As much as one would like to declare dead the “embrace debate” contrived-and-consciously contrarian culture on some of ESPN’s daytime programming, it’s probably too soon to offer such a happy eulogy. Over-the-top personalities tend to have more lives — and fewer coherent thoughts — than a cat.
But with Skip Bayless now on Fox Sports 1 scrambling for a fraction of a ratings point, and with ESPN expatriates Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock having joined him there in one conveniently ignored locale, it does feel as if ESPN doesn’t wheeze as many hot takes as it did during its heyday of obnoxiousness.
And to be fair, even amid all of the dreck, ESPN has provided plenty of high-quality talking-head programming, beginning with the seminal “Pardon the Interruption” featuring Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Better, it’s taken to rewarding some of its personalities and programs that take an authentic approach to their conversations.
That was especially apparent this week when the network announced that “His & Hers” co-hosts Michael Smith and Jemele Hill had not only received contract extensions, but will be taking over the hosting reins of the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” on Feb. 6, the day after Super Bowl LI. They will be replacing current host Lindsay Czarniak, who is going on maternity leave in November and will be featured in a different role when she returns.
Becoming part of the revamped, personality-driven version of “SportsCenter” should provide an even greater bump in profile for Smith — a former Globe sportswriter — and Hill, who have co-hosted “His & Hers” since 2013 on ESPN2. It’s one they deserve, and one they are ready for.
“I think one of the great things that ‘SportsCenter’ offers now is that you can get a little bit of everything,’’ said Hill. “There are certain ‘SportsCenters’ that are highlight driven. There are certain ‘SportsCenters’ that are conversation-driven, like the version Hannah Storm hosts. There’s the late-night, cool-fun ‘SportsCenter’ that Scott Van Pelt does. What we offer is two people . . . our show is a relationship show. Usually when you see ‘SportsCenter’ anchors, even in a pair, they’re operating as individual units. We do a lot of talking to each other.”
What they do not do is debate, even if there’s a topic upon which they disagree. “A lot of times you have people on television that want to be the show, that want to show they’re smarter, that want to win the debate,’’ said Smith. “Debate is a dirty word to us. We may disagree organically, but we’re not saying I’m going to win this debate. It’s a conversation.
“I think Mike and Tony perfected that art on ‘Pardon The Interruption.’ People look at ‘PTI’ and say, ‘Oh, it’s the black guy and it’s the white guy.’ No. It’s two old people. It’s two old people who are friends who actually think alike more than they disagree. Eighty percent of the time Mike and Tony agree. And yet it’s still entertaining because you’re watching two people who respect each other agree differently.”
Smith and Hill allow room for nuance in their conversations, and it’s clear both listen to and respect the other’s opinion. “A good example of that is Colin Kaepernick and his national anthem protests,’’ said Hill. “Mike and I pretty much agree on the strength of his message and what he’s trying to communicate to people and get them to pay attention to. But you can agree differently. You can agree on something but for different reasons. You can agree in layers that add a lot of texture to a conversation.”
Because of their easy banter and obvious mutual respect, it’s sometimes presumed that Smith and Hill are a couple in real life. They are not. “Like, say right now if we went to Los Angeles for a remote show and we checked into the hotel,” said Smith. “They’ll say, ‘One key sufficient?’ and I always have to say, ‘We’re not together.’ People think that all the time.
“It’s cool. We do genuinely care for each other, like each other, love each other. We don’t get tired of each other. When the light goes off, she doesn’t go her way and I don’t go mine. We’ll sit and talk about the show, talk about whatever, for an hour. Then we might get lunch.”
There was a time many years ago, Smith said, when at least one mutual friend recognized that Hill and Smith might be a compatible match. While discussing the dynamic of the Kornheiser-Wilbon chemistry — “PTI” is basically a recorded version of the back-and-forth they used to have in the Washington Post newsroom back in the day — Smith noted that his friendship with Hill grew similarly, but with one significant difference.
“Our [origin story] was a failed date, a failed hookup,’’ he said. “Did she tell you about that? I bet she told you all about that.”
She did not mention that.
“Well,’’ said Smith, “Rob Parker [a longtime Detroit sportswriter and current Fox Sports personality] introduced us in ’02. We all went to see the first ‘Spiderman,’ the Tobey Maguire Spiderman, and they sat us next to each other. Nothing happened.
“Then one time she came to Boston. She said she was dropping hints to go out. I didn’t pick up on the hints. I was busy hanging out with [former Globe colleague and Smith’s close friend] Michael Holley franchising the Arizona Cardinals in Madden. That was my priority at the time.
“The rest is history. I got married, she’s awesome, and we ended up being work husband and wife. It’s all worked out.”
It has all worked out. And though their venue and time slot will change, Smith and Hill are not going to mess with their successful and genuine approach.
“I think some of our viewers are unnecessarily worried that we’re going to change,’’ said Hill. “We’re not changing. We’re still going to be the same people they saw on ESPN2 every day at noon. Our show in the purest form, and we hope to carry this over to 6, is that the show is about our relationship and chemistry, and the conversation. And that’s not going to change.”
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.