(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about—serialized dramas and single-camera comedies—are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Occasionally, TV Club drops in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don’t normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray checks in with ESPN’s long-running source for yelling about sports, Pardon The Interruption.)

I lived in Charlottesville, VA from 1996 to ‘99, and was an avid reader of the Washington Post sports section during that time, so it was always a treat for me to see Tony Kornheiser or Michael Wilbon on ESPN, both in the late ‘90s and in the years immediately after I moved to Arkansas. Back then, the two seemed smart, funny and appealingly chummy: two guys it’d be fun to sit around and talk sports with. When Pardon The Interruption debuted in October of 2001, I started watching the show for Kornheiser and Wilbon, and stuck around because of the show’s innovative format. The topic list running down the side of the screen—which was such a smart idea that ESPN quickly stole it for SportsCenter—coupled with the countdown clock and the self-deprecatingly goofy recurring segments, combined to make for a fast-paced and not-too-self-serious half-hour.

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I quit watching PTI though after a few years, in part because Kornheiser was starting to get overexposed (and, frankly, becoming a little insufferable) and in part because the novelty had worn off. Also, as I’ve written about several times before, I grew fed up with ESPN in general. I mostly see PTI now when it’s on at a restaurant, or on the rare occasions when my son—who likes PTI and Around The Horn because he’s delighted by numbers and point-scoring—catches a glimpse while I’m flipping through channels and asks if we can stop and watch.

When I took on this assignment to drop in on the show, I recorded a week’s worth of episodes, and watched them all in one big bunch, to see if Pardon The Interruption still works. The answer? Yes, for the most part. For one thing, I was pleased to see that Kornheiser seems to have gotten back to being the guy I liked ten years ago: irascible yet also self-deprecating. Granted, I’m just basing this on the past week’s shows, and I know that Kornheiser has dealt with some controversy in recent years over some of his more knee-jerk comments (and for some of his behind-the-scenes sensitivity to criticism). But it at least seems like Kornheiser and Wilbon are having fun again. All the old schtick—like “Role Play,” where the hosts hold masks in front of their faces and pretend to be the athletes they’re talking about—still offers a clever way into and around to the same old sports-talk talking-points, and I like the apparently recent addition of between-commercial snippets of what Kornheiser and Wilbon are talking about while waiting to come back from break. (I know it’s just a ploy to keep me from fast-forwarding, but it does reward those who stick with the show through the ads.)

I also appreciate that Pardon The Interruption is fairly up-to-the-minute. Kornheiser and Wilbon aren’t breaking stories necessarily, but in last night’s installment for example, they were able to comment on Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s decision to resign at the end of the season, which had just been announced a couple of  hours earlier. True, a few hours later that bit of news-analysis was rendered moot when Paterno was fired outright, but at least PTI had the latest as of airtime, along with updates on the NBA lockout and recent NFL fines. (Back when I watched SportsCenter, I used to look forward to Pardon The Interruption as a sort of appetizer before the main course.)

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Of course, a lot of what bugs me about ESPN and sports-talk overall is still present in PTI. There’s a know-it-all quality to Kornheiser and Wilbon that I enjoy when they’re bantering about football or basketball or golf, but don’t exactly trust when they’re making pronouncements about sports or teams that I know they don’t closely follow. (Do I think that either Kornheiser or Wilbon actually has an opinion about whether the goalie for the Nashville Predators is overpaid? No I do not.) And since both men have had long careers in journalism, I wish they’d lean on their own sources more. The one recurring subject this past week where I’ve felt that the show was offering some kind of inside knowledge was with the NBA, which Wilbon has covered closely throughout his career. But even so, there was a moment last week when Wilbon grew livid at reports that NBPA executive director Billy Hunter had been criticizing his president Derek Fisher, which prompted Wilbon to rush to Fisher’s defense and slam Hunter, while stating little in the way of actual facts. At one point he even said “I don’t know” if Hunter’s being a jerk, but “I feel” like he is.

It’s that “feeling” over “knowing” that’s one of the biggest problems in sports punditry (and in politics as well, but that’s a whole other column). Too often in the week I watched Pardon The Interruption, Kornheiser and Wilbon were reduced to analyzing player tweets, and commenting on the comments made by other commentators. (There was a big brouhaha last week when Phil Simms suggested that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t have the stuff to make it as an NFL QB, and PTI generated a couple of days’ worth of material out of that big nothing of a story.) In last night’s show, they pondered who the winners and losers might be when and if the NBA lockout were resolved, and over the past week they’ve had multiple debates about Tim Tebow that seemed to boil down to whether or not he seems like a big-time pro QB or not. This is all pretty ephemeral stuff, and while the PTI format doesn’t allow for the hosts to go in-depth—a point driven home by the too-brief and inadequate segment they did on Joe Frazier’s death earlier this week—opinions on irrelevancies seem all the shallower when reduced to bite-size.

In that context, it was especially revealing to save up Pardon The Interruption episodes to watch up to a week later, to see how often a confident assertion proved off-base. Last week’s shows were all about talking up the big LSU/Alabama football game, which turned out to be something of a dud. Meanwhile, Kornheiser complained about the hype surrounding the Ravens/Steelers game—which turned out to be deserving of it, at least by the fourth quarter—and later, while recalling the epic Ali-Frazier fights, Wilbon tsk-tsked these kids today who don’t know what a real major sporting event is. (Guys, it’s poor form to blame the people who watch your network for getting excited about the games you’ve told them to get excited about.)

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Then again, one thing I’ve always liked about PTI is that they acknowledge their mistakes; and even have a built-in segment to correct errors. It’s all part of the not-taking-yourself-too-seriously vibe that’s the best aspect of the show. Kornheiser and Wilbon can be keen in their insights—as when Wilbon last night lambasted the NFL for lazily fining players for hits that start clean and then become helmet-to-helmet at the last second—but the fun of the show is in watching them smile while they bicker like two old buddies over whether college football games where both teams score over 60 points are “real” football. That’s where PTI is at its most good-natured: when the hosts are having low-impact sparring matches and pledging to do better next time.

Stray Observations:

  • Another thing I’ve always liked about PTI and the Kornheiser/Wilbon pairing is their willingness to discuss race openly. That led to some interesting moments this week when Tiger Woods’ ex-caddy Steve Williams referred to a recent tournament win for his new boss Adam Scott as an opportunity to “shove it right up that black asshole.” Woods accepted Williams’ apology. Wilbon said he has no intention of forgiving Williams any time soon. Wilbon didn’t say it in a mean or spiteful way; just being honest about his own reaction.
  • Is it me, or is Tony Reali looking much skinnier than he used to? He looks like one of those stretchy super-heroes.
  • Now that this week is up, I don’t expect to become a regular PTI watcher again, not because I have any real beef with the show, but because MLB Network’s new show Clubhouse Confidential is on at the same time, and after just three episodes I’m already smitten with it. New hire—and ESPN refugee—Brian Kenny hosts, and his stated mission to is to apply advanced analytics to evaluating baseball players and baseball teams. This isn’t just about Kenny spouting stats; it’s him and his staff spotting trends, and judging players against history to determine who might be undervalued and overvalued. The show isn’t self-righteous about it; Kenny doesn’t lay out the facts and then state unequivocally that he’s right. He just makes a case, graciously and enthusiastically (and with the help of other stat-heads), hoping to educate viewers and not to agitate us. It’s refreshing.

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