The host known for her past stints at ESPN and Turner is channeling her basketball knowledge and Rolodex for the new series. On Thursday’s premiere, she will sit down with Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers star and favorite to win league MVP honors. After a linear premiere on Showtime at 10 p.m., the series will move to streaming two hours later. Other upcoming guests on the weekly interview showcase include NBA A-listers Steph Curry, Dwyane Wade, and Jason Kidd. After May 4, the series will pause to let the NBA playoffs reach their annual crescendo in June before resuming with more original episodes later in the year.
Nichols told Deadline she is optimistic the show can break through the glut of sports talk programming. A crowded field has been further complicated by the rise of athletes opting to speak directly through social media and podcasts rather than sitting for conventional interviews.
“The idea is that we’re getting the best of the best, the most interesting people, the guys who have accomplished the most in the sport of basketball,” she said. The goal is presenting an “elite level of player that you can’t, frankly, spend time with anywhere else,” and giving viewers a “360-degree view of who a person is” and insights “that you don’t get from 6-second clips on Instagram.”
Embiid, who was the third overall NBA draft pick in 2014, grew up in Cameroon and tells Nichols during the episode about taking up basketball as a teenager. Anecdotes about his swift rise to a spot in an NBA-run youth camp, Basketball without Borders, just three months after he picked up a ball for the first time, unfold with the nuance made possible by the show’s 30-minute run time. “We spend so much time saturated with professional athletes on our TV and on our phones and everywhere else that getting quiet time, when you can actually find out who this person is, is kind of rare amid all of the bright lights and the big motion,” Nichols said.
Nichols herself has had some time for reflection since leaving the media spotlight in mid-2021 after a contentious exit from ESPN. She was removed from the Disney-owned network’s NBA programming after an audio recording surfaced containing comments Nichols, who is white, made about former colleague Maria Taylor, who is Black, during a wide-ranging series of phone calls. Nichols contends that an ESPN staffer recorded her without her knowledge and then supplied the recording to The New York Times. The news outlet framed the audio as evidence of racial insensitivity directed at Taylor, who is now at NBC Sports. Nichols formally apologized and a settlement was later reached to resolve the matter.
Having segued from newspapers (the Washington Post) to television in an early ESPN stint, then Turner, then back again, Nichols said her latest move feels like a familiar turning of the professional page. She doesn’t dismiss questions about the stormy period nearly two years ago, but she keeps her answers brief, preferring to keep moving past the topic. “For me, this latest iteration didn’t feel as jarring as it may have looked to some people on the outside,” she said, describing it as a “smooth and comfortable” return to the sports media scene. After developing considerable expertise in the NBA in more than two decades covering the league, she said she has enjoyed regularly attending games again and plugging back into her network of sources.
Nichols said she maintains “great relationships with so many” reporters and former colleagues at ESPN, talking, texting with and socializing with a number of them. As far as any risk of ill feeling among viewers, Nichols said her weekly podcast under the auspices of Showtime Basketball, What’s Burnin, has drawn a “great response” from listeners and online viewers since launching earlier this year.
The arrival of Nichols at Showtime was made official last fall, just as the premium network was entering a period of significant flux. It will formally be rebranded this year as Paramount+ With Showtime, in both linear and streaming, and will no longer have a stand-alone streaming home. With that consolidation, a large swath of programming has been jettisoned as parent Paramount Global looks to hold down content costs.
Sports, however, remains something of an oasis during all of the corporate upheaval at Showtime, with the brand sticking with live boxing and building a basketball hub around documentaries and podcasts like All the Smoke. Versatility and being a team player are increasingly valued traits at Paramount, which blends free, ad-supported and premium content more thoroughly than maybe any other major media company. In one sign of the times, for example, Nichols is starting to do weekly segments for CBS Sports HQ, a free, ad-supported streaming outlet across the corporate aisle.
“All of the different dining room chairs moving around has only been exciting,” she said. “It’s only more opportunity and more places that our programming can be on.” Distribution for Headliners on Paramount+, which has 56 million subscribers, “is a huge expansion from what I had thought I was getting when I signed on.”