In Depth: Pardon the Interruption

(Sept. 28, 2010)
Genius, dynamic duo provide personality,
pathway to success for super studio show

By Steve Sampsell
An ultra-successful TV program that has helped reshape sports in the past decade got a new look this week, but it was the personality -- not the technology -- that made a difference.

While "Padon the Interruption" moved from its former studio on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., to an HD-capable studio (photo above) on the other side of town starting Monday, it was the return of co-host Michael Wilbon that mattered most.

The former "Nightline" studio enabled the show to add some bells and whistles to its production approach, but "PTI" has always been about the personalities -- notably co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Wilbon, who worked together as columnists at the Washington Post for years. Their TV relationship, simply an on-air outgrowth of their usual banter in the newsroom or press box, drove success for the fairly simple show from its start in 2001.

And that's a compliment to "simple." Few shows with just a couple of main characters and a three-camera approach have impacted and reshaped TV in a manner as meaningful as "PTI." Innovations such as an on-screen clock and list/rundown of topic items gave the show a unique look when it made its debut, and that look has since been copied by many other shows in several genres.

Executive producer Erik Rydholm also led a driven, behind-the-scenes team that always made the most with less, giving the show a gritty, underdog look. All those heads on sticks? They were often printed, cut out and pasted up by Rydholm himself. The chalk board or big, hand-held cards for other segments of the show? They were just another strong example of necessity as the mother of invention.

Still, those things were all just a visible spice to the program's powerful personalities. And viewers have regularly responded to those personalities.

"The show we replaced got a .3 rating. We were told if we got a .3 we'd be OK and a .4 would be great," Kornheiser said. "When we got to .6 we thought we were going to be carried around the studio on our chairs."

Ratings and viewership for the show have increased with regularity since that initial year. Those first 39 shows in 2001 pulled a .4 rating with an average of 394,000 viewers. One year later the numbers were .7 and 725,000 for 49 shows.

From 2005 to 2009, 'PTI' produced an average of 57 shows, moved to a 1.1 rating and attracted some 1.2 million viewers per show.

While an ESPN release last week noted that 'PTI' has had more than 20 fill-in guests during its decade-long run, those replacements when Kornheiser and/or Wilbon were out of the studio have not been part of the show's success. And those who run the show know it.

"There's just something special about that relationship between Tony and Michael. It works," said Rydholm, who leads both "PTI" and "Around the Horn" for the all-sports network. "When we have someone else in the chairs or one of them is out of the studio it just doesn't work as well. It's not the same, and I can't imagine this working as well as it has with two other people in those chairs."

The list of fill-in hosts includes many proven sports talents as hosts and writers. It includes several who seem likely to return (Dan LeBatard, Bob Ryan, Bill Simmons) and at least one who certainly will not (Jay Mariotti). Still, it's not about them. It's about Rydholm, Kornheiser and Wilbon -- and a mutual admiration society among the trio.

"Wilbon and I are just doing what we've always been doing," Kornheiser said. "But Rydholm -- the kid is a genius -- has given us a forum that works. He knows what he's doing and he has great ideas."

Those ideas include many of the different segments for the show. Things such as Five Good Minutes, Good Cop/Bad Cop, Mail Call and more.

"Erik has often said they're pretty much different flavors of the same thing, and that's true, but they keep things fun," Kornheiser said. "I like Good Cop/Bad Cop best, just because it's fun, and I got a little bored with the fortune teller thing but they're all part of which makes this whole thing work."

From his perspective, Rydholm believes the show thrives because it's more than schtick and two talking heads. He thinks the intelligence of the co-hosts really differentiates it from other sport-talk-on-TV programs.

"They bring credibility to what they do and they're smart," Rydholm. "They're bantering back and forth, and they're doing it in a thoughtful manner. They can make a point with a beginning, middle and end just off the top of their heads. That's a pretty special skill, and it translates well on TV."

Finally, any TV show remains, at its core, entertainment -- and both Kornheiser and Wilbon know how to entertain. They enjoy it, too.

"I didn't realize until I was in my 40s or 50s how much of a ham I must be, how I must've wanted to be an actor or singer," Kornheiser said. "I'm always sort of amazed when people stop me and tell me how much they like my work, and they're always referring to 'PTI' -- even when I was on 'Monday Night Football' or thought it might be about my radio show.

"I'm not falsely modest, either. Rydholm built the best possible race car, put us in it and it fits perfectly."