People have been embracing debate in record numbers lately. ESPN announced that its tent pole daytime debate program First Take recorded the best August viewership ever.

ESPN2’s First Take experienced its best August viewership ever in terms of households, People 2+ viewers, Men 18-34 and Adults 25-54, according to Nielsen.  Compared to last year, August 2015 was up across the board –

  • Viewership (People 2+) is up 22% to 409,000

  • People 25-54 viewership is up 35% to 252,000

  • Household viewership is up 16% to 361,000

  • Men 18-34 is up 16% to 115,000

In other words:

In all fairness, there are a lot of people who devour hours and hours of daytime television, and while ESPN has flooded the mothership with SportsCenter on a loop for years, the station formerly known as The Deuce has become known for the sweet embrace of conversation more than any other (non cable news) network on television.

Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless are not for everyone, but they are great at what they do, which is why ESPN has made more out of that tandem than nearly any other at the company over the last few years.

Think off the top of your head of the most notable duos at the ESPN carnival and you’d be hard-pressed to find any pair that gets more attention than the two in the dunk tank called First Take. Mike and Mike surely have more combined viewers and listeners around the country, but when it comes to viral content for ESPN, it rarely comes from them. Pardon the Interruption is one of the greatest television inventions of the modern era—we wouldn’t have anything like First Take if not for PTI—but it feels like it has been years since anyone talked about what Kornheiser and Wilbon routinely say on a given topic.

The same buzz just isn’t there, and yet PTI averages nearly a million viewers a day at 5:30 p.m., more than double what First Take draws in the late morning.

First Take does well for the time it is on, but in terms of “viral” impressions, Stephen A. and Skip are outkicking their coverage.

Per, roughly one million people are tuned in to either ESPN or ESPN2 in the ten o’clock hour, with roughly half watching SportsCenter on ESPN and half watching First Take on ESPN2. And yet, while everyone seems to get sick over the viral nature of what Stephen A. or Skip have to say, First Take‘s rating is lower, on average, than Highly Questionable, Around the Horn and PTI every single day.

All things being equal, the First Take number on ESPN2 at 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. is more impressive than the numbers on ESPN in the late afternoon, but strictly looking at eyeballs to content, there are fewer people watching the embrace of Smith and Bayless than that of Kornheiser and Wilbon, Dan Le Batard, his dad and Bomani Jones or Tony Reali and his master list of rotating debaters.

So why is everyone always talking about them?

Most of that is our fault. Well, not just those of us here, surely, but sports media people in general whose collective disdain for the debate-embracing model that has turned Smith and Bayless into very rich men only serves to fuel them, and proves to ESPN how viral their nature can be.

They are, truly, infectious. Even when you don’t watch First Take, you cannot escape its reach, which is why more people seem to care what those on the show say, why more and more people are tuning in and why the buzz is becoming deafening.

Did you know that according to Nielsen ratings, via TVByTheNumbers, Friends reruns get better ratings than ATH gets on ESPN? Did you know that reruns of Castle have more viewers than PTI?

Did you know that early-morning re-runs of Teen Titans Go are more popular to television viewers than First Take? We are consumed with what two men have to say about sports that fewer people watch each day than old squabbles between Joey and Chandler, detectives Esposito and Ryan, and Cyborg and Beast Boy.

Its enough make you laugh. And yet, ratings for the ESPN2 show continue to grow, and more and more people seem to care about what those two have to say, which has them—and ESPN—laughing all the way to the bank.

About Dan Levy

Dan Levy has written a lot of words in a lot of places, most recently as the National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He was host of The Morning B/Reakaway on Sirius XM's Bleacher Report Radio for the past year, and previously worked at Sporting News and Rutgers University, with a concentration on sports, media and public relations.

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