Now in its third week, First Take is settling in with its new rotation without Max Kellerman. Stephen A. Smith kicked Kellerman off the show and bragged about it. Smith also says he is finally excited to do First Take again. That's nice, but are the viewers as excited as Smith?
Obviously, it's early and ESPN has not finished the picture. However, First Take's new revamped format hasn't been an improvement in quality or ratings so far. As a result, First Take is trailing all of ESPN's other comparable conversational programs this week:
PTI and ATH routinely top First Take, though it's noteworthy to see Get Up and NFL Live outpacing a Stephen A. Smith-led program. That's rare. Get Up airs before First Take in a more challenging 8 to 10 am time slot. Meanwhile, NFL Live broadcasts from 4 to 5 pm, not traditionally ideal hours for sports talk on TV.
First Take is now up and down. It's good with some guests, while poor with others. There is little flow or consistency.
Sports debate shows have always been about the two characters together, not the more popular personality. Remember, ESPN was on the verge of canceling First Take in 2015 with the same format as now but with Skip Bayless instead of Smith. It wasn't until Stephen A. Smith joined Bayless full time that the show excelled in headlines and ratings.
Continuity and chemistry matter to viewers. There is a reason ABC doesn't rotate co-hosts alongside Kelly Ripa on Live! They did that only temporarily to find a permanent co-star. TV shows built for multiple hosts don't do that -- it doesn't work well. That's also the case for TV stars such as Robin Roberts, Michael Strahan, and Ryan Seacrest, who are even bigger than Stephen A. Smith.
Now, Smith likely saw Scott Van Pelt and Mike Greenberg's format as appealing. However, Van Pelt and Greenberg are hybrid hosts on SportsCenter and Get Up, respectively. Van Pelt and Greenberg make their guests better. Smith makes his guests worse -- that's the idea of a debate show -- and it takes someone with a big name like Bayless or Kellerman to withstand that.
Boxing fans bought Floyd Mayweather's fights when he fought C-list opponents, but they broke PPV records when he faced boxers at or close to his level. Say what you will about Kellerman, but he is a more prominent media name and a more talented broadcaster than the average guest host in First Take's new rotation. As we reported previously, Smith's issues with Kellerman had more to do with Smith's ego than Kellerman's skills:
Sources say Smith had several issues with Kellerman as a co-host. Smith felt Kellerman did not routinely take a definitive stance in a debate. When Smith co-hosted First Take with Skip Bayless, Smith would take one side and Bayless would take the other. Next, they would defend their positions by cutting animated promos. Smith enjoyed this — it elevated him to the face of ESPN.
Second — and Smith will never admit this — Kellerman is more intelligent than he is. A lot smarter. Smith felt uncomfortable discussing social issues with Kellerman on set, which became a fixture after 2016. Kellerman ran circles around Smith. And while, baselessly yelling white privilege is Smith's go-to, Kellerman often beat him to that destination.
Finally, Stephen A. Smith didn't respect Kellerman as an equal. Aside from Skip Bayless and Michael Wilbon, Smith doesn't think anyone else is on his level. Thus, to appease Smith, Roberts will replace Kellerman with a rotation of analysts, rather than a single partner.
Meanwhile, Kellerman's new TV program, This Just In, has averaged around 200,000 viewers, which is all an ESPN show at 2 pm ET can hope to draw. The time slot is a dead zone, which is likely why Smith and Roberts like him there.
Anyway, Stephen A. Smith says he is excited about his show again. That's great to hear. Nice to see him finally enjoying a job that pays him $12 million a year.