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All the World’s a Studio Show

Adrian Wojnarowski will once again be scooping this year’s NBA draft from his very own Yahoo web show. Why does the format persist — at major networks, digital powerhouses, and tiny upstarts — more than 50 years after its inception?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Once upon a time, the sight of Adam Schefter madly punching the keys of his BlackBerry was one of the strangest things you could see on a sports studio show. As a child of the stare-into-the-prompter age of television, I thought, Really? He’s going to read his phone on TV? But last year Adrian Wojnarowski, the star of Yahoo’s NBA draft special, took the conceit a step further.

Woj’s reporting — which scooped the picks before ESPN’s league-sanctioned draft show — was the Yahoo special’s raison d’etre. But Woj appeared in the flesh only three times over the course of four hours. "We made his Twitter handle a character," said Ryan Dornbusch, the show’s producer. Woj wasn’t reading his phone on air. He sent his phone as his replacement.

That was the major innovation. Because the format of Yahoo’s draft special would have been familiar to a viewer of The NFL Today in 1985. Chris Mannix was the genial, traffic-cop host. Tom Crean, Bobby Marks, and Mike Schmitz were the expert panelists — sitting at Mannix’s left, as expert panelists almost always do on studio shows. Occasionally, Mannix dialed up DraftExpress’s Jonathan Givony at the Barclays Center, just as Brent Musburger once dialed up a correspondent standing in front of the Superdome. "We almost didn’t play too much with the format," said Dornbusch. "Like a good piece of meat, all you have to do is a put a little salt on it and let the flavor come out."

I think this counts as a surprise. The studio show — one of the oldest forms of sports TV — hasn’t just escaped extinction. It has leapt, basically intact, from television to the web. The highlight show may be anachronism in 2017. But it feels like the digital media has become one, ever-expanding studio show, and that all of us who write about sports or politics or anything else are cast members, whether we want to be or not.

Take just the studio shows made for the NBA draft. There is Yahoo’s pirate-radio broadcast. Ringer writers watching the draft lottery live. The Crossover produced a show right after the lottery offering "takes, reactions, and mock drafts" (a.k.a. the manna of the studio show). The site will also have its own live show during the draft with panelists like David Kahn and Kwame Brown. This is all in addition to ESPN and NBA TV’s coverage of the draft on television.

Last month, BuzzFeed produced a live studio show where you could watch Greg Gianforte choke-slam his way to Congress in the Montana House special election. It adhered to the formula (host, expert, reporters at the victory parties) but was less afraid to swim in data than its TV cousins were. It’s a sign of the mania for studio shows that every episode of Game of Thrones now comes with a postgame show (also hosted by The Ringer). Card Show is a delightful studio-show-like substance on SB Nation, hosted by Ryan Nanni and Jon Bois. An episode last month was devoted to opening two boxes of CFL football cards.

The old guard of web studio shows (The Young Turks, Desus vs. Mero) had a DIY aesthetic. But the studio shows on Cheddar, "the leading post-cable network," take their cues directly from TV, from the mirthless chyron ("Agree or Disagree: Trump Knows What He’s Doing on Social Media") to the New York street scenes unfolding in the window behind the hosts. At the end of a recent segment about Megyn Kelly, host Kristen Scholer even used the classic studio outro: "Well, we will have to wait and see."

In October, Donald Trump caught studio-show fever, streaming a conclave of his apparatchiks on Facebook Live. "We know who almost everyone in the media is rooting for," Jason Miller, an adviser, declared on the show. In other words, to counteract the bad vibes coming from CNN and MSNBC’s studios, Trump created one of his own.

"It is strikingly similar," Matthew Collette, who produced Garbage Time, said of the modern studio show, "and it probably hasn’t evolved as much as it should have at this point." Which isn’t to say the new crop of studio shows are bad. A lot of them, like Yahoo’s draft show, are quite good. It’s their sheer number and adherence to formula that’s a curiosity. It’s like the digital media rushed headfirst into the future and discovered that what it really wanted was a reboot of the past.

Marveling at the glut of TV studio shows has been a hobby of sports media critics for decades. "With pregame, halftime, and postgame productions, along with midgame special reports and updates, we now have entirely separate, or meta-events, emanating from the illusory stadiums of the television studio and requiring a whole other team — indeed, whole new categories — of sportscasters," the writer Charles Siebert observed in 1990.

It turns out that a lot of studio shows weren’t just filling time but anticipating the language of the web. Pardon the Interruption launched a generation of internet copycats with its scrolling list of topics and (forgive me) "snackable" segments. Inside the NBA’s shaggy, free-wheeling conversation became the model for just about every every podcast and web studio show to aspire to. "Those guys, they don’t come to production meetings," said Craig Barry, Turner Sports’ chief content officer. "Charles, Kenny, and Shaq — everything they’re seeing on the show they’re seeing for the first time with an audience."

When the web adopted the studio show, it mostly added cosmetic changes. Couches instead of chairs. Stacked crates and cardboard instead of desks. Fewer power suits. (When Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald wore tuxes on The Ringer’s Oscars postgame show, it was as much a gag as when Rembert Browne wore one on Grantland’s March Madness show four years ago.) And why read a teleprompter when you can stare, Schefter-style, into your MacBook Air?

Raw fandom — still more or less verboten on TV — is welcome on a web studio show. In April, when Chicago traded up in the NFL draft to take Mitch Trubisky, fantasy writer and Bears fan Brad Evans declared on Yahoo’s show: "This is the dumbest move maybe ever in Chicago Bears history!"

Someday, Twitter and Amazon and other tech companies may compete with the TV networks for exclusive NFL game rights. But for now, the cold war between TV and the web is being fought through the studio.

For years, NBC had a tradition on its Stanley Cup pregame show: It would toggle from a set outside the arena to its announcers inside. This year, the network stayed outside until the players took the ice for warm-ups, according to Sam Flood, NBC Sports’ executive producer. Outside, the network could channel the energy of the crowd (something no web show from a remote studio could do) and, when the games were in Nashville, invite country-music stars onto the set. That — though Flood didn’t put it this way — is old-school, TV majesty. You are lookin’ live …

Conversely, Yahoo’s NBA draft show was built to undermine the very notion of access. "We’re here to bring you the news," Chris Mannix announced at the top of last year’s show. The draft board behind him bore that out: The top two picks (as reported by Wojnarowski) were filled in even though Adam Silver wouldn’t announce them for another half-hour.

The battle between TV’s studio shows and the web’s is an old one. When CBS created The NFL Today in the early ’60s, it had already paid to show football games and wanted to add its own programming around them. When upstart ESPN started televising every round of the NFL draft in 1980, it wanted to burrow into a sport it wouldn’t have game rights to for another seven years. That insider-outsider split is the same split that exists between ESPN and Yahoo’s warring NBA draft shows today.

That Wojnarowski will reportedly join ESPN after the draft puts his insurgent status in danger. Woj said he prioritized scoops over draft theater — what happens when he becomes the theater’s star attraction? (In a related story, Desus Nice and the Kid Mero are now stars of a Viceland show produced by Erik Rydholm, who created Pardon the Interruption.)

But I thought what happened in February, when Yahoo created yet another studio show for the NBA trade deadline, was instructive. It turns out a studio show can’t be an insurgent production, because, even if it’s offering spoilers, it by nature hypes the league it’s covering. As it turned out, the NBA trade deadline period was a huge dud.

But NBA writers I talked to didn’t much care. Even if there was little news for Wojnarowski to break, they found Yahoo’s show chockablock with information and interesting interviews. The trade deadline was merely the occasion. In retrospect, it can be seen as a historic moment. The studio show became more of an event than the event itself.

Studio shows sprawl across the internet for a number of reasons. "Any big digital media company that wants to do digital video — what’s the first thing they do?" said Peter Bukowski, who worked on video at SI.com and Golf.com. "They hire a veteran TV person." The studio show is a form TV vets are familiar with. Moreover, a familiar-looking panel of hosts and experts can lure advertisers who might be skittish about the whole idea of web video. When I was a young corporal at The Daily Beast, we built a gleaming set in the center of the newsroom, apparently with the idea of luring advertisers. The set turned out to be an expensive place to talk about whatever we had just written on the website.

Last year, Facebook Live paid more than $50 million to media entities that could "easily produce and test a variety of live programming," an executive told The Wall Street Journal. One of the straightest paths to live programming is producing a studio show. (Facebook has reportedly backed off the initiative to concentrate on longer videos.) In May, Twitter announced an agreement with the NFL for a nightly live show consisting of "breaking news, game highlights, key story lines" — you can fill in the rest.

In the still-virgin days of web video, the studio show is a bridge to the past — comfort food for cord cutters. "It’s the same thing with sports broadcasts," said Craig Barry. "In the last 50 years, the core broadcast hasn’t changed that much. You have the half-court camera, the play-by-play camera, the 50-yard-line camera. … The studio show is very similar to that. There’s a comfort level that people have when they’re watching something that conventional."

The second reason the studio show is flourishing is the flattening of expertise. CNN fills its politics shows with highly decorated veterans of campaigns and journalism — plus Jeffrey Lord.

BuzzFeed can’t do that. But for its Montana election show, it produced Brandon Finnigan of Decision Desk HQ, a site that analyzes election returns. Wearing a checkered tie and dress shirt it looked like he didn’t wear often, Finnigan made for an unlikely TV star. But his ability to consider the question you actually wanted the answer to — how, exactly, will the Democrats blow it? — was unmatched. A little after midnight ET May 26, before most media organizations made the call, Finnigan declared, "Gianforte will be the next congressman from Montana." Of course, he turned out to be right.

On a slow news day, a studio show can seem like the most pointless thing in the world — a forum for fantasy trades and dumb feuds. "There’s an art and a skill in knowing what’s going to resonate with both the viewers and the hosts," Peter Schrager, one of the hosts of the NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, wrote in an email. "If it was just read off the top headlines, these shows would all be the same and the viewer wouldn’t bother watching one over the other."

But when truly shocking news happens, we like watching people try to process it on the fly. Donald Trump’s election has produced improvisational gold (Van Jones’s "whitelash" riff) and crap (Fareed Zakaria’s "I think Donald Trump became president of the United States") on the same network.

Live coverage of a mind-blowing event even has rewatch value. If you want a time capsule of liberal grief, the Keepin’ It 1600 live show from election night is still harrowing. "We were wrong about a lot of things," former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett said that night. "The polls were wrong. But I think more than that, I think we need to face how naïve we were about what was going on in this election."

Finally, the studio show lives on because producers have decided the stage is less important than the players. "The need for innovation from my standpoint as a producer is kind of mitigated when you have the right talent," said Matthew Collette. "If you have the wrong talent, there’s not much you can do." Unless you’re Vice, there’s less of an impetus to start from scratch. You find the right two or three talkers and get out of the way.

"The internet is a different language," said Bukowski. "That’s something the print media has struggled to adapt to and the TV media has struggled to adapt to." In other words, there will be probably be a lot more of studio shows. Will we all become Mike and Tony, politely chewing on the issues of the day? Or will the web one day dynamite its studios and develop a grammar all its own? Here I screw on my blandest studio-host voice and say: Well, we will have to wait and see.