Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"Making Sports Fans Dumber"

This should be the new slogan for ESPN. It's certainly more appropriate than their current one: "The Worldwide Leader." I mention all of this because a few days ago I wrote about how far PTI had fallen during the Kornheiser-Wilbon two week vacation; I also managed to throw in some disparaging remarks about Stephen A. Smith and his new hour-long talk show, "Quite Frankly," which debuted Monday night. That diatribe led to this comment from Alex, who was forward-thinking enough to start a website for the sole purpose of determining the worst ESPN broadcasting personality using an elimination format based on the NCAA 64-team tournament.

Apparently, Screamin' A. is a popular topic. The New York Times had a very revealing story about why he's so popular -- at least in the eyes of the ESPN suits who continue to give him face time despite the fact that (a) he's unbelievably annoying, and (b) once you get past his bombastic style, he doesn't come across as particularly smart. That's an interesting combination to build a show around. But the NYT article offered a little perspective:
"Stephen A. is ringing a bell," said Mark Shapiro, an executive vice president of ESPN. "People like him and dislike him, but they still watch him. These days, it's hard to find a talent who strikes a chord that way. Polarization is a commodity." He added: "We're in the hit-making business. And Stephen A. is a game-changer."
Um, No you're not in the hit-making business. You're in the sports reporting business. When did this become "Entertainment Tonight" or "Hard Copy?" What's wrong with actually, you know, reporting the news without a bunch of hyperbole, exploding graphics and stupid catch-phrases? But it gets better. Apparently, actually talking intelligently about sports isn't necessarily a prerequiste to be an on-air personality (but we already knew that):
Like most studio analysts, Mr. Smith delivers his opinions with an air of absolute certainty. If he is ever wrong, he said, it's because sources have lied to him. "Unless you're a fly on the wall, you're only as good as your sources," he said.

He is also prone to effusively proclaiming his approval of the players he favors. Discussing the Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett on the air recently, he said, "Here's what it comes down to: Nobody loves the boy more than I do. I love K. G.!"
Now there's some insight you can't get anywhere else. In most professions, if you suck at what you do, you usually get canned, or at the very least are put in the basement like Milton Waddams in "Office Space"; it's not often the case that your boss gives you a promotion because you're criminally incompetent at your job. Apparently these rules don't apply to television personalities -- especially if they work for ESPN. In fact, much like Bizarro world, things are exactly the opposite. Knowing this certainly explains why ESPN decided to release David Aldridge -- the Peter Gammons of the NBA -- in order to give Smith an expanded role. On what planet is that a good idea? Why not team him up with Skip Bayless on that insufferable "First and Ten" show and let them go at each other with inane, banal exchanges. Oh wait, ESPN's one step ahead of me.

A few months ago USAToday spoke to Smith about his ever-expanding role on The Network and here's what he said:
"As a black man, the biggest nightmare is to be perceived as a buffoon, in any form or fashion. I'd rather have people perceive me as too serious, even evil."
Uh, right. That ship has sailed my friend ... about the same time you started appearing regularly on "Cold Pizza." And by the way, being a buffoon transcends race. People don't think any less of you than they do of Skip Bayless because you're black and he's white. You're both clowns of equal magnitude.

OK, with all that as background, guess what I did Monday night? Yep, I watched "Quite Frankly." But for the same reasons you give when you get caught looking at Playboy: the articles (or in this case, the substance). Seriously, I wanted to see how bad Smith was going to be to gauge the shows success. The thinking was that the more he kicked, screamed and gesticulated, the longer it would run. Anyway, Allen Iverson was his inaugural guest.

And before I go any further, let me say that even though I don't watch a lot of the NBA, Iverson has been far and away my favorite player since he came into the league 10 years ago. Despite his image, he's the toughest, hardest working player on the floor by a very large margin. And he's six feet and maybe 160 lbs.

I didn't think it was possible, but after the interview, I actually liked A.I. even more (my dislike for Smith remained about the same). The good news is that Smith didn't do a lot of talking (or screaming). In fact, I never would have guessed Iverson could be so chatty while also being very sincere. Smith only asked five or six questions in the hour-long conversation, and for the most part spared us of his goofy shtick (although he did occasionally have his moments).

As I watched Smith make his assortment of facial expressions during the interview, I got this nagging feeling you get when you see someone who looks very familiar, but you just can't place where you know them from. For some reason the name Franklin kept popping into my head, probably because of the show's title and some subconscious attempt to link a name to Smith's face. It turns out that the name I was looking for was Arthur, the cartoon character. You tell me if these two guys aren't brothers:

Slap some glasses on Smith and he's a dead ringer (including the outfit). Of course this raises a couple of questions. First, why am I watching "Arthur?" And second ... well, there is no other question. Just why am I watching "Arthur?"

So maybe Smith is trying to change his image from the loudmouthed boob. He even went so far as to say "he says he wants to lower his volume" but in the same breath he also wants his show to be "a cross between Bill O'Reilly and Larry King," so once again, it's really hard to take him seriously. And if history offers any insight, as soon as Smith tries to be like David Aldridge, he'll probably end up like David Aldridge. At least as far as ESPN is concerned.