Back in Fox Sports 1’s early days in 2013, there was a lot of talk about the network as “an alternative to the establishment” (ESPN), but there were also questions about just what that would look like. Two years down the road, FS1 has veered much closer to some of ESPN’s moves than they did initially, especially after the hire of former ESPN executive Jamie Horowitz.
The network still represents a substantially-different overall approach from ESPN, though, so the claims of being an alternative aren’t entirely wrong. The issue for viewers is that FS1’s overlap with ESPN is in many of the Worldwide Leader’s most problematic areas, and that apart from a few selected spots, the places where Fox differs are generally for the worst.
Let’s start with where Fox is currently the most similar to ESPN, and it comes in a two-word tagline: “Embrace Debate.” That’s not entirely surprising, considering that Horowitz was a key figure in the debate movement at ESPN and heavily involved in everything from SportsNation to First Take. We’re seeing debate in general, and opinions designed to spur controversy in particular, become more and more prominent at Fox, which can be seen through the endless “Conflict works! Allow it!” commercials for ESPN alum Colin Cowherd’s new show (plus most of the discussion that actually takes place on that show).
Cowherd's "Conflict works. Allow it" is the new "Embrace debate". Are you ready for it, sports fans???
— Ryan Maquiñana (@RMaq28) October 28, 2015
Additionally, the infamous Fox Sports Live athlete panels have morphed into “Fox Sports Live Countdown” shows that seem designed just to have personalities argue. Incredibly, FS1 also brought back First Take exile Rob Parker to national television.
On the writing side, recent controversial pieces from Fox Sports writers such as Clay Travis and Jason Whitlock (Travis has said these pieces are in the spirit of Shakespeare and Dickens, “the hot take masters of their era“; that argument itself is highly questionable, to say the least) have also had the desired effect of stirring up debate and controversy.
Fox has seen the success controversial debate-focused programs such as First Take and its ilk have brought to ESPN, and by hiring Horowitz and letting him bring in other key figures in his mold, they’re trying to emulate some of that. That’s a sharp contrast from the anti-ESPN debate comments Fox executives made initially, and a strong disappointment for those hoping Fox’s “alternative” would be a more intelligent one, but it’s not the worst thing Fox is currently doing.
Indeed, some of the biggest issues with Fox’s current approach come from where they’re most opposed to ESPN. ESPN often gets into trouble when it tries to censor its personalities too much, avoid anything remotely controversial, and avoid talent doing anything that might be seen as critical of the company or coworkers, as we saw time after time with Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann, Keith Law, Bruce Feldman and others.
Fox has gone the other way, allowing talent an apparent almost free rein, and this sometimes produces greatness; for example, Fox Sports Live anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole have created plenty of terrific stuff that would probably never fly at ESPN, from comments on Mike Francesa comments to meta commentary making fun of Fox’s technical issues. Fox tends to let their employees’ personalities and opinions shine through in a way ESPN often doesn’t, and that’s led to some excellent stuff from Katie Nolan, Peter Schrager, Julie Stewart-Binks and others as well. However, the downside of this laissez-faire approach is that it leads to some truly problematic things being rolled out under the Fox Sports brand. These aren’t cases of sports opinions some will disagree with, but rather the promotion of irresponsible pieces.
Travis is a particularly interesting case in point, as he’s maintained that he owns and has complete editorial control over Outkick The Coverage, merely licensing it to Fox. That arrangement has even led to some criticism from in-house when a controversial column was penned on OKTC – “How to Land a Husband at The Masters.”
Travis’ recent columns on the University of Missouri protests show some of the potential problems with this approach, particularly where he wrote “Is the entire Mizzou protest based on lies?”, had to update after some of the events he was disputing were confirmed, and yet still tried to make the facts fit his argument that “this entire University of Missouri protest is a manufactured sham.” This is in a piece published on Fox’s official website (even if Outkick is no longer “the official college football blog of Fox Sports,” a tag it once carried), and one that has substantial basic search traction thanks to the outlet it’s associated with. You would think that being associated with this kind of content would be problematic for a supposedly-journalistic organization, but it doesn’t seem to concern Fox all that much.
Somewhat similarly to Outkick the Coverage, Jason Whitlock’s J.school blog is full of polarizing opinions that Fox somehow both is and isn’t willing to put under their umbrella. The blog site features Whitlock’s unfettered opinions on everything from Missouri to his vendetta against Deadspin (imagine some of these words being posted by anyone working at ESPN) to rants against media mobs and “sports liberals.” It’s a weird dynamic, given Fox gave a significant promotional push to signing Whitlock, but a search of Whitlock on the actual Foxsports.com website only produces video tidbits from his appearances with Cowherd. It’s curious to say the least that Fox would sign someone to seemingly forward this “conflict matters” agenda only to place his work far away in another corner of the internet on a tumblr page.
Fox’s wider approach seems to be largely disregarding journalistic concerns and critics in favor of anything that can potentially bring in viewers, pageviews or both. That’s seen in their deal to air TMZ Sports at the same time they cut back their news gathering operations, in their endless promotion of Cowherd (both on his own show and in the recent constant inclusions of his opinions in Fox Sports Live, bringing down what’s otherwise a terrific highlights show), and in their stacking the deck with the most controversial ESPN retreads they can find.
Of course, this isn’t exclusive to Fox Sports, as Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch companies have faced many of the same criticisms over the years; perhaps the wider corporate standard is that there are no standards apart from populism, which is about as good of a standard as free silver.
Perhaps the best symbol of where FS1 currently is as a network is their decision to replay an interview between Colin Cowherd and Donald Trump in primetime. What sports fan in their right mind wants *that* as an alternative to anything? The answer is pretty clear, because the Cowherd-Trump primetime interview special was defeated in the ratings by a fishing program on NBCSN.
This isn’t to say that Fox should follow ESPN’s approach of clamping down on everything, as that would nullify much of the good and unique content they are able to create, but it’s clear that utterly rejecting standards in a race towards the bottom, the lowest common denominator, and the complete Kardashianization of sports media isn’t producing the alternative to ESPN many had hoped for.
To be sure, some of what Fox does is admirable, unique, and to be celebrated, and they’ve proven they can exist in their own right as a cable sports channel. In many areas, though, they’ve either copied the worst bits of the Worldwide Leader or found their own innovative ways to drag the conversation down. Maybe those of us who were looking for an ESPN alternative should have been more careful what we asked for.