Over at the Sporting News, veteran sports media writer Michael McCarthy has a deep dive into FS1 and Embrace Debate Czar Jamie Horowitz’s plans for world domination. It’s a fascinating profile of Horowitz and his vision of what sports television should be in 2016 – namely, loud people yelling loud sports opinions.
Of course, the attention-grabbing headline is that Horowitz is not hiding his desire to steal First Take carnival barker Skip Bayless away from ESPN for FS1. The two were paired together at First Take and Bayless is the embodiment of the direction Horowitz has taken televised sports talk. Horowitz even compared Bayless and his fellow “opinionists” to Kevin Durant. Try not to fall out of your chair reading that.
The top TV opinionists don’t become free agents very often, Horowitz noted. But when they do, he wants them to know he’s interested. While Smith signed a long-term extension with ESPN, Bayless’ contract is up this year.
“I look at these ‘opinionists’ like superstars in the NBA. You can probably name the dozen superstars who are out there. It’s like asking the (Boston) Celtics, ‘Are you interested in Kevin Durant?’ Yes, we’re interested in all the superstars. Of course, I’m interested in Skip,” said Horowitz. “I’m interested in Stephen A. and Michael (Smith) and Jemele and (Tony) Kornheiser and (Michael) Wilbon. Just like ESPN and Fox were both interested in Colin.”
Here’s another Horowitz quote that will make you stare at your computer screen, tablet, or mobile device with mouth agape:
“You can be unafraid and unfiltered — and be a blowhard. But you’re not actually home until you’re incisive,” he said. “That’s what I think the Colins and the Katies and the Whitlocks all bring: they’re thought-provoking and insightful. That really is the bullseye. They’re not going to hit it every day, with every comment, with every show. But that’s where you’re aiming. That’s where you want to be.
Given FS1 has become a network mostly of recycled ESPN talking heads, Bayless would fit in perfectly at FS1 alongside Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock. Because if there’s one thing that FS1 needs right now as a network, it’s someone with a lot of bold opinions, bombast, and bluster. They’re really lacking in that department at the moment. I hear Jay Mariotti is available, too.
Would Bayless ever leave ESPN for FS1? It’s a scenario we’ve discussed at length here at AA that seems unlikely, but conceivable. Not too many observers would have bet on Cowherd bolting ESPN for greener pastures elsewhere, yet he made the move out west to link back up with Horowitz and try something new. If Bayless likewise wants to be part of building something from the ground up, he may be tempted to throw in with the creator of the movement that made him famous.
Interestingly, McCarthy also outlines Horowitz’s ideas for FS1 this year to begin making a dent into the still-massive ratings advantage that ESPN has over the Los Angeles-based network:
— Give Cowherd a second TV show: When Horowitz was producing Cowherd at ESPN, he gave him a second daily show, “SportsNation,” which made co-host Michelle Beadle a star. In addition to “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” which airs from noon to 3 p.m. ET, Horowitz is developing a second Cowherd TV show for FS1 that will air later in the day. “We’re going to follow the model that Colin and I found successful at ESPN, where he did his radio show in the morning, and then ‘SportsNation’ in the afternoon,” he said.
— Stand-alone Whitlock show: A frequent guest on “The Herd,” Whitlock is in “active development” for his own show, according to Horowitz. During his time in Bristol, Horowitz went to Washington D.C. to learn how to produce studio shows from the master, Erik Rydholm, who has executive produced ESPN’s “PTI” since 2001. When Wilbon or Kornheiser were absent, Rydolm’s first pick for a guest host would be Whitlock. “That’s pretty high praise,” Horowitz said.
— Season 3 for Katie Nolan: FS1 plans to premiere Season 3 of her late night show, “Garbage Time with Katie Nolan,” May 3. Her weekly show will air Wednesdays at midnight ET. Said Horowitz: “To use the NBA analogy, you can acquire existing superstars from other teams. Or you can build through the draft. That’s what Katie is to us. She’s the superstar that was on our team.”
— Revamped Fox Sports Live: FS1’s answer to “SportsCenter” was ‘Fox Sports Live,” a late night news/highlight show co-anchored by Canadian imports Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole. The show never caught on. While FS1 still “believes” in Jay and Dan, said Horowitz, the network is ditching the highlights and retooling “FSL” into a show more resembling the duo’s free-wheeling podcasts.
— Hold off on documentaries: ESPN has always been smart about offering halo programming such as Bob Ley’s superior “Outside the Lines” to offset the yelling on “First Take” and other shows. But Horowitz notes it took ESPN three decades to launch its highly-acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary series. He has plenty on his plate before he ventures into more high-brow programming.
It’s probably another article altogether, but very quickly it’s easy to see what the major holes are in that programming strategy:
1) It’s not working so far.
Horowitz and Fox have spent a lot of money on those “All-Star opinionists” without much return. If this is the strategy to boost FS1’s ratings and compete with ESPN then it’s one that hasn’t proven to be too successful thus far. Just take a look at the most recent ratings for the second week of March, which are minute by comparison to anything ESPN airs:
Colin Cowherd: 51,000
Fox Sports Live w/ Jay & Dan: 41,000
Best Thing I Herd: 18,000
Those three shows COMBINED failed to match the viewership of FS1’s most popular show during that week – NASCAR Race Hub, which averaged 146,000 viewers. ESPN2’s Jalen & Jacoby was ESPN’s lowest rated sports talk show over the same week and it still blew everything FS1 did out of the water with 105,000 viewers. It airs at 2 AM ET.
For that matter, a second show starring Colin Cowherd doesn’t offer much more hope given Fox is already doing that with “Best Thing I Herd,” a highlights show of a radio show on television. And who says highlights shows are dead!
And as for Jason Whitlock and Katie Nolan, their viewership during Super Bowl Week (February 1-7) was equally as uninspiring:
Jason Whitlock’s Party By The Bay: 36,000
Garbage Time with Katie Nolan (evenings): 40,000
Garbage Time with Katie Nolan (late night): 23,000
Right now for FS1, the ratio of dollars to viewers is not a pretty picture. If Bayless does go to FS1, the reasonable expectation would be that he would have similar viewership numbers and struggle to break six figures while getting paid more money than any of us will ever see in our lifetimes.
2) FS1 is being gutted everywhere else.
Perhaps most discouraging – while FS1 is spending gobs and gobs of money on these “All-Star opinionists,” the network is cutting behind-the-scenes staffers left and right. Last June, we reported that FS1 was making substantial cuts to their news department and live reporting for events. In February, John Ourand reported that many Fox employees would have to take buyouts or risk being part of another round of layoffs. In March, Richard Deitsch reported that even more news and feature producers were being cut. In addition, there have been significant cuts on the digital side as well with Jimmy Traina the most prominent name to be let go.
The number of layoffs are dire enough, but seeing it come to the news and features department implies that FS1 isn’t even going to try to compete anymore with ESPN in news. If that’s the case, how can they be taken seriously as a sports network of any importance? The sign that FS1 is basically abandoning any attempt at documentaries (and making good, compelling television) is just downright depressing as well.
FS1 can bring in all the opinionists they want, but as it stands right now, there’s not much of a network outside of them. Is Fox Sports going to build the entire strategy of FS1 on antagonists trying to cause controversy and maybe the occasional game here and there? It sure does look that way.
FS1 is taking “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and trying to build an entire network out of it.
3) It’s the rights, stupid
Why do people watch ESPN’s endless array of studio shows and talk shows? It’s easy – the brain of the sports fan is programmed to watch ESPN as a default measure. That’s not just because ESPN has a 30+ year head-start on the competition, it’s because ESPN has the vast majority of sports rights that draw large audiences.
And if there’s anything we’ve learned in the rise of 24/7 sports networks like FS1, NBCSN, and CBS Sports Network it’s that viewers come for live events and live events only. What’s happening now at FS1 with personality-driven on-air talent is the same story as what happened at NBCSN with Michelle Beadle.
If political campaigns are based on the old mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” than surely sports media’s version is “it’s the rights, stupid.”
Fox likes to say that FS1 can do in sports what Fox News did in news and overcome much more established competition to reach the top of the mountain, but it’s a real apples to oranges comparison. Bill O’Reilly wasn’t trying to compete with the College Football Playoff or Monday Night Football.
In almost three years, FS1’s studio lineup has gained barely any traction with sports fans as the numbers prove. The only time they do gain a large audience for studio programming is when there’s a large lead-in audience thanks to a popular live event like an MLB Postseason game or a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Therefore, FS1 should be investing everything they can into those live events, along with the news and analysis around them. (See, again: NASCAR Race Hub outdoing Whitlock, Cowherd, etc. combined.)
Instead, FS1 is investing millions into polarizing opinionists who will garner heavy criticism and turn off as many fans as they bring in. It’s a confounding strategy. At the very least, it’s one that’s highly debatable.