Behind The Scenes

First Take now featuring more great debate with Skip and the gang

Note: With 2011 winding down, Front Row will use much of this week to look back at some of the most significant stories of the past year. But first, we wanted to check in with First Take’s coordinating producer Jamie Horowitz to discuss the evolution of ESPN2’s daily studio show (10 a.m. ET). There have been subtle changes to First Take in recent weeks and we asked Jamie to explain some of the tweaks.

First Take produced this Skip Bayless mash-up with DJ Steve Porter. It’s the most popular web video in show history with 1.4 million views as of Dec. 26.

Front Row: Jamie, you took over First Take in August and fans have begun to notice some format changes. We’ve seen that 9 of the 10 highest-rated shows in the history of First Take have been in the last three months. As we get ready for the new year, can you tell us a little about the new look of First Take?

Jamie Horowitz: First Take evolved from what was originally our morning show called Cold Pizza and has built an amazing foundation for compelling, evocative television. The show content used to be a mixture of debate, features, interviews and games. We’ve conducted research — both anecdotal and via focus groups — and that information combined with rating analysis suggested fans liked debate best.

Specifically, our focus was on time spent viewing. Research showed that debate was the perfect complement to highlights and analysis fans were also consuming on morning offerings, SportsCenter and Mike & Mike. With that in mind, we recently changed the show format to two hours of debate. Debate would no longer be the best part of the show, it would now be the entire show.

FR: Does this change the rotation of Dana Jacobson and Jay Crawford as co-hosts of First Take?

JH: In the previous format, one host would handle the debate and the other would handle the interviews and features. Now that First Take is all debate, one host makes the most sense for the new format. Dana will be leaving First Take and Jay will remain in that position. Dana has been integral to the development of both Cold Pizza and First Take. She is a talented host and commentator and we know she is looking forward to taking on different roles within the ESPN network.

FR: We’ve noticed an increased role for Skip Bayless, who is always stirring up the topics — not to mention the guests. Will the format focus more on people debating Skip?

JH: In some ways, yes. We are constantly receiving requests for people to come on the show to debate Skip, whether it is other journalists, celebrities, athletes, you name it. Rappers like Lil Wayne (three times), Wale, Fabolous, Nelly, LLCoolJ, Common, Bow Wow and Joe Budden as well as athletes Chris Bosh, Ryan Clark and Chad Ochocinco have come on the show specifically to debate Skip. Tim Tebow called the show a few weeks ago because he wanted to chat with Skip.

There is something about the authenticity of the debate, the rawness, that draws sports enthusiasts and celebrities from all walks of life to want to debate him. Skip has a unique ability to at once inspire and infuriate, all the while attracting viewers. However, we also have talented sports personalities like Jemele Hill, Stephen A. Smith, Rob Parker, Jon Ritchie, Eric Mangini and others who have strong opinions and are able to back them up with knowledge and facts.

FR: Do you worry that Skip can be overly cantankerous?

JH: No, we know that some fans love Skip, and some fans just love to disagree with him. But almost all want to debate him. Skip is a writer by trade. He is a journalist at heart. He just happens to be a gifted debater. He knows that many disagree with him and is okay with it. He is 100 percent authentic. He sincerely believes what he says. To those who routinely disagree with him (we’re talking to you, Charles Barkley) the chair is open. Skip is waiting for you.

FR: What are you most looking forward to as First Take continues to evolve in 2012?

JH: One of the things that resonates with the First Take audience is that the analysts all try to “first guess” events. Skip was seemingly the first (and perhaps only) analyst who responded to the August news from the Broncos that Tebow was the fourth-string quarterback by saying “he should start.” Some experts wanted Tebow cut but Skip insisted he could win in the NFL. We’re excited to follow the Tebow story and see how it evolves.

Similarly, Skip was the first analyst to say LeBron James didn’t have the panache of a champion. Skip was on an island for months but after the NBA Finals last year, many experts started to understand Skip’s reasoning. We’re looking forward to seeing if LeBron can lead the Heat to the title, or if they come up short. Perhaps, as Skip predicts, in the upcoming playoffs Dwayne Wade will have to assume the leading role. 2012 will be an exciting year for First Take and as all sports fans know, you can never predict what will happen but we all have a lot of fun trying.