Whatever happened to Around the Horn?

Despite making fun of it in my Around the Horn Drinking Game (which needs a serious update), I’ve always been a fan of ESPN’s Around the Horn, and haven’t agreed with the show’s haters, continuing a long trend of me not making such a big deal out of certain things certain groups love to hate. Despite what many say, I’ve always found it a substantially different show from Pardon the Interruption (though admittedly not necessarily for the better). The panelists bring entertaining personalities, the use of four panelists instead of two (plus a moderator) leads to a distinct dynamic and interplay of opinions, and the game-show-format gimmick keeps people interested all the way to the end (though this year’s backwards-show April Fool’s joke put the final nail in the coffin for anyone who thought the scoring wasn’t scripted).

And yet, the show’s transition into HD has me considering dropping it. I feel like the ATH I’ve been watching the past eight or so years is gone, even though the show itself hasn’t changed. Part of the problem is the bulky two-line rundown, which looks bulky in both HD AND SD; it uses too big a font for HD, and it’s THREE lines in SD, because of a constant Twitter advertisement where the BottomLine is in HD. The idea was good, but the execution could have used some work. (In fact, just by making some relatively minor changes to the rundown, ATH might have gotten away with not letterboxing the show in SD, which is one of the reasons the font is so big in the first place!)

But that’s a relatively minor, though persistent, problem. The way the arrow blocks the entire score when Reali uses the joystick is annoying but understandable as well. My biggest problem is with the rest of the graphics package. It’d be hard for me to put my finger on any one thing. After all, the opening title graphic is trying to ape the old one as much as possible, and even the background sound during each topic is the same. But everything’s just so… busy. Converting the old cartoony graphics into a more 3-D look (which is not the same as trying to adapt it for 3-D TVs – seriously, why the hell would you think that?) calls attention to how cartoony they are, and a lot of the little things are noisy, such as a little chime that plays as the graphic introducing each panelist appears (barely audible but annoying when there’s four of them in quick succession) and to pop up the face time clock. The way the new mute indicator zooms in, in particular, is not only noisy but doesn’t quite match how Reali uses the mute button, so when he mutes someone several times in succession, the indicator zooms in, disappears immediately, zooms in again…

Part of this is “look what we can do now that we’re HD”, and maybe I’m just whining because I don’t like change, but PTI managed to preserve as much about it as they could, and I feel like ESPN or their graphic design firm approached ATH with a certain philosophy, to go whole-hog with some of its cartoony elements. This seems especially evident with the faint arcade-like sound effects near the very beginning of the show and at the halftime recap, the chaotic backgrounds behind the panelists, the unnecessary graphic that appears when someone’s eliminated, and with the way the announcer says “the show of competitive banter” at the start of the show. It’s like they’re trying to make ATH seem like that piece of execrement known as SportsNation (now that’s a lame PTI knockoff), and while that may gel with the image of the show the haters have, it’s not what the show really is. It’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. As much as the show has fun and sometimes covers offbeat topics, it’s not an LCD kind of show like SportsNation, and it’s not really ADD TV. The cartoony graphics used to give the show a vaguely public-access, indie feel, but now they make it feel overproduced.

I’m not going to leave ATH until the end of the year, if only because I devised a points system for a year long “ATH Championship” that I want to play out, and hopefully by then they’ll have toned down some of the graphics (or at least the mute indicator)… but they could just as easily change the music to make it seem even MORE cartoony, and keep trying to shoehorn ATH into being a show that it’s not.

But that may already have been a lost cause. Reali mentioned on Wednesday’s show that the original idea of ATH was that each panelist would report stories specific to their region; this was reflected in the map in the old studio, and in the description that appears when I bring up the show in my on-screen program guide, which goes something like: “Columnists from three time zones report local stories and debate hot topics.” (Originally that was four time zones, but for a long time Mariotti never missed a show, meaning that pattern couldn’t hold whenever Cowlishaw or then-Morning-News-reporter Blackistone showed up.) This seems to have already gone by the wayside by the time I started watching less than a year into its existence, and I don’t know how it could have ever worked outside the face-time segment. (According to Wikipedia, originally there were no eliminations and three of the four panelists got face time in seconds equal to their scores, but that too had been left behind by the time I started watching.)

What might have been had ATH stuck to that idea? It could have been a decidedly different show, especially if it ditched the game show gimmick but kept the moderator to give it structure. That would have made it even more of a PTI ripoff, but perhaps many of the same haters could have praised ESPN for trying something different. Heck, a good chunk of the subsequent history of ESPN and the creation of several shows destined to be called PTI clones could have wound up very different. I’d like to see a show where people from different regions of the country talked about stories from their respective regions and gave distinct perspectives on more national matters (and something in team sports would have to be as big as “The Decision” or Roy Halladay’s no-hitter to truly be called national), but right now the people on ATH are bigger than where they come from, as the geographical moves of Woody Paige and Kevin Blackistone show. We could have a showdown that would be as much about Los Angeles versus Chicago as about Bill Plaschke versus Jay Mariotti. But the closest thing we’ve had to that is Versus’ ATH-meets-SportsNation show Fanarchy, and there’s a very good reason that show’s not on the air anymore… so we’re left with ESPN’s proliferation of local sports sites.

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