Fox fired Jamie Horowitz. For many, this felt karmic. Media people have criticized his editorial direction and taste level since First Take became a success. The news came mere days after Horowitz, at the helm of Fox Sports Digital, fired the writing and editorial staffs for a video pivot.
But Horowitz’s departure resulted from other alleged reasons, not his performance. In many ways, Horowitz has been right and we live in a “Jamie Horowitz” media world.
Awful Announcing obtained video of a Horowitz presentation. Below, he describes his basic strategy at Fox, betting on personalities, and betting against news and highlights.
Shanks and I would tell people there are four types of sports programming that Shanks and I talked about on this road trip that we took. There’s Live Events, Pre and Post-Event coverage, Personality Driven Studio Shows, and News and Highlights. The big change or announcement for FS1 is that we were going to bet on three of these, but we were going to make an equally strong bet against the fourth. So, no surprise, we are betting on Live Events and Pre and Post-Event coverage. Since we’re obviously going to reference ESPN a lot in this deck and in the future of FS1, this is not dissimilar to the business that they are in. Live Events and Pre and Post-Event Coverage, that’s the focus of the network. The big change is we’re gonna make a big bet on Personality Driven Studio Shows and against News and Highlights.
Horowitz is betting against news and highlights because smartphones have rendered the news and highlights show, specifically ESPN’s SportsCenter, irrelevant.
I’ve now been painted as this anti-SportsCenter person so I now very publicly say “I love SportsCenter, I grew up on SportsCenter, in college I watched multiple editions of SportsCenter…” This is not an anti-SC deck. At least this portion isn’t. But then something changed. We were doing lots and lots of SportsCenter, and then what you all have experienced. You still might watch Ronda or the Cowboys on the big screen, but you are getting the news and information on your phone. This may send some waves in our industry, but to me this is totally self evident. This is how YOU consume your sports information.
Breaking down ESPN’s daytime lineup, Horowitz pointed out how opinion programming was beating out flatlining Sportscenter and how multi-sport opinion shows were beating out sport-specific ones.
In the morning they are airing SportsCenter. Just flat ratings and it just plods along. There’s no peaks and valleys they haven’t identified a content or talent problem at any hour. It’s just the same in the morning. But really where it gets instructive is when you start studying the afternoon. First lets see Outside the Lines which follows SportsCenter here. It’s also a news and information show and it’s even MORE boring than SportsCenter, and the viewers punish them for it. It goes down. It seems like boring news and information is not the best path. And then they touch on this idea of opinion based programming, but they do it in a sports specific way. They air NFL insiders, NFL Live, and The Jump. So they are briefly rewarded for bringing some opinion to the conversation with the two NFL shows. It goes back down for the Jump, but primarily because it’s a basketball show airing almost year around.
Now is where we start to learn things. Now they program opinion based shows throughout the afternoon. Sportsnation, Highly Questionable, ATH, and PTI. And you can watch as there is a nice steady rise throughout the afternoon, as ESPN programs the exact type of content fans actually want. You can say hold on Jamie I’m gonna poke a hole here people are coming home from school and work of course the ratings rise as you go throughout the afternoon. I said the only way to test this is if we can put SportsCenter on right here and that’s precisely what they do and we get our big reveal and at 6 o’clock half the audience goes away as soon as they go back to traditional news and information programming. It’s not because everyone went to sleep at 6 o’clock, because as soon as the games come on it goes right back up.
This vision may depress some who get wistful for a SportsCenter showing highlights or an MTV showing music videos, but those same people weren’t watching. The best testament to Horowitz’s assessment is that ESPN has embraced it wholeheartedly. The new 2018 lineup is almost entirely personality-driven. No live SportsCenter will be shown on ESPN before 6 p.m.. The 6 p.m. show with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith grew out of the “His and Hers” personality-driven show. There will be a half-hour of Outside the Lines for the purists.
Horowitz employed an ice cream cone analogy to describe his shift toward focusing on “charisma and credibility” over “headlines and highlights.”
Like I said, the ice cream was your headlines and highlights, but the delivery system was the ice cream cone. That was the charisma and credibility. That for me was the best days of SportsCenter that was Olbermann and Patrick. I was there to get the highlights because I had not seen what happened. They were the most fun delivery of what I wanted. But now the new recipe is charisma and credibility about the headlines and highlights. The ice cream is still there when you do a linear TV show, but the focus is the charisma and credibility when talking about it.
You might say, “Jamie, looking at these words, it looks like you just reversed the words in this sentence,” and yes, that’s true. But the reversal of these words in this chart is why SportsCenter goes this way, and First Take goes this way. The reversal is the whole thing and why the ratings are reversed. So FS1 is making a big bet on charisma and credibility.
Horowitz describes what he means by “charisma and credibility,” which seems like common sense. He also argues that edgier Fox can give fans 100 percent of what they want vs. ESPN’s 80 percent limited by Disney’s handwringing.
It’s less like a lecture and more like a bar conversation. That’s what it is to be charismatic and relatable on TV. But you also have to be credible. They know what they are talking about and tell their own voice and drive the editorial. Shows can succeed if one person has the charisma and one has the credibility, but they can really jump off when both people have both. But shows can’t succeed without these two things. An argument you might make on behalf of ESPN is don’t they know this too?
I start by admitting yes they know the formula too. There are a bunch of shows they are doing, some of which are evolving, where they offer the C&C. These are the right types of programs. But there is a big BUT in this story here. They are doing it 80% of the way. They are not delivering on the full promise of what sports fans want. And there is a reason they are not. And there is a reason that we can deliver what sports fans want and it’s a difference between the two companies. ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney company and Disney is a much different company than Fox.
Assessing Horowitz’s tenure, of course, depends not on his breakdown of his former employer ESPN, but how well he set up FS1 and Fox Sports Digital to compete against them. That’s where things get murky.
Horowitz described his three-pronged philosophy for finding talent. He made an analogy with how the Patriots built around Tom Brady.
There are 3 different ways to acquire talent that we think are most effective. The analogy I use is similar to how Tom Brady has found people to throw touchdown passes to. One way is the Gronk model. You draft Gronk, he’s on your team, you build around him, and end up SB champs. To me, we are seeing that at Fox with Katie. She was here before me, you guys were the ones working with her, we inherited her as part of the draft, and now we’re watching her show evolve. And that is a great, great model. For aspiring talent in the room, or talent in the room, or people that are afraid — oh wait, are they going to go get other people? No, this is a great model, finding the talent here and building around them.
One can’t really claim Horowitz did a great job building around the talent on hand when he arrived. Katie Nolan’s “Garbage Time” show was cancelled. She remains in limbo, despite vague promises of “five times as much Katie Nolan.” Jay and Dan were given the “Milton in Office Space” treatment until their contracts ran out. Many other people were just fired.
As for building through the draft, young, talented figures who did emerge on FS1, Molly McGrath and Julie Stewart-Binks, now work for ESPN.
The second prong, for Horowitz, was hiring all-stars.
You can do it by recruiting all-stars, the Randy Moss model. Drafted by the Vikings, heads over to Oakland, NE identifies him and then he sets the single season TD record. That’s the Colin Cowherd model. No problem that he played at ESPN, as soon as they come to Fox they become a Fox guy. The Skip Bayless model. We just go take somebody else’s superstar and put him on our team.
First, this is a poor sports analogy. The Patriots bought low on Moss, after his stock cratered well past his talent in Oakland. He was an exception to the Patriots rule, which has generally been developing their own stars and not overpaying to keep them. But I digress.
Horowitz did bring in his stars. He signed Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless over from ESPN when their contracts were up for renewal. Both are among the top paid “talent” in the sports media. Whether this has worked depends on how one wants to frame it. Both have built (or brought along) audiences that weren’t watching FS1 before. Cowherd’s ratings have been solid. Undisputed, per Horowitz, was up 341 percent over god knows what was on before. But neither has made a decisive impact one would expect, given the expenditure.
Bong Appetite: 144K*
Desus & Mero: 123K*
*on a network designed for people who don't watch TV
— Sports TV Ratings (@SportsTVRatings) May 11, 2017
The third prong was sort of nebulous. Horowitz termed it “maximizing efficiency with good talent playing new positions.”
Maximizing efficiency with good talent playing new positions. Who’s this, Pats fans? Julian Edelman. Plays QB in college. The Patriots, because they are the smartest team in the NFL, identify him as a potential wide receiver, and he goes on to be a star receiver here. Right? That’s the Shannon Sharpe model. He’s an NFL analyst on NFL radio, previously on CBS, and it seems like you have the capability to be a multi-sport opinionist and so we put him in a new position and hes be unbelievable so far.
Shannon Sharpe can talk. Shannon Sharpe can talk about multiple topics. FS1 brought in Shannon Sharpe, so mission accomplished?
Horowitz sought to redefine talent as a brand extant across platforms. He spoke of a “single faucet” approach for “platform agnostic content creation.”
We want there to be one brand of Skip you can find across all platforms. That is something very important as these two worlds start to work hand in hand. The show, the podcast, the social, digital videos, audio, FS Go. So platform agnostic content creation beyond just TV, let’s use Colin as an example. Because this is how we are trying to get Colin out there and selling Colin. He does The Herd, Speak for Yourself, NFL Kickoff. You can see he’s reaching over 5.5 million TV viewers. In audio… a national radio show, his podcast, it’s been a terrific success so far. In the digital space on FS Go, and his success in the social space as well. For Colin this is what we are trying to do. This is what we want for all our talent. We want to start to look at talent as if they are sports properties. That’s how we want to look at these talents as well.
That’s common sense. ESPN embraced the same mantra during the last round of layoffs, though they translated it into English, stressing “versatility.” Get yourself someone who can be on TV, host a radio show/podcast, write, and maintain an active social media presence.
Horowitz described his goal to have the personality-driven shows be “compelling, diverse, and passionate.”
These shows are compelling, diverse, and passionate. Diverse — A unique variety of point of views. We are not gonna launch any shows with just white guys. I’m just not going to do it anymore. A source of differentiation — Unafraid and unfiltered. And super importantly here, if you are just focused on being unafraid and unfiltered, you can still be a blow-hard. You can be a shock jock radio guy with wild takes. The prime directive has to be doing incisive TV. Thought provoking insightful content. We don’t hit it every day. We make mistakes all the time, but this is the bulls-eye, and this is the focus for all those shows.
That goal makes sense. Whether Fox hit that mark, again, is open to interpretation. Diversity is a multi-faceted issue. Racial diversity is one part. Gender diversity is another. Are there women involved? Are the women just serving as foils for the male “personality?” Then there’s ideological diversity. Having too many unfiltered iconoclasts pushing boundaries of political correctness can have the same bubble effect as having a website full of snarky white liberals.
Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock are more “thought-provoking” and “insightful” than critics credit them for being, though both are such strong caricatures that it can be hard for their “incision” to shine through.
Interesting was Horowitz’s response to a question about what producers and executives should be looking for in terms of credibility. The key for multi-sport opinion shows finding credibility, for Horowitz, was writers.
But primarily we think that credibility tends to be from writers. Skip has a long career as a writer to complement other networks. Kornheiser and Wilbon made their careers as writers. Basically all those guys on Around the Horn are writers. That’s why those guys we had here before, Andy Roddick, Gary Payton, Donovan McNabb… those guys were TERRIFIC talking about THEIR sport, but no matter how good they were the audience just had trouble thinking about them as credible experts on other sports.
Many will spot the irony. Writing (journalism and reporting) brings credibility. Horowitz’s last major decision before Fox let him go was firing nearly every Fox Sports writer. The gap between FS1 and ESPN, aside from time and sports rights, is one of credibility. Fox is set up to sign credibility in the free agency market, not build it from within. That sounds less like the Patriots and more like the team playing in Washington.
ESPN, even accounting for the layoffs, delivers an array of content over multiple forms of media. FS1 and Fox Sports Digital, as constituted, deliver the same Colin Cowherd take over multiple forms of media.
Horowitz did not get to finish. But the question when he departs is the same one extant when he arrived. Why are people going to FS1? Cowherd and Bayless brought along their core audiences. The Big Ten and the World Cup will do so as well. The only thing clear about the FS1 brand is that it isn’t adding much beyond that.