Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons new HBO show, “Any Given Wednesday,” is off to bad reviews and even worse ratings after five episodes.

The show bottomed out last week, as a paltry 163,000 people viewed the 30-minute infomercial for fellow HBO programs, “Vice Principals” and “The Night Of.” To put that number in perspective, HBO’s two headliners, Bill Maher and John Oliver, both currently average over four million viewers per episode.

It’s safe to say HBO expected a bigger audience when they handed Simmons a three-year, $20 million deal last summer.

To be fair, starting a new show is brutal for even the most successful of TV veterans — just ask Stephen Colbert — let alone someone who is still making the transition to television like Simmons.

And there’s a reason why there aren’t any other sports talk shows on TV — they just don’t work. Stephen A. Smith’s “Quite Frankly” was a huge disappointment for ESPN. And “Joe Buck Live” was an unmitigated disaster, lasting all of three episodes on HBO.

Simmons is also battling “Sports Guy fatigue,” as many people have now sourced on him after the oversaturated coverage of his ESPN departure and his continued whining about the situation despite making millions of dollars to talk about sports.

It doesn’t help that HBO and Simmons have already made so many questionable decisions regarding the show:

  • Why did “AGW” debut in July, the nadir of the sports schedule?
  • Why doesn’t it air Sunday night after “Ballers” when it would have a huge lead-in audience?
  • Why is there no studio audience?
  • Why is the format so boring?
  • Why is Simmons dressed in normcore?

But the biggest problem with the show is that it feels like nothing more than televising Simmons’ columns and podcasts. And that doesn’t make for good TV.

“AGW” starts with the worst part of the program: Simmons’ opening monologue. Simmons is a writer, not a stand-up comedian, and him cracking jokes filled with snark and pop culture references on an empty set is cringe-worthy.

Closing the show by awarding an “AGW” wrestling belt to a weekly winner, like this lame homage to Tim Duncan, isn’t much better.

Simmons’ interviews are often 10-minutes long and his sit down with Aaron Rodgers lasted over 20 minutes. That’s fine on a podcast but on TV it feels like an eternity. That was especially true last week when none of the guests (Danny McBride, Michael K. Williams and Christina Hendricks) were in sports and a large portion of the show was spent talking about their respective shows that aren’t even on the air anymore. (“Eastbound & Down,” “The Wire,” and “Mad Men”).

What makes late-night shows successful are those “watercooler moments” that are picked up by blogs and have people talking the next day at work.

John Oliver is the master of this, as his weekly takedowns are the talk of the office and blogosphere each Monday.

The only two moments so far on “Any Given Wednesday” that fit that description are Ben Affleck’s profanity-laced tirade about Deflategate and Aaron Rodgers saying former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan allegedly decided to pick Alex Smith No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft when Smith opened the car door for Nolan’s mom.

But I’m not here just to complain about Simmons’ new show. I’m also here to offer solutions. So here are five suggestions on how Simmons can turn things around and make the show more than just his columns and podcasts in TV form.

#1: Add a Studio Audience

The first thing you notice about “Any Given Wednesday” is how flat the show feels.

There’s a reason why almost every single talk show has an audience: It gives the program energy.  And that’s sorely lacking when Simmons’ jokes are met with silence and his interviews feel like they’re being broadcast from his mom’s basement.

#2: Drop the Monologues for Takedowns

I’d much rather see Simmons emulate John Oliver with a well-researched weekly takedown rather than the cheap comedy club routine. People love when Simmons is ripping someone or something to shreds like his old ESPN bosses or Roger Goodell. Now, this can’t just be an excuse for Simmons to act like an asshole. But when the show is just once a week, there is no shortage of topics to tackle and people to put on blast.

#3: Make Interviews More Condensed & Consistent

The one-one-one interviews have been very hit-or-miss in the first couple episodes. Simmons is at his best during interviews when he is able to get athletes to tell him information or stories that haven’t been told before, like the Alex Smith-Mike Nolan tale. The key is getting guests that are timely and/or revealing. Aaron Rodgers checked both boxes. Christina Hendricks filled neither.

#4: Ask the Tough Questions

As was well dissected by The Big Lead, Simmons has already had two incidents in which he avoided asking awkward but necessary questions to Chris Bosh (his health) and Aaron Rodgers (the rift with his brother, Jordan). Simmons has defended these two omissions by saying it’s bad TV to watch someone give a “No comment,” but that’s a cop-out and sets a horrible precedent for future guests.

#5: Do More Panels

The consensus is that “Any Given Wednesday” has been at its best with panel discussions. The one with Bosh and Anthony Anderson was solid. And the panel featuring Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban was excellent, as the two fed off each other to be thought provoking and hilarious. Hell, if Simmons is able to combine enough great guests with chemistry, this could be almost the entire show like “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

Oh, and one bonus tip: Never, ever attempt sketch comedy again.

About Jim Weber

Jim Weber is the founder of College Sports Only. He has worked at CBS Sports, NBC Sports and ESPN the Magazine and is the founder of a previous college sports website, Lost Lettermen (R.I.P.).

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