If the issue strictly was studio programming, then, yes, ESPN might be vulnerable right now. Some would cry SOS, as in Same Old S—, as in the same analysts, same hosts, same formats, same tone, same look, same music, same lighting, same ad agency, even the same deep-throated voiceover dude sounding like he’s doing a drunken parody of a deep-throated voiceover dude. Among sports people I know, the sense is that ESPN isn’t appointment TV anymore as much as it’s the only established, tried-and-true sports TV option. The network now is all about accumulating live events and sharing megabucks profits with leagues and conferences because, hey, the Disney Co. only wants its fat quarterly bottom line.
But with that longstanding habit comes repetition. And when loyal millions have watched ESPN for years, without real competition, it leads to the built-in muscle memory of the human hand knowing exactly which three buttons dial up ESPN on the remote-control clicker — 206, if you have DIrectTV — when the same hand has no idea how to call up, say, the CBS Sports Network. You are forced to scroll through a channel guide, a pain in the ass when you’re sitting down with a beer and slice of pizza after a 14-hour workday and just want a quickie sports summary.
The reason you don’t know the CBS Sports Network is on Channel 613: The network doesn’t give sports consumers a reason to consistently watch. It doesn’t break news or have much in the way of live events, though another fledgling operation, NBC Sports Network is at least trying with the rising NHL, NASCAR and studio shows. Bottom line: If you don’t give people a consistent reason to tune in, they aren’t going to know those three magic digits.
So, why would I think Fox Sports 1 has any chance of changing that habit — or even putting a minor dent in the ESPN monopoly — starting this month? Initial reports and house-produced informerclals have the network emphasizing fun, fun, fun and humor, humor, humor, including two nightly anchors from Canada who apparently might drop their pants at some point on the Fox Sports Live studio show, making them the Bob and Doug McKenzie of their time. Contrary to programmers who come up with this stuff, people don’t follow sports to LOL!!! They want to rejoice a victory, or curse a defeat, or shed tears during a poignant moment, or scream that the quarterback should be benched or the coach be fired. I know of no one who watches a sports event and laughs out loud, unless it’s a package of the day’s bloopers or an old NFL Films tape.
Why on earth, then, would you devote an entire sports network to the idea of fun when, in reality, the successful ESPN rival will have to hit every note on the keyboard: serious news gathering, sharp commentary, live events and, when called for, fun. A Fox executive said he’s tired of ESPN’s emphasis on steroids. So much for sound news judgment, Walter Cronkite. Just because the subject is wearisome doesn’t mean you stop covering it, when millions of fans still want to know who is dirty and who isn’t. What, Fox isn’t going to cover Alex Rodriguez?
The best way to challenge ESPN is by going after the Bristol boys in their wheelhouse. Break more news. Be better at analysis and debate. And do a more comprehensive studio show than the patterned, predictable “SportsCenter.” ESPN is the longstanding sports network of record in America because the bosses always have understood what viewers want from sports media. They want to be informed and taught about what they don’t know, and they want firm, credible commentary to accompany the newsgathering. Yes, I wonder about in-house freedoms to break news when ESPN, Fox and other networks are financially attached to so many professional leagues and college conferences, which I’ve addressed in my Open Letter elsewhere on this site. From now until the end of the time, no matter how information is disseminated, the most trustworthy reporting and robust commentary will lure the most eyeballs.
David Hill, the Fox veteran who is creating the look and feel of Fox Sports 1, seems to think otherwise. Like Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow, he just wants to have fun. He apparently deduces that his Fox’s NFL pre-game show is successful because a Hee Haw panelist like Terry Bradshaw makes it fun, and he likely remembers the fun had by ex-athletes on the “Best Damn Sports Show Period” series. So Hill and his people think fun can be extended in a 24-7 format, 365 days a year. Here are his blind spots: (1) I could take five people out of a Century City yoga class, put them on an NFL pre-game show and have it prosper, which reflects the power of the NFL far more than the lure of the Fox panel; and (2) “Best Damn Sports Show” died because the yuks got old. Hill, a native Aussie, thinks he has reinvented the American sports TV wheel when all he did was ride the good fortune of landing the NFL — which put the big Fox network on the map — and manage not to screw it up.
“Jockularity,” he called this melding of jocks and fun in a Bloomberg Businessweek profile.
Peculiarity, I call it.
Fox isn’t wrong in thinking ESPN is stale and East Coast-centric in spots. But if the counterprogramming plan is to keep things light and bouncy, trot out former athletes like Andy Roddick and Gary Payton for too-cool-for-school sports chats and flank them with the requisite blond (Charissa Thompson, swiped from ESPN for nearly $1 million a year), then the immediate question will be: Where’s the substance? Fox is taking Regis Philbin out of mothballs to compete against ESPN’s colossal “Pardon the Interruption” franchise. What do they want from Regis, the housewives crowd? Philbin is not a serious sports guy; on ESPN, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser are pros with flawless chemistry and a combined 70 years of experience. Rege is a fan, and there’s way too many fans diluting the art of sports media these days to have another hosting a major show.
If ESPN is Miguel Cabrera, Fox Sports 1 is a pitcher trying to get him out with junk. I see no fastballs. The one staffer capable of a heater, Jason Whitlock, isn’t on any official schedule at the moment, even after Fox did a mock run of an irreverent talk show, “Red, White and Truth,” that Whitlock would host. My guess is, Whitlock is too dangerous and controversial for Fox Sports’ fun, fun, fun tastes. Maybe Fox News should hire him.
Not that this competition ever would be close anyway. ESPN is so dominant, it currently commands a $5.54 affiliate fee from cable/satellite subscribers, which, according to research by The Atlantic, amounts to a ridiculous annual intake of $6.5 billion. That’s two-thirds of the network’s $10 billion yearly revenue. FS1 is entering the affiliate-fee fray at less than a dollar, hoping it has enough live events — Major League Baseball, college football and basketball among them — to attract enough viewers to raise the price.
If nothing else, the hype about Fox Sports 1 has led ESPN to make buzzworthy hires. They’ve recruited the analytics king, Nate Silver, to bring his statistical analysis via multiple platforms. He’ll appear on a new late-night show hosted by the other big hire, Keith Olbermann, who once made his bombastic name on ESPN. Which means they’re kind of reprising the Same Old S—.
Doesn’t matter. As long as Fox is into fun, fun, fun, then this is not a fair contest. Nate Silver might set the odds of Fox Sports 1 overtaking ESPN at 1,000,000-to-1.
Certainly, he would have ESPN winning all 50 states.