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On Oct. 4, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon opened “Pardon the Interruption” with a three-minute discussion of the Pirates-Cardinals NLDS Game 2 that was played earlier in the day.
But only 753,000 viewers tuned in, the show’s smallest audience so far this fall.
Several reasons exist for why “PTI’s” ratings were down that day, not the least of which is that the show ran opposite Game 1 of the ALDS between the Rays and Red Sox on TBS. “Every time you go head-to-head against a live sporting event, you’re going to get punished,” said Erik Rydholm, executive producer for both “PTI” and “Around the Horn.”
But while the show has demonstrated rare and admirable longevity, its tepid TV ratings that day highlighted a trend that has seen it — and longtime late afternoon lead-in “ATH” — lose viewers over the past three years during the typically heavily viewed late summer/early fall. That’s when the NFL and college football seasons kick off and MLB enters the playoffs.
For the sake of this analysis, SportsBusiness Journal studied the period from the end of the Little League World Series in late August through early October over the last five years. During that six-week period this fall, “PTI” has averaged 961,000 viewers per episode. That marks a 25 percent drop from the 1.296 million it averaged during the same time period in 2010, which marked a record high for the show. It also marks the first time in at least five years that the show’s viewership dipped below 1 million during the heavy sports-viewing time of year. Viewership this year is down 5 percent from last year’s average of 1.012 million per episode.
ESPN executives acknowledge the drop from 2010, when both shows set viewership records. But they say the focus solely on TV viewership misses a bigger picture. They say more people than ever are watching these shows on DVR or WatchESPN — and roll out the numbers to back up their point. “PTI” has logged 1.3 million minutes viewed on WatchESPN, up 270 percent; “ATH” has logged 1.2 million minutes, up 335 percent. Overall, WatchESPN streams are up 77 percent over last year.
DVR usage is up on both shows. “PTI’s” 18 percent DVR rate (live plus seven days) is one of ESPN’s highest time-shifting rates. “ATH’s” time-shifting rate is 12 percent. And the “PTI” podcast is the top download in ESPN’s Podcenter so far this year; “ATH” is in the top 10.
It’s impossible to quantify that usage and its impact on overall viewership, but ESPN officials clearly believe both shows are drawing an all-time high audience.
“More people are watching than ever before,” Rydholm said. “They just aren’t watching in the same way as they did before.”
As far as linear TV goes, ESPN points to increased competition as a reason for the drop in viewership. When “PTI” launched 12 years ago, NFL Network didn’t exist. Neither did NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network.
Now, those channels are building strong afternoon lineups. FS1 produces the Regis Philbin show “Crowd Goes Wild” in the 5-6 p.m. time slot, and NBCSN runs NFL programming like “Pro Football Talk” and “Fantasy Football Live” against “ATH” and “PTI.”
While numbers for “ATH” and “PTI” dwarf FS1 and NBCSN’s viewership, those two channels, in particular, are providing alternative sports studio programming that did not exist in the shows’ first decade of existence. This fall, “PTI” is averaging 961,000 viewers, while “Crowd Goes Wild” is averaging 64,000 and “Pro Football Talk” is averaging 47,000.
Live sports also has seen a resurgence in the afternoons. Three years ago, MLB scheduled nine playoff games on weekday afternoons; this year, it played 11 games that started before 6 p.m. ET.
Plus, “PTI” and “ATH” are seeing more competition from Golf Channel and its early-round PGA Tour coverage and the FedEx Cup, which has featured a resurgent Tiger Woods. “Those always hammer our ratings on Thursdays and Fridays,” Rydholm said of the Woods-led early-round golf coverage.
Rydholm dismisses concerns that the show has become stale or that the glut of debate programming across TV is taking its toll, even on long-running shows such as “PTI.”
“I don’t think there’s anything that suggests that people are tiring of folks exchanging opinions on sports,” he said.
But he has tinkered with “PTI’s” format in the past couple of weeks, devoting more time to what he calls the show’s “A block” — the opening section — to give Kornheiser and Wilbon more of an opportunity to go in-depth on stories. “PTI” then brings its “Five Good Minutes” interview into the “B block.”
He also has made an effort to pair Korn-heiser and Wilbon together in the same location more frequently. Each host is contracted to do 200 shows per year.
The show’s popularity is based on the chemistry between Kornheiser and Wilbon, longtime friends who worked together at The Washington Post for decades. When they are not there together, and replaced by fill-ins who include Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, frequent panelist Kevin Blackistone and ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock, ratings have suffered. In the past several years, Wilbon has been a bigger part of ESPN’s NBA programming; when he participated on “PTI,” he oftentimes was in a different location, which hurt the show’s chemistry. This year, Wilbon was taken off of ESPN’s NBA pregame show, which means he will be focused more on “PTI” and in studio with Kornheiser.
“I wanted to give people more of what really sets the program apart — which is Tony and Mike and their relationship and their chemistry,” Rydholm said.
Rydholm takes a similar view with “ATH,” which he said was unfairly maligned as a down market show with lots of screaming and little in-depth content.
“One of the shows that takes a completely unfair hammering on a regular basis is ‘ATH.’ There is still a lingering perception of it from its early days of being light on content and heavy on yelling. If you watch it, there’s some incredibly bright — both younger and older — folks on that show who are giving thoughtful opinions,” Rydholm said. “There’s an appetite for smart, entertaining talk about sports. My job as a producer is to make sure that we’re the smartest and most interesting.”
Austin Karp is assistant managing editor at SportsBusiness Daily.