Was this the launch of a new TV sports network? Or a “Saturday Night Live” parody of a sports network that, for some nonsensical reason, mocks sports and people who watch sports? If the aim is comedy, Fox Sports 1 had a few serviceable moments during its debut weekend, such as when Jay Onrait hyped a preseason NFL game airing the next night on the big Fox blowtorch.
“THE NFL!! … FOX!!!!! … SUNDAY!!!!!!!!! …. COLTS!!!!!!!!!! … GIANTS!!!!!!!!!!!! WATCH IT!!!!!!!!!!! WATCH ITTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
But once such a show decides its function is to tickle funny bones, there is no turning back. As a mother lode that unfailingly touches every part of human life — triumph, tragedy, scandal, heart, soul, mind and, of course, levity — sports demands a programming versatility that strikes every tone while emphasizing sincerity and credibility. Far as I know, Bob Costas is the only one who pulls off the balancing act, able to shift from snark to wisdom without anyone noticing. When you define yourself from the start as a fun network, and carry that fun into promotional ads and everything you do, you aren’t taken seriously when the other elements must be covered.
There is a clear effort to pursue yuks on “Fox Sports Live,” the network’s flagship show, which is hosted by two Canadians (Onrait and Dan O’Neill) who keep reminding us that they’re Canadian, as if Americans care about anything but breaking news, game highlights and strong commentary. “Wow, I’m out of breath,” Onrait said after his aforementioned mock rant. Once he caught his second wind the next night, he and his partner opened with a straight, humor-free introduction of Fox baseball analyst Ken Rosenthal, who broke news that Major League Baseball had been prepared to reduce Alex Rodriguez’s PEDs suspension to significantly fewer than 211 games if he’d accepted the punishment. When Onrait grilled Rosenthal for details, it was akin to Dave Chappelle following a standup bit with an Edward Snowden interview. Our loss is Canada’s gain.
As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, Fox is shying from what should be direct competition with industry leader ESPN. It prefers a bouncy, secondary niche featuring too many former athletes, too few compelling voices, the requisite blond in Charissa Thompson and 81-year-old Regis Philbin. It’s more a freak show than a legitimate sports channel. Never mind that some members of an ex-jock panel mispronounced Yasiel Puig, the talk of baseball all summer. And never mind the graphical screwups. As someone who endured the brutal infancy of “Around The Horn” on ESPN, I’m empathetic to early technical problems. I’ll never forget flying back and forth from Chicago to San Francisco — six flights, three days — to wedge in rehearsals during the 2002 World Series. At the end of the week, network boss Mark Shapiro was so disgusted with our lack of progress and chemistry that he delayed the show’s debut, even as house ads were running to the contrary.
But the editorial approach of a new network — that is fair fodder from the first day. Fox Sports Live is “Wayne’s World” when it should be striving to be a better, less predictable, more in-depth “SportsCenter.” I did like retired tennis star Andy Roddick, the one panelist capable of talking incisively about sports beyond his realm. And I liked how Michael Strahan reduced Tom Brady to a puppy dog in a memorable interview, coaxing him from his hermetically sealed cocoon to reveal a vulnerability rarely shown publicly by the Gisele-shaped, Belichick-spooked, Ugg-booted bubble boy. It seemed Brady, who usually has no use for media but offering worthless sound bites, opened up to Strahan because he respects him as a dominant former player, because he and the Patriots lost to Strahan’s Giants in a 2008 Super Bowl described by Brady as his toughest loss, and because Brady’s wife might like Strahan’s weekday morning show with Kelly Ripa. Too bad the network was forced to throw it back to Onrait and O’Neill.
If Fox Sports 1 didn’t grasp months ago the magnitude of its challenge, it knows now. While its anchors only could mention the Sunday night drama at Fenway Park involving Rodriguez, another network actually was televising live the plunking of A-Rod, his retaliatory home run, the ballpark angst and the awkward juxtaposition of A-Rod representing an organization whose executives loathe him and won’t talk to him.
That network was ESPN.
There are no worries today in Bristol, other than how to keep new hire Jason Whitlock out of strip joints.