HBO didn’t have to plunge deep into a reservoir of reasons and justifications for canceling Bill Simmons’s “Any Given Wednesday” talk show just 4.5 months and 17 episodes (the last of which will air Nov. 9) into its existence.
In the vicious bottom-line world of television, the program’s scarcity of viewers – it averaged approximately 200,000 per episode, with a low of 82,000 on Oct. 26 – was a valid enough business reason. A shallow one, too, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The cancellation wasn’t just about who was or wasn’t watching the program, but who was suddenly overseeing it. It did not go unnoticed here that Simmons lost a chief advocate at HBO when president of programming Michael Lombardo – who brought the former Boston Sports Guy and ESPN refugee to the network in July 2015 on a three-year deal believed to be in the $25 million range – departed in May 2016 to become a producer.
Lombardo was succeeded by Casey Bloys, who signaled his intention to put his own stamp on the network by canceling the high-profile (if abysmal) program Vinyl after barely a month on the job. The new boss was not just like the old boss, and everyone who worked on a program with ratings or audience issues should have recognized that it was on notice.
There were other reasons the cancellation – which drew some shameless schadenfreude from many Simmons left behind at ESPN and left behind in a tax bracket long ago – was not necessarily a blindside hit. Simmons, an innovative and staggeringly successful sports writer, podcaster, and ideas person, remained an unproven and unpolished television presence, which may have surprised HBO viewers who were unaccustomed with him.
It did not offer much in the way of buzz-worthy viral material save for Ben Affleck’s Deflategate rant during the premiere episode. It drew some brutal, momentum-stunting ratings matchups in its early weeks, including the ESPYs in its fourth week and President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in its fifth.
And through it all, the show’s intended niche remained hazy – it was designed for sports fans (especially NBA junkies) and pop-culture junkies, but was it too ambitious to expect those audiences to intersect organically with a midweek half-hour television show?
On the fly, it seemed Simmons was figuring out what “Any Given Wednesday” would ultimately become.
Which is why I wish it had received a little more time to find itself, and with that presumably a larger audience.
The expectation based on Simmons’s contract was that he would do 80-something shows in three years. It’s beyond reasonable to expect such a show to have some early leeway in figuring out what it was going to ultimately become, to find its shape and its place, and “Any Given Wednesday” took something of an experimental approach in tweaking the show from week to week.
Some episodes, such as the one in which Simmons faced off in court with actor Michael Rapaport over Deflategate, included more sketch-style humor. Others, such as the episode featuring Caitlyn Jenner, had a shorter open to leave more room for the interview. There was even uncertainty and debate regarding whether the show should remain a half-hour or expand to an hour, opening up more time for interviews that too often felt condensed, especially if you were familiar with Simmons’s casual, sometime meandering we’re-all-friends-here style on his podcast.
HBO – which has thrived during the election season with programs such as Bill Maher’s “Real Time” and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” – could have afforded to allow “Any Given Wednesday” to grow, and I suspect it would have had Lombardo remained in charge. Some tinkering would have been necessary. Of course Simmons does not have the stage presence of those whose careers began on a stage; it was unfair to expect immediate polish. He’s not a comedian like Maher, Oliver, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and other polished hosts of humorous cable television programs. He’s a self-made sports writer, for heaven’s sake. He never had the reps, you know?
And even those guys struggled in their early television years. Stewart, in his decorated days on “The Daily Show,’’ often came across as America’s wise-guy conscience. It was easy to forget that his first talk show – the “Jon Stewart Show,” which aired on MTV in the early and mid ‘90s – often seemed designed as a venue for the host to do nothing but crack a few jokes and flirt with young actresses.
Perhaps a co-host would have helped. Simmons has always been at ease on camera in other situations, whether with Zach Lowe on their NBA program on ESPN, or during cameos on Katie Nolan’s “Garbage Time” on Fox Sports 1. It also might have been wise to minimize his Boston roots, given the national fatigue with Deflategate and the envy in 40-something other states about New England’s sports success the last 15 years.
Simmons’s brand won’t be dented by this. He’ll still continue to work for HBO, which is expected to launch a series of sports documentaries next year similar to Simmons’s “30 for 30” brain-child at ESPN. The cancellation presumably leaves him more room for podcasts and, hopefully, writing at his website, The Ringer. It gives him time to exhale after a whirlwind couple of years.
But in a sports culture that rewards – with high ratings and lucrative contracts – the insufferable faux outrage of the likes of Skip Bayless, it’s disappointing that a smarter, authentic show like “Any Given Wednesday” ran out of time before it could refine all that it wanted to be. The reasons for axing it were valid. That doesn’t make it any less of a bummer to see the shallow offerings elsewhere not only survive, but thrive.