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Trusting the ESPN Process: Can Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre Create a New Version of Sports Talk TV?

The producing guru behind ‘Pardon the Interruption’ and ‘Highly Questionable’ is doing everything he can to make it happen. But it won’t be easy in 2018.

Bomani Jones and Pablo Torres ESPN/Ringer illustration

“In texting with Sam Hinkie last night …” Pablo Torre began, looking straight into the camera.

Texting with Sam Hinkie,” Bomani Jones grumbled under his breath.

“… he did not confirm what I’m about to announce to you,” Torre said. The Philadelphia 76ers, Torre said grandly, should “bring Sam Hinkie back from the dead and make him the general manager again.”

When it was his turn, Jones stared into another camera. “Here’s my announcement,” he said. “Burner accounts are the lamest thing in the world.”

For the producers of High Noon, the new ESPN studio show, the Bryan Colangelo story was a dream come true. They were almost sad to waste it on Wednesday’s dress rehearsal. The story accentuated the roles Torre thought the hosts would settle into: Jones would be the voice of skeptical experience and Torre, a chronicle-acolyte of Hinkie’s Process, would play the bratty millennial.

Torre and Jones went at it. Torre said Colangelo was “bad at generally managing how to get information out” since nothing came of the tweet-suggestions. Jones said, “If you need to do it that bad, homie, get you a journal!”

After 16 minutes, the hosts heard a voice in their ears from High Noon’s Washington, D.C., control room: “How’d that feel, gentlemen?”

The voice belonged to the show’s creator, Erik Rydholm. In need of a hit, ESPN has turned to Rydholm and allowed him to develop High Noon almost without interference. “They have left Erik alone in a way that you might leave a director on 30 for 30 alone,” Torre told me. Asked why Rydholm got such a wide berth, Norby Williamson, the ESPN executive in charge of studio shows, said: “I don’t give wide berths to people who don’t deserve it. When you have a track record—when you’ve made doughnuts and those doughnuts are selling very successfully—to me it’s not much of a risk.”

Everything else at ESPN seems like a risk. Last year, the network was buffeted by cord-cutting, two rounds of layoffs, increased helicopter parenting from the Walt Disney Company, and the occasional blast from the Trump administration. The same day Torre and Jones rehearsed for High Noon in the show’s New York studio, Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood in the White House briefing room and complained that Disney had apologized for Roseanne’s tweets but not Jemele Hill’s.

Yet despite High Noon’s endless gestation period (its existence was reported as early as October 2016), there was little doubt the show would reach the air. The reason was Rydholm’s track record. You can walk through his office in Washington and see ESPN’s entire 4:30 to 6 p.m. block. Start in the pod for Pardon the Interruption, where Tony Kornheiser is asking someone to explain the finer points of a burner account. Walk straight ahead to Around the Horn, the 16-year-old series that acts as a retirement fund for sports columnists. Hang a left and you find Highly Questionable, which turned Dan Le Batard and his septuagenarian father, Gonzalo, into TV stars. Rydholm also created Desus & Mero for Viceland before leaving the show in April.

With High Noon, ESPN is once again relying on Rydholm’s approach to hit-making. Most sports shows—think First Take—pit virtual strangers against each other in chyron-induced combat. Rydholm’s idea is different. He wants to take people who know each other off-screen and re-create their relationship as a TV show.

Rydholm is a happy mix of contradictions: at once philosophical and practical, an auteur who can rattle off pretentious film references but is deferential to the talent. “My job, in short, is just to honor who they are—who they are as individuals and who they are together,” he said.

Rydholm’s voice grew dreamy when he talked of taking temporary custody of Pablo and Bomani’s friendship, just as he had Mike and Tony’s and Desus and Mero’s. “I love Bomani and I love Pablo,” he said. “I love everyone who’s working on the show. We should be able to do something with all that love.” To advertise High Noon, Rydholm didn’t want a raft of TV ads but wanted the hosts to tweet photos of themselves as young men. It reminded Rydholm of the montages you see projected on a screen at a wedding.

The hosts, in turn, talked of Rydholm as something between a producer and a life coach. “I’ve basically entrusted the entirety of my career to his judgment,” Jones said.

On Wednesday, Rydholm wore a denim jacket and had a vintage, “non-racist” Indians cap pulled over his bald head. He put thick black glasses on and pulled them off again. Some sports TV producers sit nervously while a show unspools; Rydholm tends to stand in a creative slouch.

You could feel a slight sense of uneasiness in the control room. Five days before High Noon went on the air, Rydholm felt the show’s first segment, or A block, was a little off. During the previous day’s rehearsal, the hosts had gone back and forth on the Rockets’ meltdown in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. It was recognizably a Rydholm show, except twice as long at one hour and—a first for his studio shows—live.

The problem was, the “real” Pablo and Bomani weren’t coming through the way Mike and Tony do on PTI. It was like the difference between observing a friendship and participating in it. “I didn’t get, as a viewer, enough on the feel side,” Rydholm told me. “I didn’t feel connected enough to them.” Today, Rydholm would reassert himself as a producer. In the, uh, process, he would do something more than try to make a good show. He would navigate the tension between friendship and television.

Rydholm’s great insight was to understand that a lot of us are both attracted to and repulsed by sports debates. We want to have the Jordan vs. LeBron GOAT argument. We really do. We just don’t want to feel terrible about it. Rydholm was able to reproduce that duality on TV better than anyone.

A Chicago native, Rydholm spent the early years of his career in the low rungs of TV and then became a founder of the early digital investment site The Motley Fool. In 2001, after the dot-com bubble burst, Rydholm and his partners had to lay off nearly 200 employees. After that, Rydholm vowed to stay a half-step behind the technological curve. “So often what people try and do is they try and figure out where the audience is going to be,” he said. “I’d just rather play to where they are.”

In 2001, Rydholm got a call from an ESPN producer named Jim Cohen, who told him he was developing a show with Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Rydholm submitted an 18-page memo—with Ruthian swagger, he predicted the show could run for 20 years—and he was hired as coordinating producer.

Rydholm turned out to be very good at the art of structuring a talk show. PTI’s innovations have been ripped off as much as any SportsCenter catchphrase: the “rundown” of topics; the shot clock; the classic-television nods like the hosts reading from cards or wearing funny hats, which suggest Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent.

But Rydholm shrugs off these adornments. “The show is their relationship,” he said. “That’s the show. If we didn’t have a single clock or rundown, it would still be a good show.”

“It’s really important for everybody to understand that we love each other,” Kornheiser told me, “that this is a relationship that goes beyond the 30 minutes on TV. They didn’t throw us together and say, ‘Act like dogs going after the same bone.’”

From its 2001 debut, PTI was hailed as both a successful specimen of sports TV and antidote to it. Kornheiser and Wilbon, an early Daily Variety review noted, “make up for the industry’s other blowhards who mouth off way too much.” (The cycle would repeat itself: Every Rydholm show was saving sports TV from itself.) Like its creator, PTI was self-deflating; the hosts seemed to be looking at the screen and saying, I can’t believe this is a show! As Jones told me admiringly of Rydholm, “He’s made Tony Kornheiser into a lovable man on television.”

In his manners, Rydholm is the opposite of a screaming, cajoling producer. He likes out-there metaphors: A show is a pomegranate, the rough outer skin hiding the wonders beneath; viewers, Rydholm once said, have a “wallet full of time.” Other TV producers’ favorite word is “fuck!” One of the words Rydholm uses most often is “delightful.”

Around four years ago, Rydholm turned his producing talents to brunch. Every Sunday morning, he gathered creative types whom he thought should know each other at a Brooklyn restaurant in which he’s an investor. The initial group included Torre; Ezra Edelman, who would direct the Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America; Wyatt Cenac, who now has his own HBO show; and the Grantland writer Rembert Browne. “I felt like I was putting together a blind date,” Rydholm said. “Are they interacting? Are they talking to each other? I hope it works out!

Now, the group meets every week. The guest list has grown to include the journalist James Surowiecki, the TV writer Cord Jefferson, and Jason Sudeikis. Asked if the brunch is sports TV’s answer to the Algonquin Round Table, Alan Yang, an attendee and cocreator of the series Master of None, said, “It’s kind of like that, but we’re also talking about LeBron’s hairline.” Cenac told me: “Erik is a much more social person than I am.” Rydholm created a chatty brunch for people who don’t aspire to chatty brunches—essentially pulling off the same trick as he did with his debate shows.

Though Rydholm says his motives were purely artistic, his brunch table has become an annex to the ESPN green room. One morning, Jones came to Rydholm with an idea: If he ever had his own TV show, he wanted to do it with Torre. A few weeks later, Torre said the same thing about Jones. It was the ultimate validation of the Rydholm method. High Noon, as it came to be called, wasn’t a show that suggested a relationship. It was a relationship that suggested a show.

Last Tuesday, Torre and Jones were crammed into two cubicles at the new ESPN office near New York’s South Street Seaport. “Welcome to our process,” Torre said with mock grandeur. The white-walled ESPN office, located near embarkation point for the Circle Line tour, will one day become a “content factory,” in the words of executive Connor Schell. But within the network it’s seen as a way for ESPN to come to the talent. “This is Connor saying we’re not going to get the best and brightest producers to move to Bristol anymore,” one source said.

On Tuesday, Torre was wearing a Childish Gambino T-shirt, a windbreaker, and Adidas UltraBoosts; Jones wore a navy sports coat and gray slacks. Torre and Jones are well-known characters in the ESPN expanded universe—between them, they’ve appeared on Around the Horn 933 times. While working on Highly Questionable in Miami, they became friends, and their long talks about sports and politics and everything else convinced them that they might be better together. “I feel like we have made a bet jointly that we are the ones that will unlock the other,” Torre said.

Torre, who is 32, has the classic problem of a smart young guy at ESPN, which is that no one can stop thinking of you as the smart young guy. Hired as a magazine writer in 2012, he quickly became a bullpen arm on shows from Around the Horn to Olbermann. The act, he said, went something like this: “Here’s Li’l Sparky, he’s gonna show off how many words he knows.” Two years ago, when Kornheiser, Le Batard, and Tony Reali helped Torre re-create a Wolf of Wall Street GIF at his wedding, Torre was officially a made man. When I told Kornheiser he’d become Torre’s surrogate uncle, he replied, “I think I might be Pablo’s surrogate grandfather!”

On TV, Torre has always been cast as the junior partner. (On Le Batard’s radio show, his pronouncements are accompanied by lute music.) He sees High Noon as a chance to leave the knee of Kornheiser and Le Batard—to grow up, in TV terms. “On all these other shows, it’s a mentor-mentee kind of relationship,” Torre said. “This is not. I’m a colleague and a peer.”

Jones, left, on Highly Questionable.
ESPN

For his part, Jones wants to convince Torre that the status symbols he flashed on his ascent through ESPN—the Harvard degree, the vocabulary—are no longer necessary. People like Pablo, full stop. Underneath all that, there’s a person that everyone really likes. When he gets done with Torre, Jones said, he will be “your friend who uses all these big words.”

Though Jones was the costar of Highly Questionable—“I spent four years laughing at animal videos”—he feels, at 37, that he is weirdly and unfairly lumped together with Stephen A. Smith. The two couldn’t be more different. Smith likes to throw wild roundhouses; Jones, despite talking fast and for long stretches, specializes in the pinpoint jab. Jones thinks he’s almost too controlled. “I have a therapist,” he said. “You know one of the things we work on? Getting me to be OK with acting all feely.”

Jones has a twice-a-week podcast and hosted an ESPN Radio show for two years. “On radio, he can fill four hours like nobody you’ve ever heard,” said one producer who has worked with Jones. “On television, you get the feeling that he’s a little fidgety. That leads you to believe he’s a little self-aware, that he doesn’t feel as if he has as much freedom.”

Jones more or less agrees with that. When Schell offered him what he thought was too little money to host High Noon, Jones told him, “I don’t think you have any idea how good I can be at television, because I don’t think that you have had any opportunity to see how good I could be at television.” Torre wants to give Jones a comfort level he has previously lacked—he told me he’s most happy when he makes Jones laugh.

The Torre-Jones friendship is a merry game of intellectual one-upmanship. (Matt Kelliher, the coordinating producer of High Noon, has joked the show should be called Bomani and Pablo Talk Down to You.) During rehearsals last Tuesday, Torre seized on Kobe Bryant’s tweet about the LeBron vs. Jordan GOAT debate. Bryant, Torre said, was shoving his way on stage with the GOAT front-runners and pitching himself as an alternative. Kobe was Ross Perot.

“If we wanted to make an arcane political reference that only seven of our viewers would get,” Jones said on camera, “the accuracy would be to probably make it the Whig Party …”

That’s AP U.S. History,” Torre said, impressed.

Later, Rydholm said he liked the Kobe-Perot conceit but didn’t think the hosts had explained it well enough. Jones wasn’t sure such a conceit could work. He told me: “Erik and Pablo, both very early, were like, ‘Yo, I think we’re going to make a really smart television show.’ My response is, if the first thing they say about our TV show is how smart it is, we’re all going to get fired.”

Podcasts honor friendships. Television flattens them. “I’ve always found TV to be rigid, unnatural, confining,” Dan Le Batard wrote in an email. “The mechanics get in the way. The layer between you and audience gets in the way. The ever-present knowledge you are being watched gets in the way. The entertainer’s need to entertain gets in the way. The human beings behind cameras get in the way. It stops being about two people because it isn’t.”

High Noon adheres to the basic outline of PTI and other shows. But PTI is built for newspaper vets who think in column inches. “Mike and I, we run out,” Kornheiser said. “They can go on for a while.” So during rehearsals, Rydholm designed High Noon so the hosts could talk for 16 minutes during the A block. On PTI, the hosts talk for about 20 minutes on the whole show.

2017 Winter TCA Tour - Day 9
Erik Rydholm
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

“There is probably some conventional wisdom that might say, ‘Oh, people’s attention spans are so short these days,’” Rydholm said. “‘Aren’t you taking a risk by letting them have longer conversations?’ The answer is probably … yeah.”

Rydholm continued: “A lot of shows—and I’m probably to blame for some of this—are built around conflict. … But this show at its essence can’t be about conflict. … It’s got to be about curiosity more than conflict.” Conflict is the organizing principle of sports television. If the chyron says, “Should J.R. Smith take every shot in Game 3?” the viewer knows what the stakes are, even if he rolls his eyes.

In early rehearsals, Rydholm and the hosts tried a slight innovation by calling the opening segment “Announcements.” Holding a card, one host read a serious-but-slightly-meta take and asked the other if they agreed. The gesture felt like it honored Pablo and Bomani’s friendship; few people summarize a news story and then throw their friend a prompt.

Performative listening is as much a skill on sports TV as debating. Skip Bayless purses his lips and offers a skeptical nod when Shannon Sharpe talks on Undisputed. Such scenery-chewing lets you own your side of the split screen, lets you assure the audience, I can’t wait to jump back in.

Rydholm thought listening—ideally, real listening—ought to be a big part of High Noon. Most studio shows use four cameras. Rydholm arranged eight cameras around the hosts so he could show them listening to each other from different angles. “When video is rolling, I don’t want to just see the video,” Rydholm said. “I want to see them looking at the video and how they’re interacting with the video. There’s nothing that’s more interesting than another human being.”

Rydholm came to High Noon with his share of production tricks, too. Last winter, he admired the “window panes” that director Norman Jewison used in the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair to show different shots of the same scene. Rydholm wanted to try the technique on High Noon.

After Rydholm saw Spike Jonze shoot a stunt film on The Tonight Show, he decided to shoot High Noon in 24 frames per second, instead of the usual 30 or 60. He hoped it would give the show the visual quality of a film. Rydholm also added letterboxing and an Ennio Morricone–style opening theme. At times, it felt a little like Quentin Tarantino had remade The Sportswriters on TV.

“The main concern that I have is the A block,” Rydholm said last week. On an ESPN show, the A block is the sports story everyone on ESPN has already talked to death. The question for Rydholm was how much viewers listened. Did viewers want Pablo and Bomani to attack an issue like J.R. Smith’s Game 1 brain fart head-on? Or did they want them to counterpunch, pivoting off the debate on First Take?

“I’ve talked about this with regard to Le Batard all the time,” Rydholm said. “Le Batard’s radio show is a ‘zag.’ But I sometimes I wonder whether the ‘zig’ has been established by 10 in the morning enough for people to fully appreciate the ‘zag.’” The 12:00 p.m. slot—the show’s official title is High Noon (9 a.m. Pacific)—was just as confusing.

High Noon’s A block is particularly important because the show needs to hang on to the viewers who stay over from the highly rated First Take. Not wanting to close off any ideas, Rydholm first let Torre and Jones just talk to each other. “I got a little lost in it as a viewer,” Rydholm said afterward. “I just felt like we need a little more structure.”

High Noon was showing almost too much fidelity to Pablo and Bomani’s friendship. The result was it wasn’t showing the friendship at all. Matt Kelliher said: “We’ve gotten some feedback about how they were talking only to each other and never saying, ‘You’re the viewer. I’m talking to you.’” After Jones recorded his podcast last Tuesday, he had a message to call Rydholm and talk about the A block.

“If dudes were mad enough to boycott, we would not be hearing it from Shaun,” Jones said. “We would probably have heard from them.”

In New York, Jones and Torre were rehearsing the C block, a segment of High Noon when they spend time chewing on a weightier issue. Last Tuesday, they picked a report by Shaun King, the journalist and activist, that “star” NFL players were thinking of sitting out if Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid didn’t have jobs next year.

When the cameras rolled, Torre and Jones treated the King story with polite skepticism. Torre said unless the boycotters enlisted a major recruit like Aaron Rodgers, NFL owners were likely to ignore them. Neither man thought NFL players necessarily should boycott, because their careers are so short. It was the model of a hard-headed discussion about a story that’s hard to get a handle on.

“What I want from segments like those is … I don’t want them to be advocacy,” Jones said later. He felt advocacy would tie him to the boycotting players rather than the arguments about the players. Plus, Jones said, it roped in ESPN: “This isn’t my network. I don’t own this thing.”

Torre on Around the Horn.
ESPN

Not surprisingly, High Noon turns out to be different from the fever dreams of Clay Travis, who has already dubbed the show Everything Is Racist. What’s surprising is that the media has abetted such bad-faith attacks. In March, when Get Up!’s Jalen Rose gave The Hollywood Reporter an anodyne answer about covering Trump’s sports tweets, the paper reported the show would “wake up woke.” Mike Greenberg had turned into Alex Pareene. Last month, a Wall Street Journal headline claimed ESPN was “consumed by politics.”

“We’re labeling stuff ‘politics’ that really isn’t politics,” Torre said. “As Bomani has put it to me, ‘Do you want someone on-air who may authentically stand up for issues of human dignity that are personal to them?’ … As triggering as that might be for people, and uncomfortable as that might be for people, that’s not a political thing. That’s just being who you are in 2018 in this country.”

Torre added, “It’s not going to happen every day, with a ‘break glass in case of human dignity violation.’” Torre and Jones are confident they can figure out which stories work on High Noon. Last week, they rejected a segment about the booing of Rudy Giuliani at Yankee Stadium because they felt the discussion would be one-note. They talked about a video of a monkey drop-kicking a man in India instead.

Torre said he’s most bothered by people who cast every socially conscious person at ESPN as a member of a single, undifferentiated, liberal bloc. “That’s the thing that actually does rankle me—somehow I am Jemele [Hill],” he said. “For many reasons that Jemele should want, I am not her. We’ve all been flattened into teams.”

I asked Jones whether he cares about the flak he takes on Twitter. He said what annoyed him was people who knew what kind of person he is, but caricatured him “to try to curry favor with their audiences because they believe that their audiences dislike the opinionated black dude.”

Jones continued: “There are some long-run consequences in this business from people pushing forth the idea that their white listeners or viewers are incapable of enjoying content from somebody who is like me. … That stuff elevates the opinions of people who work in middle levels of management at stations, who are themselves afraid. Like, Oh, man, my audience can’t handle the black person! They think their audience is more racist than I do.”

Standing in High Noon’s Washington, D.C., control room, Rydholm cued the opening credits. The Western theme song played, and Rydholm read the text as it flashed across the screen: “Serena Williams, NBA Draft. … But First … Announcements.” This was the beginning of the A block.

The night before, Rydholm had talked the hosts through a new idea. They had been delivering their “announcements” to each other, as if they were having a conversation. Rydholm wanted them to try turning to the camera and talking directly to the viewers at home.

Nobody does this in a real conversation. It’s purely a flourish of television. Imagine you’re at dinner, Rydholm told them, and you’re explaining to your guest why your take is important.

“Your guests are here,” Rydholm said into the hosts’ ears before the cameras rolled. Then he said he’d let the segment play and leave them alone.

When Torre and Jones started rehearsing the A block, a funny thing happened. Though they were doing something unnatural, they suddenly seemed more real. Jones was selling his lines and thrusted his head at the camera when he made fun of burner accounts. Torre’s smooth, self-mocking writing chops came back into play. They seemed like the Pablo and Bomani we knew.

“All of a sudden, look at Bomani,” Rydholm said. “I get that. He’s got some of his natural swagger.”

And their debates made more sense, because it no longer felt like we were arriving in the middle of the conversation. When Torre said Bryan Colangelo should be fired, Jones pointed out that Torre had called for Sixers coach Brett Brown’s firing, and Brown had just been rewarded with a new deal. The point landed because you knew where both men stood.

No one associated with High Noon is offering predictions of Nielsen dominance. Rydholm said of Desus & Mero: “There are far more people who know the show and feel like they watch the show than people who actually watch the show. That’s, I think, the best case I can hope for here.”

But when the rehearsal ended, Rydholm and his producers were upbeat. They were finally seeing a more stable marriage of friendship and television, an alchemy of the real and the artificial. The day’s task solved, Rydholm allowed his dreamy self to return as he left the control room. “I don’t want this just to be a platform where we’re up there talking sports and filling time,” he said. “I would like this thing to be delightful.”

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