Since its launch in 2001 ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” hasn’t done much to change the show’s winning formula. Sports stories constantly change, but the dynamic between Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon remains as fresh as ever. The show set the stage for the copious amount of debate driven sports shows that followed, and now in many ways sets the conventional wisdom at ESPN. Recently though the ESPN 5:30pm staple has undergone a Rex Ryan level diet.
Let’s talk about what used to be PTI. The show had a simple format. The first segment was devoted to debate about the sports headlines of the day. The second segment, dubbed “five good minutes”, was an interview with player, coach, or journalist. The third segment was filled by an assortment of games such as “Odds Makers”, “What’s the Word”, and of course “Role Play” with Tony and Mike assuming the head of different sports personalities. Then the last segment ended with birthdays and quick hits on leftover stories and games being played that night. It was a great format.
If you watch PTI today it seems the same as it ever was. Kornheiser still loves big time stars and the North-Eastern corridor. Wilbon still loves everything Chicago and routinely calls for people to be punched in the mouth. The chemistry is just as you remembered it, but now runs just a little bit shorter. In deference to increasing the amount of ad dollars that PTI can take in the show’s content has been trimmed.
ESPN has gone out of its way to mask the fact that they are giving you less PTI than ever before. The opening segment of headlines is still there, and now with more time than ever before for Tony and Mike to spar. They actually increased the first segment’s length. The real changes occur in the what was the two middle segments. What they’ve done is fold the interview segment and the game segment into one piece. Now the show only has time for one of the two after they’re done with headlines. They still end with happy birthday and lighting round questions, but now PTI has shrunk from four segments to three.
Before we all grab out pitchforks and storm ESPN demanding they give us back our PTI there is a silver lining in all of this. The producers of the show often had a tough time booking the interview segment of the show. The lack of guest often made the pair play two rounds of games or another dose of headline talk. The producers have made a smart choice in now only needing to book a guest they want. If no guest is available they can just flow into a game like “Role Play”. So in a way we get a tighter PTI, but less of it.
The worst part about this is Tony and Mike aren’t going to around forever. There will be a point when Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock are called upon to take over. Should we spend our remaining time with PTI complaining about losing three to four minutes of show per day? While it feels good to complain, the truth is every major television network is working hard to increase their commercial loads.
It is called the “Television Business” for a reason. Every year the sales people at ESPN need to increase the revenue coming out of PTI, and when the ratings aren’t doing enough to juice the numbers the easiest fix is to increase the amount of time the show is offering for sale. When ESPN looks at PTI they care more about the time the show isn’t on the air than the banter about the Chicago Bulls.
PTI is such a great show that even the haircut it got makes it look better. When you think of it from ESPN’s view putting PTI on a diet makes complete sense. They can increase the commercial revenue without effecting the show’s flow and rating. People still think they are getting the same amount of programming, and that is all that matters. The new key to programming is taking away as much time as you can from content before the viewer gets wise to the changes. In a way TV channels have become closer to carnival barkers promising fun and laughs, but all the while slowly tipping the outcome in only their direction.