After what will amount to just 17 episodes, “Any Given Wednesday” will be no more. While “Hee Haw Honeys” got a whopping 24 episodes, HBO has decided that their multi-year deal with Bill Simmons will no longer feature the flagship show which it was to use as a launching point. As the internet is wont to do, there was plenty of schadenfreude being heaped upon the former ESPN columnist as it was not long ago that Simmons was tweeting about not needing a “mothership” to be successful. The catch, of course, is that while Simmons’ show will no longer be, gauging “success” may not be that easy.
In a recent podcast about this very topic, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch (along with former FOX web guy Jimmy Traina and SBJ’s Jon Ourand) discussed Simmons’ move from being an incredibly successful writer and podcast host to a guy attempting to make his evolving, creative style work on television. As Deitsch was quick to mention, despite the increasing competition and decreasing quality, television is where anyone in the money makes money. This is nothing new and is why former columnists like Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser barely know their Macbook passwords, swapping their writing time for air time. It’s also a notion which is easily confirmed by the $8 million-per-year deal Simmons struck, considerably more than he was making to spearhead Grantland. But as the HBO press release intimated, both the network and Simmons overestimated how seamless a transition it would be for an audience that is largely web and on-demand to transition over to a subscription-based television service.
Simmons is a hard-working, entertaining writer who stopped writing, and a terrific podcast host who stopped having on new guests.
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) November 4, 2016
When Howard Stern made the leap from terrestrial radio to Sirius (now SiriusXM) over a decade ago, this was move that was widely criticized, but one that quickly slammed the door on doubters. While the King of All Media was going to be in fewer homes from a listener standpoint, the move to Sirius was one that took a man (and staff) who was on the air for several hours, live, each morning, to one that included two channels of Stern, a new wrap-up show that would follow each live episode, and a substantially increased web presence that allowed fans to interact with the show on a 24-hour basis. Ultimately, while the host would reduce the days of his live program and the content would admittedly soften up compared to the days of Stripper Olympics, fans were given more Stern.
With Simmons, the one-man brand, fans were given less. With a television show to create, his columns were fewer and further between. His podcasts, which continue to get listenership in the six digits per episode, are perfect from a timing standpoint as listeners know exactly when a fresh batch of audio will be ready for download, but the guests have decreased in diversity. Gone are the frequent, several-thousand-word columns. Gone are the days of surprise guests, as Mike Lombardi and Joe House are on nearly every week. With the HBO deal in place, The Ringer—which is “founded” by Simmons, not “edited” or “run” by Simmons—and the ‘cast (the two mediums that got him to this point) have seemingly fallen by the wayside. While brands are sticky and there are millions who follow his every move, Simmons’ lack of frequency outside of a few tweets about the Red Sox or Celtics, has appeared to have worked against him.
In the Deitsch column linked above, we get the following thoughts from agents and executives:
“Internet personality doesn’t equal television personality, and the so-called internet faithful never came to television.”
“He has a big, loyal digital audience but that doesn’t translate to linear TV.”
All is not lost, however. The Ringer, though not necessarily having a target audience, is a fantastic website. The content ranges from informative to entertaining to a mix of both, all done at a high-quality level. And all of the schadenfreude above? Simmons is still the one cashing substantially large checks. His podcast is pulling in more revenue than the Catholic church. He’s one of the only single-founders who is willing to put the resources into producing high-quality written and short-form video content. Sure, he rubs a lot of people the wrong way—former coworkers, executives, Roger Goodell—but those who dislike Simmons because he’s a “Boston homer” who “bashes my favorite team” could benefit from stepping back and Googling “irony.”
The trick, of course, is making all of this work. HBO isn’t firing Simmons as much as they are cancelling his show. He’s still employed, still under contract. He’s going to be doing ton of consulting on the HBO Now side, a podcast-like video app that allows for on-demand access to shows that are accessible to any subscribers. What Simmons has been able to do for podcasts like “Keepin’ it 1600” and “The Watch” should also not be ignored. You want guests? Jon Favreau, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald continue to litter their podcasts full of guests. The Watch episode with “The League’s” Jason Mantzoukas was terrific. The potential is there, but it’s all a product of focus. Manifesting this into the HBO Now framework could be substantial for both parties. Stern’s model works because he’s the bellcow of Sirius’ entertainment arm. Simmons is joining a well-established media enterprise and is looking to make a dent.
Given Simmons’ competitive level, he has to be highly disappointed regarding the AGW news. But just as it was silly to count him out after he left ESPN before he landed at HBO and created The Ringer, it would be equally silly to assume he won’t land on his feet and create the next big thing—whatever that may be. The guy took offers from FOX, Turner, Hulu, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Snapchat before landing at HBO. There is still plenty demand for what Simmons has to offer. Getting it to work in today’s ever-changing landscape, however, will be the challenge.