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Sports shows need to emphasize talent, not concepts

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In the wake of The Crossover getting canceled, a suggestion for future shows and sports talk in general.

Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE

Today, between the ESPN family, Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN, there'll be somewhere around 15 hours of shows devoted to talking about sports -- specific sports, or just looking over the general sports world. That's not counting things like Fox Sports Live and SportsCenter, highlight shows. There are at least 15 hours of sports talk shows (because I didn't count CBS Sports Network or ESPNU), some an hour long, but most a half-hour, which means you just have 20-25 shows on the air per day.

We're going to lose a half an hour of that group next week, as NBCSN finally bails on The Crossover after seven months. NBCSN is going to replace it with more shows. Two are football-related (Fantasy Football Live and Football Night in America: Coach's Clicker expand their presence on the network) while one each surround the network's coverage of hockey and soccer. Shows about fantasy football and just football in general (and especially ones branded with NBC's popular NFL pre-game) are probably safer bets than a show called The Crossover, because ... what did that even mean?

Michelle Beadle is considered by many (myself among them, for whatever it matters) to have an exceptional talent for broadcasting. Hell, she spent a few years making Colin Cowherd almost likable, so there's clearly something to her. Building a show around her at NBCSN seemed like a safe bet, as long as they kept it simple and built the show around a personality who has already been proven (SportsNation ratings went down when she left) to connect with the audience.

For whatever reasons, this isn't what NBC did with the show. They not only gave the show the dreaded "sports and pop culture" mix tag, they paired Beadle up with Dave Briggs, a broadcaster who seemed sort of willfully ignorant of pop culture on a show that said it was going to mix sports and pop culture. They interviewed Wendell Pierce the first week of the show and Briggs up front admitted to never having seen The Wire or Treme, the shows Pierce is best known for.

Briggs was canned after three months, with some suggestions that he and Beadle did not get along cropping up. And that was, more or less, the last anyone heard of The Crossover until its cancellation on Wednesday. Beadle hosted the show on her own for four months (though with a month of preemptions for the Tour de France), but you saw nary a commercial for it. Ratings perked up a tiny bit when NBCSN moved the show's timeslot to follow Premier League games on Mondays, but it was doomed from the beginning.

Here's where my point comes in: The show didn't work for a couple of reasons. The first was the lack of chemistry between the hosts, or that Beadle was even forced to have a co-host at all. In my opinion, that was a show that seemed to value having a format more than using the talent available to it. From what I've seen Beadle do (and given what NBC is reportedly paying her), it stands to reason that you should find a way to just make "The Michelle Beadle Show." Just Michelle Beadle talks sports/whatever. Wouldn't that be better than promising the show will be where sports and pop culture mix?

It's part of sort of a weird trend that's developed in this post-PTI/Around the Horn world: the high-concept sports show. Ever since we started seeing those two shows pioneer the "timed debate" idea, it seems as if networks (and ESPN is just as guilty) are looking out for that next great format. The next way that we can turn sports talk into as much of a game as the sports we're talking about.

The problem with that is that the format behind Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn are really quite simple: Somebody talks, then somebody else talks, then another person, then a rejoinder, for some reason there's points and we go home. It's really just organized debate. The shows, and particularly current-period Around the Horn, live on the likability of the people on them. Even though Woody Paige still shows up every now and then, the current cast of Around the Horn is a cool-headed, easy to hang out with bunch. Kornheiser and Wilbon are still an OK watch after a decade.

So networks keep chasing that, and they ignore the fact that people connect to people, and not concepts. Nobody's watching a deranged idea for a show like Breaking Bad unless you connect to Bryan Cranston within the first couple episodes. A less likable, less talented actor, and you think the show is immediately a joke. You see the promos for The Crossover (this is a stretch, but stick with me), and you tune into the show, if you don't believe the people on the show are going to deliver what the promos promised, or at least a fun discussion, well, why would you watch?

It kind of occurred to me when I spent a few hours with the cast and crew of Baseball Tonight, which is about to wrap up its 24th season on ESPN in the next few weeks. They were taking the show outside of the normal confines of Bristol and filming live from the MLB Fan Cave, a place in New York City that is not (as I initially thought) some sort of MLB store, but actually just kind of a cool place to hang out and watch baseball things happen. There is also a vending machine that gives you bottles of Pepsi for free. The previous two sentences are unrelated.

Anyway, it was taking what is the normal format for the show (guys talk about baseball and show highlights) and tossing it outside its friendly confines, something they'll do more often next year for Sunday Night Baseball. Not only that, but the show was thrown a curveball (sorry) when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha had a no hitter through eight innings, meaning they would not only need to devote their show to it, they'd have to take precious minutes out of whatever they were doing.

The show turned out fine because they had the right people there. Karl Ravech is definitely in the top tier as far as ESPN's studio hosts go, and he not only navigated through the night and Wacha's no-hit bid, but also a rowdy crowd that had come to watch. Analysts Barry Larkin and Manny Acta both seemed to be having fun getting out of the regular routine. It made for an enjoyable evening and an enjoyable hour of television.

That's all it can take, really. A simple show of three guys talking baseball for an hour. It sure helps to have highlights, but even if you don't ... Pardon the Interruption is two guys talking sports for a half hour.

Michelle Beadle will probably get another show. Hopefully, NBC will build it around her and perhaps the people she wants to talk to and hang out with. Hopefully, it'll be simple. If people like you from the start, they'll be willing to let you try different things. Look at how weird SportsNation got by the time she and Cowherd left. The thing is, it has to start with the idea that there is no show. You have to just have people talking sports, and that's enough. No more "concepts" with hosts built around them. I mean, there's 15 hours of it per day, wouldn't it be nice to just have that?