by Kent Sterling
“It’s the content, dummy!” That’s what I would yell at the programmers who have launched Fox Sports 1 as a supposed competitor for the massive national sports audience share owned by ESPN.
So far, I would be surprised if they can catch NBC Sports Network.
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Fox Sports 1 is a train wreck, and that isn’t going to change because the execution of the product shows perfectly the wrongheaded priorities of those in charge.
The information is wrong, and the analysts are ridiculously miscast. As I watched tennis great Andy Roddick and former point guard Gary Payton discussing the incredible run of the Los Angeles Dodgers, I thought of the 1992 vice presidential debate between Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and James Stockdale.
Stockdale earned a Medal of Honor and four Silver Stars during one of the finest military careers in American history, but was so woefully miscast as a vice presidential candidate that during the debate, his opening statement began with two appropriate questions, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Roddick might have wondered who in the audience gave a damn about his thoughts on baseball, and the answer might have sent him from the set in tears. ESPN rolls with baseball analysis from John Kruk, Tim Kurkjian, Curt Schilling, Doug Glanville, Bob Holtzman, Jon Schiambi, Rick Sutcliffe, and others. Nowhere on the list is Jimmy Conners, Lee Trevino, or Wayne Gretzky.
That’s because what ESPN knew from the beginning is that unique content is king, and the ability to offer it will always attract viewers. Content creates stars, not the other way around.
You would have though Fox might have figured that out with “American Idol.” The original featured four mostly unknowns in Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Ryan Seacrest. That show turned all four into stars. Since the show has been recast with stars like Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Steven Tyler, the content has suffered, and so has audience satisfaction as reflected by ratings.
The execution of what Fox should be doing well has been lacking as well. In one five minute span on Saturday night, at least three were obviously wrong. I would recommend “Find the Graphic Goof” as a drinking game, but no one could stay conscious through the first 45 minutes of drinking every time an inaccurate graphic was revealed.
- Fox Sports 1 showed the home run hit that afternoon by Miguel Cabrera – his 39th. This was at 11p, and the graphic for AL leaders showed Cabrera with 38.
- For the NL RBI leader graphic, Fox Sports 1 identified a picture of Jay Bruce as Freddie Freeman.
- NL ERA leaders showed a picture of Adam Wainwright, but ID’ed him as Patrick Corbin.
Five minutes of that with Roddick slicing and dicing the Dodgers was enough to put me off this product forever. With apologies to The Who, “Meet the new Fox, same as the old Fox.”
The old Fox Sports gathered as many big sports names and hot chicks as they could squeeze under one roof, and turned them loose. It was an unholy mess. Ditto this, but with the bizarre addition of Regis Philbin. I wonder what Regis would have told people when he was the second banana on the Joey Bishop Show almost 50 years ago if someone told him that in 2013 he would be the host of a sports show on TV.
Of all the crazy hires on Fox Sports 1, the sanest might actually be Regis. More than anything else, Regis is a broadcaster, and Fox Sports 1 needs broadcasters to drive the train and help the dozens of disparate parts to be the best version of themselves. For many years, Regis helping Kathie Lee Gifford’s personality approach likability. Anyone who can do that has great on-camera value.
The only network to launch during the past decade who did it right is the MLB Network. They understood from jump street that content creates stars, and so they hired people who can present unique content in an entertaining way.
The NFL Network can be hard to watch. There are members of that team that seem to exist only to cackle at the antics of others, and that inside communication can be annoying.
Let it never be said that I am only willing to reveal easily defined problems. Here is a list of must-dos for any network launch:
- Always launch quietly. The temptation to go way over the top with relentless “Coming August 17th!” messaging to open with a bang is almost impossible to resist. That the bang might be viewer satisfaction hitting the floor as they watch a product that is not ready for mass consumption should temper enthusiasm. Get good before telling people how good you are.
- Hire performance, not Q ratings. Everyone is unknown at some point, so don’t sweat recognition scores. Hire the most compelling people, and make sure they have everything necessary to perform with confidence.
- Support staff is as critical as on-air talent. A great product requires great producers, so don’t cheat the prep process by hiring cheap, lazy, or ill-informed behind-the-scenes talent. There is no faster way to improve a show than hiring a great producer, and no quicker way to kill it than by hiring a bad one. The person or people who assembled the inaccurate graphics never should have been hired by Fox Sports 1, and absolutely should be fired. The person in charge of hiring those positions should also be canned.
- Be patient. Talk products are going to take some time to coalesce, so expect to experience some growing pains. That growth is best done with minimal exposure. ESPN was a bizarre little network for the first three years it was on. They made it up on the fly, and mistakes outnumbered victories, but they kept the wins and learned from the mistakes. They didn’t launch like they exist today. They had Tom Mees, Lou Palmer, Chris Berman, George Grande, and Jim Simpson doing all kinds of weird stuff. Not only does the product take a couple of years to find itself, it takes viewers longer than that to recognize the quality. How many people were talking about “Breaking Bad” after season one? How many people are talking about it five years later?
The painful (for Fox Sports 1) truth is that there is no market for another all-sports network. There is virtually no meaningful play-by-play up for grabs, and ESPN already has ESPN2, ESPN News, and ESPNU. Each major professional league has its own network, and do the major collegiate conferences.
Everyone wants to find a way to mimic ESPN’s ability to monetize cable and satellite subscribers. Two-thirds of ESPN’s gross revenue comes from subscription charges, and who wouldn’t want to wake up on the morning of the first day of your fiscal year nearly 70% of the way home?
Catching ESPN is likely impossible, and Fox knows this better than anyone, because ESPN pushes itself hard to fortify itself against all potential attacks as part of its DNA.
While I agree with you on just about everything you wrote here, I still think that a little competition can only improve the content of all of the networks. If Fox Sports 1 realizes this and manages to improve its content, then perhaps ESPN will feel threatened and do the same. So even if the launch weekend wasn’t the greatest, the pursuit of the goal shouldn’t be abandoned so easily. I think most consumers of sports media have gripes with ESPN, and perhaps Fox Sports 1 can work out the kinks operating simply as an alternative to ESPN.
I think that the weakness for ESPN is in the opposite direction – more information and less blather. Fox has ramped up the yakking, but dumbed down the information. I would love to see some raw data that would back up the talk. That would be an interesting niche.
I’m very familiar with ESPN’s operation, particularly on the radio side. They don’t rest on their laurels for a minute. The momentum is constantly forward.