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'First Take' on ESPN2 is turning up the volume

The sports-debate show has been a surprise. To draw more viewers, it is making Stephen A. Smith a full-time foil to Skip Bayless. Now if they can just not get along.

May 08, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Stephen A. Smith, Jay Crawford, and Skip Bayless of ESPN2's "First Take."
Stephen A. Smith, Jay Crawford, and Skip Bayless of ESPN2's "First… (ESPN )

BRISTOL, Conn. — In the bid to build the perfect sports talk show, competition abounds — from the Web, talk radio and, most important, from established ESPN shows such as "Pardon the Interruption." And yet within this crowded field, ESPN2's sports-debate show "First Take" — a daily two-hour program that alternates between rancor and depth — has flourished.

Featuring the commentator Skip Bayless and a rotation of guests that includes pundit Stephen A. Smith, the show with a mix of hectoring and (sometimes) reasoned argument had its ratings jump 58% for the three-month period ending in April compared with the previous year. Nearly half a million people tune in daily to watch the live broadcast of grown men loudly arguing about sports issues at the unlikely hour of 10 a.m. (on the East Coast) and the even more unlikely hour of 7 a.m. (on the West Coast).

With ratings up, ESPN is nevertheless poised to announce a change on Tuesday aimed at enhancing the show's popularity. Along with a set and logo makeover, the network is bumping up Smith, an often bombastic personality, from occasional visitor to full-time debater opposite Bayless. The idea is for the morning chat-fest to become a full-on "Crossfire," in which Bayless and Smith, separated only by moderator Jay Crawford, make a French presidential debate look like an exercise in civility.

Bayless "is not my flavor," Smith told The Times in an interview. "I'm a fortysomething black man from the streets of Queens; he's a 60-year-old man from Oklahoma. It's not like we go shopping on weekends."

Meanwhile, Bayless is no stranger to sparking athlete and viewer outrage — his stand on what he described as the railroading of quarterback Tim Tebow was a recent example. The sports website the Bleacher Report has called Bayless a "national cancer" and a "diabolical hater" who has "brainwashed" sports fans.

When asked if he'd rather be liked or watched, Bayless, sitting in an office after a recent broadcast, quickly answered: "Neither. I just want to win the debates."

Added Jamie Horowitz, vice president of original programming and production at ESPN and the executive in charge of "First Take": "Some viewers genuinely hate Skip and Stephen A. But they also watch them."

To watch the pair prepare for a show is to see how talk television doesn't necessarily fabricate dissent — it's just really good at exploiting it.

On a recent morning, a tense silence had fallen over the conference room at a production meeting. Talent and producers from "First Take" had gathered to map out that day's show, and the worst possible scenario had come to pass — Bayless and Smith were in agreement.

Standing at a whiteboard, a producer looked panic-stricken as he desperately sought the morning show's more desired mode on the subject of embattled NFL quarterback Vince Young.

He tried again. "What if we made the question "Is Jeff Fisher the reason Young hasn't been given a fair shake around the league?" referring to the former Tennessee Titans coach.

"I agree — it's definitely on Fisher," said Smith, 44.

"I do too." Muttered Bayless, a longtime newspaperman who once worked at the Los Angeles Times.

Around the table, several people inhaled sharply. Heads shook. An associate producer grimaced.

The producer at the whiteboard paused, then, apparently struck by inspiration, took one more crack. "What if we ask whether Young can be a franchise quarterback, the guy you build your team around?"

"I think he is," Bayless said.

"No way," Smith said.

The producer beamed. "We have our question."

On the air, they can engage in trash-talking more suited to your local sports bar. Smith has been known to feign sleep for a minute or longer when he doesn't like a point his opponent is making. Bayless will often toss out a sarcastic quip if he feels Smith is getting long-winded.

"They know how to push each other's buttons so much that sometimes we don't even know what directions they're going to go off in," said Richelle Markazene, a producer on "First Take." "Then it's a question of, 'OK, do we let them go or do we rein them in?'"

Whether the new format will allow the pair to turn their notoriety into fame remains to be seen; others have failed at the same game. But Bayless and Smith contend their willingness to touch the third rail of sports topics distinguishes their coverage.

"When every other sports show was running away from Joe Paterno and the sexual molestation charges, saying they need to only talk about football," said Smith, "we covered Joe Paterno. We're not going to run away from that and just talk about football."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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