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Six Thoughts on ‘Get Up!,’ ESPN’s New Morning Show

Can a morning sports talk show really work in 2018?

ESPN/Ringer illustration

I don’t believe in day-one reviews. Doesn’t matter if it’s a new ESPN show or a sports site that moves America’s baseball and hockey writers into a higher tax bracket. Give it a week. Better yet, give it a few months.

So you won’t read a poleaxing of ESPN’s new morning show, Get Up!, here. But I’d like to reserve the headline “Colder Pizza” for possible future use. And after watching the first edition of Get Up!, I have six thoughts about what ESPN is trying to do with the show and the sports-TV universe in which the network is trying to do it.

1. A show like Get Up! is as much about structure as it is about chemistry. Sitting in front of a window that during the first hour was fogged in by a blizzard, Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle, and Jalen Rose (the fourth host Monday was former NFL defensive tackle Booger McFarland) led off each hour with a news recap. Anyone who watches ESPN will recognize the house style of aggregation. You get big news (Arike Ogunbowale’s game-winner). You get an amazing play (Danuel House Jr.’s self-pass and dunk). You get a beef (Kyle Kuzma trash-talking Justin Jackson). And you get one of social media’s objects of obsession (the Rams’ Aaron Donald blocking knife attacks).

There were burning questions on the chyron. But the Get Up! cast reminded me of the strata of ESPN hosts who like to say: “We don’t really do debate. We do discussion.”

“Is Jay Wright, as we speak, the best coach in college basketball?” Greeny asked guest Jay Bilas at one point. They briefly hashed it over. After showing Ogunbowale’s second buzzer-beater in two games, the panel considered whether hers was the best Final Four performance of all time. Like the guy at the bar who gums up the discussion by possibly being right, Greeny suggested Bill Walton might have been better in 1973.

The power of hot takes is so seductive that even when ESPN hosts like Dan Le Batard don’t sling them, they deconstruct them and in the process produce a meta hot take of their own. Get Up! accomplished this in a segment called “Hot Take Factory.” Producer Bill Wolff would read a provocation—“the San Antonio Spurs are better without Kawhi”—and then Beadle would rate its arousal level with fire emoji. One example from Monday—the women’s Final Four has been better than the men’s—isn’t actually a hot take. If you read Twitter this weekend, it was the kryptonite to the hot take that UConn had ruined the women’s game.

ESPN clearly pushed its bookers for big interviews: Charles Barkley was on the phone from San Antonio; Ogunbowale was on camera. The show unveiled a couple of minor technological innovations: During highlights, the four hosts’ faces appeared in pop-up boxes so you could see them talking to each other. (Two faces worked better than four.) And every so often, Get Up!’s researcher—identified only as “Hembo”—would toss a relevant fact on the screen like a virtual Tony Reali. We have reached the phase of sports TV where having a funny-nerdy researcher is pretty much mandatory.

Get Up! doesn’t strive to be a Good Morning America–style show that whirls between hard news and remote interviews. It strives to be a show built from pieces of other successful ESPN shows: SportsNation; Around the Horn; NBA Countdown; and even that old warhorse SportsCenter. In an interesting decision, the Get Up! crew did SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays—the very same ones that were showing on ESPN2—each hour. The message seemed to be: This is all the stuff you like about ESPN, only we’re doing it much earlier.

2. Greeny has been on TV for years thanks to the Mike & Mike simulcast, but he’s not a natural TV star. He talks fast and he doesn’t smile a lot and he sometimes looks at the ground instead of the camera. Given an audience with Serena Williams at last year’s ESPN upfront, Greenberg barely asked her about her pregnancy—an obvious subject for a morning show.

I expected Greeny to play the slightly priggish straight man that Beadle would gleefully undermine, giving Get Up! the air of a sexless Morning Joe. But other than Beadle raising an eyebrow at Greeny’s use of the word “obsequious,” producers made an interesting decision. Beadle spoke the first live words of the show and ran point for most of the first hour. (She conducted the Ogunbowale interview alone.)

What the show let Greeny do was opine. One bit, which he did live, argued that University of Maryland–Baltimore County’s first-round upset and Sister Jean were bigger than anything that’s likely to happen in Monday night’s NCAA final. Which—Rose’s affinity for Michigan notwithstanding—is probably inarguable. The other take, delivered on tape, was that a good Yankees team is what baseball needs to improve its sagging fortunes. That’s enough of a sports go-to that McFarland repeated the idea when talking about Tiger Woods’s return at the Masters.

Greeny was the first recruit for Get Up! (he has insisted he was never supposed to be its star) but in a way he’s the hardest guy to cast. He’s not going to look into the camera and grin his way into your heart. He’s not going to light the set on fire with an opinion. At first glance, the show looks like a team with two point guards, though one that’s not likely to beef.

3. Cable news would seem to offer a model for Get Up! Wolff, the ESPN vice president who’s shepherding the show, is a veteran of The Rachel Maddow Show. With ratings up from CNN to Fox, there’s a certain allure in putting Greeny in a half-zip, sticking a Starbucks cup on the desk, and creating a sports-themed version of Morning Joe.

There’s a reason that analogy doesn’t quite work. Cable news is being floated and even programmed by Donald Trump. Trump provides the ever-changing “news,” the outrage, and the early-morning DACA tweets that producers can put on the screen.

Sports doesn’t have a single mega-subject that brings everybody together. Or, at least, it doesn’t have one every day. Take the newsy segment that leads off each hour of Get Up! On Monday, it featured Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater and LeBron James’s and Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles from the night before. Then we were on Shohei Otani’s first start for the Angels.

Sports “opinionists” have solved the problem of the lack of a common story line by pounding LeBron, the Dallas Cowboys, and other “A” stories again and again. Greeny seems to have the opposite idea. “I want the show to be all things to all sports fans,” he told the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein.

Wolff’s challenge is this: To make a case for a generalist talk show in a media universe where everyone is allowed to wallow in their own obsession. Even before cord-cutting, this would be an enormous challenge. As someone involved with the show’s genesis told me of Wolff, “I think this project will determine the remainder of his career.”

4. Know what I’m not worried about? Get Up!’s wokeness. Last week, there was a tempest caused by a stray Hollywood Reporter headline. Yet if you read the piece, Rose was saying that if Trump tweeted something about sports, the show would discuss it.

If Trump tweets about sports, of course Greenberg, et al., should talk about it. Trump would be solving the problem outlined above! If the network doesn’t want to turn Greenberg into Chris Hayes, it can bring on Jemele Hill. We’ve gotten to the point where TV execs think any grunt of political ideology is going to bring Clay Travis through the door like Chris Hansen. (“Greeny, why don’t you have a seat?”) Stop being so damn scared of being interesting.

5. Don’t underestimate how much studio shows rely on football talk. Scott Van Pelt’s midnight SportsCenter launched on September 7, 2015. He had football on his show immediately. The Six launched the Monday after the Super Bowl. Michael Smith and Jemele Hill had to wait seven months for football. That’s not the reason one succeeded and the other failed, but I’d sure rather start a new talk show at the beginning of football season.

6. No matter what your friendly media critic tells you, a show like Get Up! has very two different definitions of success: financial and editorial. Let’s start with the former. We know exactly what the replacement-level talk show for Get Up! is: generic SportsCenter. Pick some hosts, run the highlights, throw it to Windhorst. Get Up!’s success will be measured not only by how much it out-rates such a show but whether that bump is big enough to justify a reported $15 million in host salaries, millions more for a new studio in New York’s South Street Seaport, etc. (The show will repeat three hours later on ESPN2.)

But at this stage, that stuff mostly matters to TV executives. For the show to be an editorial success, it has to achieve something else. At least once or twice, you’ll have to wake up, groggily look at some news story on Twitter, and think, I wonder what Greeny and Beadle and Jalen are saying about this.

Even that’s asking a lot in this day and age. Maybe success is more like: Get Up! is something I’ll admit into my balanced media breakfast along with Twitter and Morning Edition and whatever podcast I fell asleep listening to last night. If that feels like a tall order, you get a sense of just how tough it’s going to be for this to work.