There's a fun story in Sports Illustrated about The Sports Writers on TV, which debuted in the mid '80s, and was just what the title said--some cranky old sportswriters smoking cigars and talking about sports. If you take away the cigars and the smoke and, according to the article, much of the sparklingly real conversation, you have many of the sports pundit shows found up and down the TV and radio dial today.
The show got its start in local Chicago television and focused on Chicago sports. Creator John Roach, who worked on AM Chicago (the show that launched Oprah's career) had produced a piece on the sportswriters for the station. That turned into a weekly show on WFLD and, a little more than a year later, it went to SportsChannel Chicago and other cable outlets.
"We went from 40,000 households when we started," said Roach, "to eventually reaching 95 million all across the country."
The stars of the show were a group of veteran Chicago sportswriters, including Bill Jauss, Bill Gleason and Ben Bentley, and a youngish (at the time) guy named Rick Telander.
"Someone finally figured out you don't have to be a TV guy to dispense good information and opinions," says Telander. "So, these guys had been out covering the Blackhawks, Northwestern, Notre Dame, the NFL. . . . They'd come back and tell everyone about it. Bill Gleason was way ahead of his time. He proved you don't have to have powdered hair, or be a pretty boy or go to school to succeed on TV."
Each episode ran, as Roach says, about the length of a cigar.
He cranked out 600 episodes, and spawned many, many knock-offs--none as good, posits writer Rich Cohen, as The Sports Writers on TV.