Our relationship with daily television programming differs from the one we have with episodic television. We anxiously await the new season of “Girls” or “Game of Thrones,” but in moments of televisual ennui, we often turn for comfort to those performers we expect to see every day: Oprah Winfrey, or Stephen Colbert. Obsessive devotees of sports are similarly served, and soothed, by ESPN’s daily half-hour sports-news chatfest “Pardon the Interruption,” hosted by veteran sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.
After more than 12 years, we have grown accustomed to seeing them: Wilbon’s zip-up sweaters and pocket squares, Kornheiser’s hastily donned reading glasses for the perusal of statistics on his ever-present yellow legal pad. They are two bald, late-middle-age men (albeit fairly well-dressed ones), their lack of sex appeal increasingly out of place on a channel now wholly devoted to flashy graphics and flashy hosts. “Pardon the Interruption” has created a model for the new, 21st-century ESPN. But what makes “PTI” such a delight to watch has also inadvertently contributed to the increasing abrasiveness of the channel on which they appear daily at 5:30.
In the 1990s, ESPN had been defined by the hosts of its signature program, “SportsCenter,” affectionately known as “the Big Show.” Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick were silver-tongued, joshing, playful, and lightly satirical; they always seemed to be approaching the latest highlights of slam dunks and home runs from a reserve of effortless hip. An entire network emerged in their image, replete with steadily employed “SNL”-esque catch phrases and wall-to-wall highlights. But as ESPN came to dominate the world of sports, it ventured away from its sports-roundup roots toward an opinion-heavy model that more closely resembled cable-news channels like Fox News and MSNBC.
“Pardon the Interruption,” which premiered in the fall of 2001, is sports talk with the dynamic energy of a game show. Buzzers are constantly blaring, voices are raised, and costumes are donned (Kornheiser in a police uniform is a particular treat). The show was modeled on the no-frills local Chicago program “The Sports Writers on TV,” which featured grizzled journalists engaging in truly heroic amounts of smoking and drinking while debating the sporting issues of the day. The 30-minute “PTI” is broken down into shorter segments, each one introducing a new debate topic, and encouraging Wilbon and Kornheiser to take on such burning topics as whether Carmelo Anthony is likely to stay with the Knicks.
That the show rarely feels rushed is testament to the appeal of its two hosts, who inherently understand how to cede the limelight to their costar. The occasionally churlish Kornheiser is balanced out by the more even-keeled Wilbon, who gets his dander up mostly when confronted with violations of the unspoken rules of sports. And while both Kornheiser and Wilbon have appeared elsewhere on TV — Kornheiser as one of the commentators on “Monday Night Football,” and Wilbon more successfully on ABC and ESPN’s NBA broadcasts — neither works as well without the presence of their designated foil and wingman.
The show had once been intended as a recreation of Wilbon and Kornheiser’s arguments in the Washington Post newsroom, with each staking out an extreme position and jousting with their opponent — then sometimes switching sides and doing it again. The debate-team feel was tempered by Kornheiser’s playfulness, which hinted that beneath the brash exterior was someone who did not invest sports with all that much romance or passion. (My favorite was the way that Kornheiser, during Lance Armstrong’s ballyhooed Tour de France heyday, referred to the sport as “bicycling.”)
The show offers a meta-commentary on sports that is as much about sports coverage as the games themselves. No discussion of the American League East is ever complete without a word about how talk of “the Yanks and the Sawx” comes to dominate all baseball coverage.
“PTI” is a mixture of the companionable and the outraged. On a recent episode, Wilbon was furious with football fans who had whined about the lack of tackling in previous Pro Bowls, and then complained again about the hard hits in this year’s game. The potential for weather disruptions at the Super Bowl, held for the first time this year at an outdoor cold-weather site, also propelled Kornheiser to suggest fixing a camera on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, to catch him when he retreats from his seat to an indoor luxury box: “This is a potential William Henry Harrison situation.”
A show about two grizzled sportswriters pretending to get worked up about sports led to an endless avalanche of programs full of red-faced blusterers shouting their opinions. “PTI” is hardly to blame for this shift, but its success paved the way for its much-degraded successors. ESPN became wall-to-wall opinion, with the genial, irreverent model exemplified by Kornheiser and Wilbon devolving into the blathering of talking heads arguing heatedly, and endlessly, over the merits of LeBron James and Tim Tebow.
Shows like “Around the Horn” (which precedes “PTI” daily), “First Take,” and “1st and Ten” co-opted “Pardon the Interruption” ’s essential model without retaining much of its charm or sly wit. And as ESPN has seemed to get louder and louder, with familiar faces like Stephen A. Smith and Colin Cowherd shouting at ever-greater volume to be heard over the network’s roar, “PTI” has felt as if it has gotten quieter in response. What was once the loudest, most argumentative show on the network has now become a pleasing respite from all the noise.
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com.