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Hard on the eyes — and ears

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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>
 
   
 

Jim Rome kind of bugs me, or at least, his radio audience does. I can’t imagine referring to myself as a clone, practicing “takes” or referring to Houston as “H-town” and L.A. as “SoCal” — speaking in a bizarre code like the Jodie Foster character in “Nell.”

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ESPN’s "30 for 30" documentaries present "Fernando Nation" on Oct. 26, a look at the frenzy Fernando Valenzuela caused when the then-19-year-old pitcher broke in with the Dodgers 30 years ago, while recounting the history of how Latinos were evicted from Chavez Ravine to make room for Dodger Stadium. Another great hour from a terrific sports series.

 

Yet Rome also represents one of sports television’s little secrets: namely, that TV almost literally morphs into sports radio during chunks of the daytime, with all the quirks and eccentricities that entails.

Last week I bit the bullet and spent some time watching ESPN’s afternoon lineup of chattering heads — kicked off by “Jim Rome is Burning,” followed by “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.” For good measure, I took in “The Dan Patrick Show,” which expanded this week from DirecTV to Fox Sports Net, more than quadrupling the number of U.S. homes with access to the TV version of Patrick’s syndicated radio program.

Whatever you think of these radio personalities, watching radio on television is every bit as numbing as that sounds — even with video clips to add visual variety. In Patrick’s case, they attempt to rectify this drawback by shooting the host (and his producers and board operators) from every conceivable angle, and still can’t escape that the TV show is akin to staring at guys sitting at office desks for three hours, albeit wearing headphones.

For his part, Rome calls his TV show “JRIB,” but in television terms, that could stand for “Jim Rome is Boring.”

 

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Granted, many of the biggest names in radio — think Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger — pretty much crapped out in TV. Stern simply trained cameras on his radio show, as Patrick does, while Limbaugh and Schlessinger tried more conventional TV formats, as Rome sort of does with his ESPN half-hour.

There are exceptions in successfully straddling these two worlds, although mostly in the political space — a la Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck — and under the umbrella of Fox News Channel.

With Stern, by contrast, actually seeing his show spoiled parts of it, since he painted such amusing pictures in your head. Watching him ogle strippers and ridicule his cast of idiots wasn’t quite the same as only hearing him do it.

On Monday, with Patrick’s show making its Fox Sports debut, he exhibited the smooth style that works for him as morning-drive radio but proved a little sleepy for television. Watching a host conduct phone interviews and take calls just doesn’t quite cut it.

The bottom line is the attributes tailored to radio don’t always translate to TV. As a guest last week on “Rome is Burning,” for example, Matt “Money” Smith — co-host of radio’s entertaining “Petros & Money Show” — looked stiff, almost robotic, as if someone needed to oil the sides of his mouth.

In TV, people are easily distracted by such superficial matters — “Wow, comb your hair, and seriously ugly tie” — at the expense of what’s being said.

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Similarly, what plays best for Rome on radio — an intimacy that makes listeners focus on the patter he’s essentially created — doesn’t fare nearly as well on the tube. He isn’t a bad interviewer once you cut through the malarkey, but dressing it up in cute catch phrases tends to undermine the serious points that get made. An exchange last week with NBA commissioner David Stern was especially painful, mostly because Stern’s laid-back answers sounded like he was reading a child’s bedtime story — especially compared to the hyper-caffeinated host.

While Howard Stern gets away with behaving like a horny teenager, Rome’s shtick — from the silly nicknames to calling people “Dude” — looks a little awkward on TV as he moves into his mid-40s. Like Stern, Rome’s radio persona is considerably younger than his years.

Ultimately, the reason these programs are on TV at all has less to do with the inherent value of “watching” radio than a common trend in television: namely, a desire (indeed, a financial need) to fill air time as inexpensively as possible. And in TV terms, nothing is cheaper than talk.

Anyway, that’s the take from SoCal, clones.

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