Stephen A. Smith sees a chance to move to cool conversation after years of playing up hot talk.
The popular ESPN host is best known for making the emotional, vibrant views on games, athletes and coaches that draw audiences each weekday to the Walt Disney sports-media giant’s “First Take.” Starting this week, he hopes to show ESPN aficionados another side, by bringing original segments and even celebrity guests to his new program, “Stephen A’s World.”
You won’t find the show on ESPN, but rather its streaming-video counterpart, ESPN Plus.
“You can already see me pontificating or debating, being very demonstrative, bringing some news to the question” on his regular show, says Smith in an interview. “There is going to be a bit more levity to this show, a bit more fun.” Viewers who tune in should expect to see Smith interact with a range of colorful guests in ways to which they may not be accustomed. “I’ll give my hot takes. I’ll still be me when I’m with me,” says Smith. “But when I’m with a guest, it’s about them.”
Like other media outlets, ESPN is using its new broadband service to let fans see a different facet of one of its most-followed personalities. Drawing comparisons between ESPN and Fox News might seem odd, but the Fox Corporation-owned news outlet has tried much the same thing with its Fox Nation subscription-video service, where Steve Doocy, a longtime “Fox & Friends” morning host, led a cooking program, and anchor Dana Perino offered a video book club.
ESPN has reason to make its best-known personalities available to streaming adherents. Its parent company, Walt Disney, has told investors that it will place new emphasis on broadband video going forward, which means the company needs to boost subscriptions to ESPN Plus. Disney Plus and Hulu, the company’s two general-entertainment streaming hubs, have bigger bases than ESPN. While Disney Plus may have “The Mandalorian,” ESPN Plus has yet to launch a truly signature program, despite efforts like “Detail,” an in-depth analysis program that was hosted by the late basketball great Kobe Bryant.
“Stephen A’s World” already leads the web page devoted to getting consumers to sign up for ESPN Plus.
Smith is on the air each weekday and has taken on new duties related to ESPN’s basketball schedule. To make room for the ESPN Plus show, something had to give. It was radio. When Smith renewed his deal with ESPN last March, he decided to cede audio work. “I want to be part of the streaming world, and I have found that to be far more beneficial to my career than audio per se,” he says.
Smith’s new program will be on frequently. “World” debuts tonight and new episodes will be available every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The host will respond to fan questions lodged via his social-media accounts, give relationship advice to couples who have let sports come between them, and feature more of “Baby Stephen A.,” a re-working of “First Take” with the announcer seen via a baby filter.
If some of that sounds like something out of the playbook mastered by David Letterman or Jay Leno, that’s OK, says Smith. “I have aspirations of doing a late-night show one day,” he acknowledges, noting that Arsenio Hall, who took on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” on NBC with a syndicated counterpart and enjoyed a good run between 1989 and 1994, is someone in whose footsteps he’d like to follow. “I want to be in that mix one day,” he says of TV’s current crop of late-night hosts, such as Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. “That’s the sort of thing I think about when I think about this show.”
He knows sports remains essential to the ESPN offering, but thinks he can find new ways to talk about the topic. “When you hear the letters E-S-P-N, you expect sports and for the most part, you’ll get it,” Smith says. But subscribers might hear that chatter from unexpected sources. The host says he can hold a conversation with even the unlikeliest ESPN guest. “It is entirely plausible that in the same week I will have on Snoop Dogg, I’ll have on two soap opera stars and I’ll have on Sean Hannity,” he says. “You just never know.”
Sports fans will want to hear those conversations, he believes. “I’m not interested in having too many sports figures on this sho., I’d rather have folks in popular culture, in Hollywood, in politics, et cetera, talking about sports, talking about things that are interesting in sports,” Smith says. “For me, it’s just opening up the floodgates and exposing the sports world to different people who love everything about sports, just like the typical joe out there enjoys sports.”
And he thinks he can get the guests, even if they hold different views. “We don’t have to agree to be decent and respectful,” says Smith. “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I can’t break bread with you.”
Smith has reason to give “World” his full attention. The program is produced in conjunction with his production company, Mr. SAS Productions, and Smith is an executive producer. “This is just the first in a laundry list of things I intend to do,” he says of his company’s efforts. “This is the first opportunity, but it will not be the last.”