HBO will be the exclusive television home for Simmons, which makes sense and is all well and good, but does anyone have any idea what that exactly means?
Again, from the HBO release: “Topical and spontaneous, the show will feature stories and guests from across the sports and cultural landscapes.”
In other words, they have no freaking idea.
The good thing for both Simmons and HBO is that they have at least six months to figure out what a Simmons-led television show will look like. The bad thing for both Simmons and HBO is that of all the things The Sports Guy is great at in this industry, being on television might be the weakest.
Hosting a live television show on HBO will not be the same thing as hosting a podcast, and while technically both are “TV”, it’s not close to sitting around a makeshift “man cave” with your friends talking about basketball on ESPN2 either.
All eyes will be on the Simmons-led television show on HBO, and the success of that program—no matter how great the writing and podcast and producing may become for HBO—may ultimately determine whether this partnership is a success.
Can Bill Simmons be the next Bill Maher or Bryant Gumbel at HBO, or will he be the next Bob Costas, or dare-I-say Joe Buck?
In other words, will Simmons be the host of a tentpole sports show for HBO for more than a decade, or have Buzz Bissinger and Artie Lange already conspired to ruin him before he has a chance to start?
Moreover, what would a Simmons-led weekly show look like? In order to figure that out, it’s worth looking at similar offerings at HBO to understand what could or couldn’t work for Simmons.
Real Sports has been a fixture at HBO for many years. Led by Bryant Gumbel, the show is rather basic in television format—60 Minutes-esque—with a rotating cast of journalists coming in to talk with Bryant about an investigation or interview they’ve conducted before or after airing the report itself.
Real Sports is as serious as HBO can get, and while that works for an old news man like Gumbel, it doesn’t behoove HBO or Simmons go to in that direction with another sports show, led by a guy who spends nearly as much time tweeting about The Bachelor as he does DeflateGate. That’s not to suggest Gumbel isn’t OMGing right now that Ben H has been seen around town with Tenley from season 14 and…yeah I have no idea who any of these people are.
To borrow a phrase, let’s move on.
The most popular show on HBO right now in the “man sitting and talking about current events” genre is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which is essentially The Daily Show with a full week to prepare each topic. Simmons is not a comedian, and while he’s written for comedy talk shows in his career and could certainly hire a host of top-level talent to write for him should HBO go that route, he lacks the freneticism and incisive sarcasm that makes Oliver’s delivery, and therefore entire program, so hilarious.
In short, if you can’t be as funny as the actually funny guy on the network, don’t try to be funny at all.
The most likely HBO show to mimic would be Real Time with Bill Maher, which follows another familiar television format: monologue, single guest spot, panel discussion, rinse, repeat.
The format of Real Time lends itself to Maher’s style much like Last Week Tonight does to Oliver’s. Maher made his bones as a stand-up comic, so his monologues aren’t just bitingly critical, they’re presented as something of a stage act, choreographed to play off the audience like only a comedian-turned-talk show host would be able to do.
As good as Simmons is at what he’s done, putting him in that setting could be really rough. He’s friends with Jimmy Kimmel, but he ain’t Jimmy Kimmel.
Even without the monologue, would Simmons even fit in the role of a talk-show host in the traditional television sense? He can lead a roundtable discussion on sports with the best of them, but on a podcast you are seldom beholden to a clock like you are on television. Simmons’ entire media persona has been about quantity as much as quality; why write 1,500 words when you can write 5,100, and why do a 12-minute interview with Jon Hamm when he’s available for 45?
That mentality has made Simmons a star, but it rarely ever works on television. It never works on live television, so unless HBO is suddenly willing to change its talk-show dynamic to record and edit a show led by Simmons, there’s less a chance that format would work. Unless HBO did something radical like…giving Simmons an actual host for his show, allowing him to play the role of expert and lead panelist without having to worry about the ins and outs of running the show.
Remember the ill-fated ABC show The Marriage Ref, produced by Jerry Seinfeld? It was a disaster, but the model could have worked on TV. Seinfeld didn’t host the show, but it was abundantly clear whose show it was, even when he wasn’t there. Tom Papa played the role of host, and did as good a job as someone could in trying to get a group of celebrities to decide who was right in a fight between two married people willing to go on television to let said group of celebrities make such decision for them.
Again, the show was a disaster, but the basic format could be a viable option for a show led by Simmons on HBO.
Everyone tuning in to HBO would know they were watching Simmons’ show, and Simmons could run the panel discussions and conduct the one-on-one interviews with celebrities and sports luminaries, but he wouldn’t have to worry about the logistics of actually hosting a television program. Simmons would never have to worry not having enough time to talk just because he wasn’t hosting the show, but he wouldn’t have to worry about getting everyone equal time, either.
With that in mind, the format would be simple: A snazzy intro with some Simmons hot takes sprinkled on top of a mock version of the 90210 theme song as the show opens to a wide shot of Simmons sitting across from the aforementioned Papa or Chris Hardwick or Tom Bergeron or that guy who hosts all the food infomercials who is totally amazed at how a plastic dome can perfectly cook a frozen steak in 30 minutes without ANY SEASONING AT ALL.
It really doesn’t matter who it is, so long as HBO finds someone who will compliment Simmons without overshadowing him. The duo would set the agenda for the show and talk about the top story of the week for a few minutes, giving Simmons the chance to play expert without the pressure of writing and performing a monologue. It’s always easier to talk to someone else than stare into a camera or at a studio audience. Remember: in all that Simmons did in his career at ESPN, he’s never done that, so why would HBO want to put him in a situation where they have no idea if he will be a success, when he’s already proven he can be a success at so many other things?
Segment two of the Real Simmons with Bill Simmons show (working title) could be a taped piece putting Simmons out on the street, in some combination of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” and Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, where maybe Simmons goes to a Los Angeles deli to talk to old people about sports today, or Cousin Sal or that other guy journeys across the globe—think Uncle Traveling Matt from HBO’s greatest show ever, Fraggle Rock—sending back scripted tales of his sports-adjacent adventures in strange new lands like Kuala Lumpur or Schenectady.
The third and final segment of the show would be a roundtable discussion introduced by the host, but led by Simmons, with three or four guests from the connected worlds of pop culture and sports bouncing ideas off Bill for twenty or thirty minutes until the host chimes in that it’s time to wrap things up.
Imagine a panel led by Simmons with Magic Johnson, Chrissy Teigen, David Simon and, I don’t know, Jay Glazer, talking about DeflateGate, Tom Brady’s choice in cell phones and Roger Goodell’s competence as a commissioner.
Tell me you wouldn’t watch that. I dare you.
A show like that could work. It could also be a disaster like Joe Buck Live was after two episodes.
Buck is good at a lot of things, and the guy does have a ton of personality and dry wit if you pay close enough attention, but putting him on a live set with a crazy guest and a hot mic undid everything HBO had planned before the show had any chance to succeed at all. Buck got neutered by his own format, and people quickly realized they don’t need THAT MUCH Joe Buck in their lives. (Below clip is, clearly, NSFW.)
The same could honestly be said for Costas, who has had two iterations of a similar sports forum type of show on HBO. Costas, like Buck, is great at a lot of things, but hosting a show like he has for HBO never drew the buzz it could have, outside of the famed “Big Daddy Balls” episode that changed the course of sports media forever.
Unlike Oliver, and to a lesser extent, Maher, Costas was never able to generate the same attention for other episodes—they were Buzzless, and therefore without much buzz—no matter how robust the panel was or how pointed and compelling the topics.
The question HBO needs to answer is, can Simmons?
Sports work on HBO. Hard Knocks is a testament to that. Ballers got renewed for a second season. Hell, Arli$$ was on the air forever. Real Sports has been a mainstay for years and the boxing programming on HBO is enormous. But a sports-based talk show has never really worked the way HBO has hoped, and even if the show is “topical and spontaneous” that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be, you know, good.
HBO knows the podcast is going to be a huge success, and turning that into an on-demand video show is a logical step for them, and for Simmons.
They know the documentaries Simmons gets involved in will be well produced and relevant. They know the writing is going to draw people to HBO Sports’ website, and it’s expected if not overtly stated that Simmons will bring with him a number of other writers, editors and content producers to create a Grantland-like page for HBO. (There is no sense in hiring Simmons to write if nobody else is writing along with him.)
The only real question is whether or not a television show about sports and pop culture and life on HBO’s television platform will be any good if Simmons is the star.
Of all the things he’s been great at doing in this industry, he has never been a television star. Can HBO make him one, and will a show led by Simmons actually be any good? Or, much like the reality TV programming Simmons has written and discussed for decades to help build his brand as the crossover-media mogul HBO wooed, does it even matter if it’s good? As long as people tune in to watch, probably not.