When Michelle Beadle announced in late May that she would be leaving ESPN for NBC, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network was faced with a dillema: how to replicate the phenomenal success Beadle enjoyed as a TV personality on SportsNation, a show which discusses notable sports news with the aid of fan polls.
Beadle joined SportsNation in 2009. She sat alongside Colin Cowherd, a well-known radio personality, and did something that is much harder than it looks—she charmed the pants off America. Well, that sounds wrong, but here’s the proof: in Q4 of 2009, SportsNation‘s viewership was up 55% from equivalent programming the year before. If the pre-Beadle days were lean and listless, the post-Beadle days were rich and revelatory. Beadle brought magic to daytime in Connecticut.
Full disclosure—I am a fan of Beadle. I’m also a fan of Cowherd, but that’s another story. I think Beadle cut a great balance between serious fact-mongering and playful humor. Essentially, Beadle knew when to be silly. She also shot straight from the hip. At their best, Beadle and Cowherd could launch into a segment, whittle it apart with witty bemusement, and salvage a serious and relevant conversation from the debris. At their worst—and it didn’t happen often—Beadle and Cowherd were the siblings who flirted harmlessly with one another: you knew it wasn’t right but it was oh-so-hard to look away.
After Beadle announced her departure, ESPN tapped Charissa Thompson to fill her spot. Thompson has worked the job for less than two months, and she’s a serviceable anchor who deserves her success, so maybe it’s unfair to rush to conclusions. But the magic seems to have left the building. More to the point, ESPN has probably set up Thompson for failure.
I don’t pretend to know how the anchor vetting process goes, nor all of the rubrics used by network execs to measure success in this department. But something feels fishy, and I’d wager that ESPN took the job of replacing Beadle a little too literally.
It looks like ESPN told itself that the only female anchor who’d have success in Beadle’s stead was someone who did things pretty much the way Beadle did things—someone who shared her temperament. That’s too bad. It’s not really fair to Thompson, who is her own person, and it’s a little insulting to Beadle, who is not a clone. At its core, though, it’s not a preposterous notion. The only problem is Michelle Beadles are hard to find. She’s a Notre Dame team that has lived up to expectations. She’s a Chris Webber who’s polite enough to impress your grandma.
Stubbornly, ESPN has tried to groom Thompson be exactly like Beadle. Or perhaps Thompson has convinced herself that the only way she can succeed at her current job is to be like Beadle. Either way, Thompson speaks in the same manner, tries to do the low-key, girl-next-door thing, and even looks a bit like Beadle. But it’s hard for Thompson to pull off the easy banter with Cowherd, she’s not as funny, and she lacks the same conviction. All of this puts into stark relief the gap between the two. Beadle’s echo haunts the show because every day Thompson invokes it.
We see this all the time in television. A landmark show comes around and reinvents the rules, spawning a boatload of childish knockoffs. The producers responsible for making new shows think they’ve got a winner because it hits all the stops in the original show’s formula, and the formula ostensibly makes up for all the new show’s deficiencies. But people don’t want to be reminded of formula; they want to be reminded of good acting, good camerawork, good story. If the formulas happen to coincide, these redeeming qualities save the show from ignominy. If the formula is novel, the show becomes even more of a success.
Instead of yearning for a return to paradise lost, ESPN could remind itself that there are a plenty of formulas for grooming a successful anchor, not just one. Authenticity is a must. Looks are a plus, not a precondition. Chemistry is more important than formula. And formula can be broken for the right person.