Happy Time for Pardon the Interruption

Now, I didn’t get ESPN until right before Pardon the Interruption debuted eight years ago Thursday, so I don’t really know what ESPN’s afternoon programming looked like. I imagine there were a lot of SportsCenter reruns, maybe some extra NFL Lives just in case we weren’t sure how OTAs were going in mid-June, and possibly some Up Close with Gary Miller.

Eight years later, those SportsCenters aren’t reruns but rather the same show aired again live, those NFL Lives air at night, and Up Close with Gary Miller has been upstaged by the YES Network’s CenterStage with Michael Kay. ESPN’s afternoons, meanwhile, have been revolutionized by the show we affectionately call PTI.

It’s funny when you think about how something so derivative itself could spark a revolution. It would be like Rob Thomas becoming the new voice of a generation. PTI simply preyed on the well-known idea that people enjoy sports and sports debate. All Pardon the Interruption essentially did was take the idea of sports talk radio and put it on television.

Now sports talk radio was never the most intellectual medium of discourse, largely because it includes fans who call in. When listening to sports talk radio, one is routinely astounded by how some people can so enthusiastically voice opinions so moronic, or how people can care enough to call in to a show about something they so clearly know next to nothing about.* Sports talk radio’s proudest moments generally come out of exchanges between a high-and-mighty host, whose own opinions are often of questionable merit, and a particularly ignorant caller. It is a medium that embraces the convergence of the stupid and the opinionated; it is far from ideal.

*In the past four months, I have heard NY area callers suggest the following: 1) If Sergio Mitre makes one more start, the Yankees will assuredly blow their seven-game divisional lead. 2) The Jets should reject any hypothetical Tom Brady-for-Mark Sanchez trade. 3) The Jets-Dolphins Monday Night game had to be fixed, because a Rex Ryan defense doesn’t allow more than 30 points.

Pardon the Interruption made a few basic changes to the sports talk radio format: First, it eliminated the callers and thus idle trade speculation and flawed conspiracy theories. Second, it made sure its hosts knew something about sports. Because, of course, it’s not the format of Pardon the Interruption that makes it the most worthwhile 30 minutes of sports programming every day; it’s the execution. Few sportswriters could make the transition from regional columnist to national spokesman for sports, yet Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon made it look easy in the fall of 2001. In fact, they made it look too easy, which is partially why so many copycats of PTI’s basic formula—guys on sports!—arose in the months and years after its premiere.

What Kornheiser and Wilbon understand far better than just about any other debaters on television or the radio is that civility does not compromise the integrity of one’s argument; indeed, it may even enhance it.* They are two friends who argue about sports, occasionally with some passion. Our entertainment as viewers does not derive from their disagreement or juvenile name-calling but rather from a level of discourse that respects its audience. They don’t pander to the lowest common denominator of sports fan who yearns for snap reactions and simple solutions; rather, they handle sports issues in context and, during the course of the show, usually remind you why they have earned their respective pedestals.

*Remember, the show’s title itself is politely stated.

If PTI shows us how smart and civil sportswriters can be, every show that has followed in its footprint has been hell-bent on proving the opposite. It’s as if the ignorant caller has been invited back to the forum, only now he’s the host with authority. Around the Horn took the formula from PTI and doubled the number of sportswriters and added a host who scores the arguments. These are two terrible ideas. It bills itself as “the show of competitive banter,” which is a nauseating enough idea even before you throw in Woody Paige and Jay Mariotti. SportsCenter has given us quick debates between personalities such as Sean Salisbury and John Clayton and now Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay, where the point of the segment is less about what one argues than how. Salisbury and Clayton’s debates almost inevitably boiled down to the former mocking the latter’s appearance, even when they agreed on something. Kiper and McShay, meanwhile, are both smart guys who are independently capable of articulating their opinions; when together, however, they basically transform into two guys shouting over one another at a bar. And I haven’t even gotten to Skip Bayless, who legend has it was once a pretty good writer. On First Take and First and 10, Bayless has become nothing more than a contrarian shill whose style of debate is to take the road less traveled very loudly.

That’s why it’s so refreshing that Pardon the Interruption has stayed true to its roots. The more debate shows that pop up on ESPN and cable news networks, the more one can appreciate the simple civility and intelligence that govern the interactions between Kornheiser and Wilbon.

Now, who wants to argue with me?

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on November 1, 2009 at 1:16 PM

    I feel like around the horn is very underappreciated. i agree that PTI is superior, but Around the Horn is good on the days Mariotti isn’t on. Seriously though, if you actually watch it its not that bad, and the mute button is key. They take different guys from different cities who aren’t afraid to disagree with each other and they talk about various topics; obviously it has its bad moments but if you can get past Woody Paige and Mariotti then I think its good.


  2. Posted by Tim on November 1, 2009 at 4:57 PM

    James, saying “Around the Horn is good on the days Mariotti isn’t on” is like saying, “Man, the Yankees are great, so long as that Jeter fella isn’t playing.” “Around the Horn” is responsible for creating Jay Mariotti…and Woody Paige…and Bill Plaschke. You know who else isn’t afraid to disagree with others? Skip Bayless and Jim Rome and Ted Kaczynski. The problem is the panel seems afraid to actually reach an accord, and when they do, they’re forced to, for the sake of the score, make the argument in a different and less logical way.

    All this isn’t to say “Around the Horn” is a deplorable show; it’s just not a defensible one.


  3. […] back in October, Tim celebrated the anniversary of Pardon the Interruption by praising the show as a standout among sports debate shows, especially its lead-in Around the […]


  4. […] which Tim celebrated two years ago, reached its tenth […]


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