As I’ve noted in this space on numerous occasions, I am a longtime viewer of ESPN’s PTI. That’s a bit of a chore during the summer months, because hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon get bored with their platform when the weather turns warm, and they tend to abandon their posts throughout the season.
Rachel Nichols: a host with the most
This eventuality leads to a string of fill-in hosts, most of whom are not exactly up to the standard that Messrs. Wilbon and Kornheiser set. And then, last week, viewers were presented with two shows, on Thursday and Friday, on which Rachel Nichols stepped in to serve as the show’s guest host for the first time.
This did not seem like a propitious choice. As I’ve indicated on more than one occasion, sideline reporters are not my favorite creatures roaming the sports media landscape. Had the channel guide indicated that Nichols would be a guest host on the show last Thursday, I might have just deleted the episode without bothering to watch.
As it was, I went into the episode with little expectation that the show would be anything other than the usual middling effort–at best–that comes when the main men are missing.
Surprise! Nichols didn’t just acquit herself well as a fill-in host; she knocked it out of the park–and got at least this observer wondering if PTI could have a future beyond the days of Mike and Tony.
It should be noted that Nichols was helped immensely by hosting both of her episodes alongside one of the regulars, Kornheiser on Thursday and then Wilbon on Friday. And she made a few rookie mistakes, mostly mechanical issues such as when it was her turn to talk within the show’s traditional back and forth format, particularly during the fast-paced “big finish” segment.
Nevertheless, Nichols was mostly great on her first PTI foray. She provided insight and thoughtful analysis on every topic covered, and did so with energy, humor, and a strong skill for playing off her co-host–which is a huge part of what makes the show work (and why it is often a desultory experience whenever you get a Dan LeBatard-Jason Whitlock kind of pairing).
“Taking over one of the chairs on PTI would be a much more prominent position, a step up for Nichols career-wise. If she’s willing … then why not?”
Nichols was so good in her PTI appearances that, for perhaps the first time, a longtime viewer could start wondering if there may actually be a future for the show once longtime hosts Kornheiser and Wilbon decide to hang it up. And that’s a point of particular interest if you’re someone, like yours truly, who uses that show as a primary source for daily news of the sports world (at least so far as television, and ESPN in particular, is concerned).
There have been no visible signs or speculation that either host is showing any interest in leaving the show. However, there are a few factors that must be taken into account when assessing PTI’s future.
For one, it’s on ESPN, and the “Worldwide Leader” has been undergoing purges lately, the likes of which have not been seen since Soviet Russia in the 1920s. The network seems to be in the throes of an intense obsession with “freshening up” the on-air talent. And, as usual with television, that tends to mean getting younger.
For PTI, that may represent a problem. At 68, Kornheiser, though still fairly energetic and sharp, is old–just ask him. He is constantly reminding the viewer of that fact, even when he’s not bombing with jokes that would make an ancient Catskills comedian shake his head.
Wilbon is eleven years Kornheiser’s junior, but health problems (one heart attack, and diabetes) may ultimately limit his television career.
Beyond their demographically unfriendly ages, the simple fact is that both PTI hosts have been on the show since its inception fifteen years ago. That’s a lifetime in the world of television, and possibly two or three lifetimes on the ESPN time scale. It would come as no surprise if someone in the hierarchy decided that the pair have reached their expiration dates.
In that case, the question becomes: will the show end when the originators leave the set? Or, will PTI survive with new hosts taking over the desk?
Before Nichols’ appearances last week, the former possibility seemed much more likely. It was only two episodes, but Nichols demonstrated that there is at least one potential successor out there who could step into the host’s chair and make PTI something that remains worth watching.
It’s impossible to know for sure, without inside knowledge, if the network is considering making a change or if Nichols would be on the short list for replacing either Kornheiser, Wilbon, or both. But she did make it clear that, if anyone in Bristol wants to keep PTI on the schedule–and it is, at this point, a prestige show that leads in to the network’s primetime offerings–at least half the equation may have been solved.
That conclusion, in and of itself, raises two questions.
First, would Nichols take the job if it were offered to her? Nichols seemed fairly happy in her sideline reporter role–it was certainly a step up from Brett Favre’s lawn–and she does currently have her own show, The Jump, on ESPN. Also, according to a comment she made on one of last week’s shows, she lives in Los Angeles, not Washington D.C. (though she was born nearby in Maryland). So something–either Nichols or the show–would have to relocate to get her on PTI permanently (or they’d need to use a permanent, remote satellite link up for her appearances).
In sum, Nichols is back and under contract with ESPN, and she has her own show on the Worldwide Leader–but it’s a show that’s obscure enough that at least one observer (yours truly) didn’t even know it was on the air before checking her bio. Taking over one of the chairs on PTI would be a much more prominent position, a step up for Nichols career-wise. If she’s willing to move back to the D.C. area, and if the network is interested in a change, then why not?
As for the second question: who would host the show with Nichols? Presumably, at first, it would be Wilbon; it’s far more likely at this point that Kornheiser would leave versus Wilbon. Keeping one of the original hosts on, at least in the beginning, would assist in the transition to the show into something newer.
And after Wilbon? The pickings for a second replacement host are rather slim; that’s why Nichols’ excellent performance last week was so surprising. Most of the guest hosts–even Bob Ryan, who I respect as a journalist–have been duds. LeBatard is mostly a disaster. A few of the previous picks to sit in on the show have departed the network, often under bad circumstances. For example, the supposedly brilliant Bill Simmons, who now famously feuds with his former Connecticut Clown College friends, was notably ordinary in his few PTI appearances. Whitlock left under a cloud of anger. Anyone else who has served as a fill-in was so average in their appearances that I can’t even remember who they were.
The one recent guest host who has been up to snuff? Pablo Torre. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure; he’s done guest host duty on both PTI and Around The Horn for a while now without exactly setting the world on fire. But he has acquitted himself fairly well in his spots on PTI. He’s intelligent, makes good points and argues those points well, and doesn’t fall into the clown trap (a la LeBatard). Torre is also generally low-key, which would make him an easier fit with Nichols, given that they probably have not worked together much, if at all, before now; they would have a better shot at developing chemistry than pairing Nichols with someone more high-strung. All told, Torre would appear to be the best choice to fill the second chair on PTI if a wholesale reworking of the show is on the table any time soon.
(Preemptive strike: No, none of the other Around The Horn regulars are anywhere close to a good choice for PTI. If PTI is the majors, then ATH is mostly Single-A level talent.)
So there’s the plan: when Tony and Mike decide it’s time to go, replace them with Rachel and Pablo. That would be a show I’d be willing to continue to watch. Anything else, based on the current crop of talent, and the show’s better off going off the air. Now it’s only a matter of whether anyone at ESPN is on the same wavelength. We’ll see, if we keep watching, either sooner or later.