Game over: Top 10 reasons why Bill Simmons flopped on TV

It’s game over for Bill Simmons’ HBO talk show, “Any Given Wednesday.” HBO announced that it was mercifully pulling the plug on his struggling four month-old show Friday afternoon, traditionally the favorite time and day to release bad news. 

There will be a final episode Nov. 9.

So what happened? “

Any Given Wednesday” was supposed to be the former ESPN bad boy’s big move into TV and the showpiece of Simmons’ new multimedia empire that would feature a weekly HBO show alongside John Oliver and Bill Maher, sports documentaries and his new sports/pop culture web site, The Ringer.

MORE: Here’s how Simmons could’ve saved his show

Instead, Simmons will have to look in the mirror and ask himself if he really belongs on TV. Or if his talents as a columnist, editor, podcaster and documentary film maker make him more suited for an off-screen role.

It’s not the end of the world. Simmons has an estimated three-year, $20 million development deal with HBO. He will move on to other projects. The guy who created the “30 for 30” series and Grantland at ESPN is still a big name and talent.

Like many online journalists, I’m rooting for Simmons. He’s been great at giving opportunities to talent at The Ringer and Grantland whose voices might not have been heard otherwise.

But the bottom line is TV is not for everybody. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in “A League of their Own,” if it was easy, then everybody could do it.

Still, this is a major blow to the Sports Guy’s brand and ego. HBO yanked “Joe Buck Live” off the air after only three episodes in 2010. Like Buck, Simmons will have to carry that failure around for the rest of his career.

Sporting News was one of the first to warn that Simmons show was tanking and that the clock was ticking. Maybe Simmons decided to just shoot the crippled horse out back and start fresh. I can’t blame him.

I talked to some TV executives about why Simmons face-planted on TV. All declined to go on the record.

Here are the top 10 reasons why Simmons’ “Any Given Wednesday” show is history after only 17 episodes:

1. Simmons is bad on TV, period

It’s as simple as that. Some people come across great on TV. Others don’t. Simmons never seemed comfortable on “Any Given Wednesday.” He changed the format, his clothes, the set decoration, noted Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead. But he rushed through his opening monologue. Then he dropped it completely. Those inside jokes and pop culture references that made him the country’s most successful sportswriter fell flat on TV.  

With no studio audience for most of its run, the show felt sterile and stale. Plus, Simmons doesn’t have a good voice. It’s reedy and thin. He sounds like an overgrown frat boy. You can get away with having a bad voice on TV if you have a charismatic presence. You can get away with not having a charismatic presence on TV if you have a great voice. Simmons has neither. A co-host like Jalen Rose, Simmons’ old running mate on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown,” would have helped. But this vehicle was designed for Simmons as a solo act, not as part of a cast.  “He was so far over his skis, it wasn’t funny. You could see this wasn’t going to work two weeks into it,” said one TV executive.

2. Low ratings

“Any Given Wednesday’s” highly touted premiere June 22 premiere drew 260,000 viewers. Four months later, the October 26 episode bottomed out with a paltry 82,000 viewers. HBO could talk all it wanted about how many people taped the show on DVR and watched it later. But once Simmons dipped below 100,000 viewers for a first run airing, the writing was on the wall.

“There was no way to rationalize or explain that one,” said one TV executive. “82,000 viewers? C’mon.” Simmons himself admitted in a statement Friday that “Any Given Wednesday” never “resonated with audiences like we hoped. And that’s on me.” Give him credit for honesty.

3. No conflict

Look, I’m not saying Simmons has to do a Skip Bayless heel turn and “Embrace Debate.” But there was no conflict, no tension. Instead, we had Simmons giving back rubs to his Malibu buddies and frequent podcast guests. Everybody seemed to agree with everybody on anything. Everybody was pals. “Not to blow smoke up your ass, but I don’t think you get enough credit,” cooed Simmons to Mark Cuban. Ugh.

The low moment was watching Simmons swap pot smoking stories with Seth Rogen. They sounded like two stoners who had the munchies at the end of the night. What was this, “The Pineapple Express?” A live studio audience to laugh at his jokes and cheers guests would have helped. By the time Simmons tried it, it was too late. “The hardest-hitting thing he did was the promo. He promised a show he never delivered,” said a TV executive. 

4. It was just a column/podcast on tape

This is really Simmons’ fault as the executive producer. TV is a completely different medium than sportswriting, radio or podcasting. Too often, “Any Given Wednesday” came off like a rewrite of one of Simmons’ columns come to life, noted Awful Announcing. Or a podcast with video. If the show was simply a Simmons podcast with video, why watch at all?  Throw in the fact that the HBO executive who hired Simmons, Michael Lombardi, is no longer with the network, Simmons didn’t have a  lot of running room to work with.

5. Kiss-ass interviews

Simmons’ interviewing expertise, honed on his hour-long podcasts, was supposed to be his strength. Instead, it became his weakness on a half-hour TV show. Nothing was allowed to breathe or develop. Worse, he fawned over his guests and never asked tough questions. This would have been OK if he was your normal talk show host. Except this was Simmons. The same tough guy who mercilessly mocked ESPN colleagues  Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic for their softball interviews. The same Simmons who likes to rip on TV types from his couch for their inane questions and comments. This time, it was Simmons’ turn to feel disdain from critics. Turnabout is fair play.

6. Too Boston-centric

The Sports Guy made his name and fame by being a Boston homer for the Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox. But that didn’t cut on a national show trying to reach a national TV audience. It started on the premiere episode, with Simmons and fellow Boston native Ben Affleck railing about Tom Brady and Deflategate. Isn’t this the ultimate “us against them” story, asked Simmons.

Who is this Boston “us” that Simmons was talking about? He’s lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. He’s got a Malibu beach house. He mixes with celebs like Jimmy Kimmel. The Oscar-winning Affleck is one of the world’s most famous actor/directors. He’s been in LA so long he could run for Mayor. For the two of them to act like they were Southies at the L Street Tavern was absurd. Or maybe not. Many joked the slurring, cursing Affleck looked drunk during his anti-NFL rant.

7. Bad timing

HBO launched “Any Given Wednesday” on June 22. That was three days after LeBron James’ Cavaliers had come back from a 3-1 deficit to upset Steph Curry and the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. Look, the NBA is Simmons’ bread and butter. By the time he got on the air, there wasn’t much happening in sports — except for baseball. And, of course, Simmons also had the bad luck to launch a new sports talk show at a time when the U.S. presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was drawing TV viewers to news and away from sports. Just ask the NFL, which is experiencing a double-digit ratings drop after a record TV year in 2015.

8. No news hooks

The best sports talk shows riff off the biggest sports news of the day or the week such as ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” or FS1’s “Speak for Yourself.” Simmons and his team didn’t do that. As far as I can tell, they skipped over the Colin Kaepernick-led player protests in the NFL. Simmons seemed to go for evergreen stories and essays that had no juice. Or comedy bits about sports subjects nobody cared about any more. Such as his painfully unfunny “Saturday Night Live” style skit about Deflategate.

9. Simmons has become too PC

Simmons made his name as the politically incorrect blogger writing about strippers at the infamous Atlanta Gold Club trial and mocking ESPN’s coverage of the WNBA. But marriage and fatherhood to a soccer-playing young daughter have changed The Sports Guy, said one TV executive. Now he sounds more like the politically correct social justice warriors Simmons would have laughed at a decade ago. His “Ringer” and ESPN’s now shuttered “Grantland” web sites have leaned toward a more progressive view of sports and pop culture.  “Simmons used to be the Howard Stern of Sports. Now he’s Bomani Jones,” said the executive.

10. Any day but Wednesday

I thought Sports Illustrated media columnist Richard Deitsch made a good point on his SI Media podcast this week with John Ourand of SportsBusiness Daily and Jimmy Traina of Awful Announcing. Wednesdays is just a bad day for a weekly sport show. “If you recap stuff, it feels old. But if you preview stuff it feels old. So you’re in no-person’s land,” Deitsch said.

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