The shows are meant to resemble conversations viewers have with their friends and family at a bar, around a water cooler, or in a barber shop. Often ESPN’s First Take and FS1’s Undisputed end up being the topic of conversation — it’s mostly can you believe how hot or nonsensical this take by host fill in the blank was — and that’s sometimes a good thing or a bad thing. In any case, ESPN has gone full court with their marketing for the move of First Take from ESPN2 to ESPN. Undisputed is touted almost every Sunday. These shows aren’t going anywhere no matter how ridiculous some of the opinions of Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith tend to get.
That’s because they are cheap content to produce — outside of paying talent of course, Skip Bayless is apparently getting paid $5.5 million per year — there aren’t many other costs associated with embrace debate shows. The networks need a semi-well known foil, a young up and coming host and two chairs facing each other. That’s it.
Factor that in to some of the production value needed for documentary like shows, or actual content and the networks get a cheap show with higher viewership numbers. I always compare it to the coverage of Brett Favre, Tim Tebow, or Johnny Manziel. A lot of people think the coverage is oversaturated, but there is a reason those players were focused on: news about them draws in viewers. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless may say some absolutely ridiculous thinks — the hottest of hot takes — but people are tuning in, posting a vine or clip on Twitter, or dedicating opinion — and news pieces like this — to covering the show. It amplifies the reach for any advertiser. In short, it’s cheap and it works for the people paying money to the ESPN and FS1’s of the world.
So get used to more embrace the debate, especially as viewership numbers stagnate — and in some cases disappear — due to cord cutting, market factors, and increased live rights costs. This isn’t the first time television channels have done something like this. MTV — and then broadcast networks — embraced reality television because it was simply cheaper to produce. When ratings are dropping there’s two ways to still make money, cut costs or increase revenue. Cutting cost is so much easier, which is why these debate shows aren’t going anywhere.