We’re more than halfway through the current college football season, the second one in which Fox Sports 1 has competed with ESPN for the attention of a national audience. Everyone in the college football television industry knows it’s hard for FS1 to compete with ESPN in terms of games, because ESPN owns the vast preponderance of inventory and has firm possession of the SEC. Moreover, there’s no secret to game programming: The quality of the event speaks for — and sells — itself.

The real question in the evolving FS1-ESPN college football battle concerns non-game programming: How can FS1 compete with the pregame-show goliath known as College GameDay? FS1’s first attempt at a GameDay alternative, hosted by Erin Andrews, was not renewed for a second season. Now, FS1 is learning that its next discussion show that debuts late Friday nights — meant as a lead-in to Saturday’s games — isn’t gaining much of any traction.

Douglas Pucci  of Awful Announcing has regularly posted the weekly ratings for various sports cable networks. Those posts come out on Fridays. Before continuing with this piece, please read Doug’s four most recent stories, which apply numerical detail to FS1’s plight:

September 15-21

September 22-28

Sept. 29-Oct. 5

October 6-12

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You might be asking, “Why revisit this increasingly familiar college football programming issue now?”

The four links above feed into the answer, but the Oct. 6-12 link delivers an eye-catching number: The Friday, Oct. 10 live airing of Fox Sports Live: Countdown to Kickoff — the retooled discussion show including contributions from Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman — was watched by only 17,000 (non-sports bar-inhabiting) Americans. That’s not just a 0.0 rating, but one that didn’t come particularly close to getting at least one tenth of a ratings point.

On Friday, Oct. 3, a total of 173,000 viewers tuned into Countdown to Kickoff. Why were the numbers so much better then? The show benefited from Fox Sports Live, which benefited from a comparatively huge NLDS audience due to the St. Louis Cardinals’ stunning Game 1 comeback over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Oct. 3 marked the first day of FS1’s playoff coverage, so the novelty of playoff baseball on FS1 — combined with an electric game that remained close to the last out — created a domino effect that worked to FS1’s — and Countdown to Kickoff’s — advantage.

Without the helpful push provided by a baseball-bolstered audience, Countdown to Kickoff’s ratings pull has not proven to be resilient or durable. The content of the show might contain considerable value, but the reality of relying on a live broadcast before viewers go to bed always seemed incongruous with firing up a nation of college football fans before the Saturday smorgasbord of games. When only 17,000 people are watching a live midseason broadcast, it’s fairly clear that this relatively conventional approach just isn’t working out.

If FS1 wants to improve and expand its reach, it’s going to have to be different.

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THE WAY FORWARD

Matt Sarzyniak’s College Sports Media Blog, one of the better college sports television explainers on the web, offered this helpful (partial) overview from the spring, sorting through details pertaining to the inventory under the larger FOX umbrella. That stash of inventory remains limited compared to what ESPN can bring to the table. FOX channels and properties snagged some great gets this season, as Sarzyniak notes in his article, but even-steven competition with ESPN in terms of games is not yet a realistic aspiration for FS1 as FOX’s main sports arm.

It’s quite clear that FS1 needs to build its brand and gain traction with viewers — no one in the industry would contest such a broad and generalized claim — but with Countdown to Kickoff lagging in the ratings despite the presence of Mandel and Feldman, FS1 has to be more creative. Anything particularly conventional seems doomed to failure. Establishing and owning a compelling niche is what FS1 should shoot for.

In the short term, FS1 might want to consider a film-room show for 2015. Why this? First of all, the steady march of football in the direction of spread offenses, zone blocking, and read-based concepts (to use very generalized terms) has given the sport a dramatically different identity compared to a third of a century ago, when college football was primarily the province of the running game and not the passing game. There’s a pervasive yet deep hunger among fans to learn about the intricacies of the sport, especially since college football has been redefined for new generations of viewers.

Is this reasoning just a lot of loose thinking without something to nail it down? Consider the critical success of ESPNU’s film-room coverage of the 2014 BCS National Championship Game between Florida State and Auburn:

If FS1 dedicated an hour to what would ostensibly be a true film-room show, it could pull in large swaths of fans who remain anything but captivated by a generally familiar product that hasn’t set itself apart from College GameDay in any meaningful sense. At the very least, going with a film-room show in 2015 could give FS1 some time and space in which to establish itself as a home for better analysis… and to build a larger college football foundation that might be able to truly take root in 2016 and beyond.

What, indeed, should be FS1’s long-term aspiration in the attempt to minimize GameDay’s dominance of early Saturday mornings?

The answer is something indirectly mentioned earlier: games. FS1’s games might not be as numerous or as great as ESPN’s games, but FS1 could more effectively take on GameDay by airing a game against ESPN’s celebrated pregame show.

It’s pure coincidence that this article appears just before this particular weekend of sports, but you’ll note that in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions will play a game on Sunday that will air at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time and 6:30 Pacific, due to the fact that London is the site of the event. While we consider the ratings that game will draw, simply realize that Falcons-Lions is unopposed by other games. If FS1 wants to get at GameDay over the long run (maybe not in 2015), why not take William Shakespeare’s advice and remember that “The play’s the thing”?

Power conference teams, with the possible but unlikely exception of a bottom-feeder willing to take a chance, won’t want to play a “breakfast game” with a 10 a.m. (Eastern) or 9 a.m. (Central) kickoff. However, the smaller schools that get buried by power games over the course of a regular college football Saturday would relish the chance to play a game in an unopposed time slot. Plenty of fans, writers and pundits would watch. The simple reality of playing a game when no one else is playing — at least in the first half and the start of the third quarter — would give the so-called “Gang Of Five” schools and conferences more exposure on Saturday, the day when college football bursts into full color.

Why suggest that FS1 implement this strategy in 2016 and not 2015? The first year of the College Football Playoff will be monitored closely by power teams and Gang Of Five teams alike. Seeing how the selection committee values strength of schedule will influence schools’ scheduling approaches. The 2015 season will be defined by a lot of fluctuation and many moving parts from various directions.

In 2016, FS1 would be able to act on more information and context, seeing what it could do not only with the Gang Of Five conferences, but a school such as BYU and, for that matter, the other in-between independents, Army and Navy. FS1, recalling the playing of college basketball games on air craft carriers, could pursue the arrangement of a “breakfast game” with Army or Navy in an exotic neutral-site city or venue.

Possibilities exist, such as taking a Hawaii football game (shown above) and moving it from the overnight hours of Sunday morning to the overnight hours on Saturday morning. It’s up to FS1 to extend its imagination.

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Before any of you tut-tut about 9 a.m. kickoffs or exotic locations for games, simply realize that notions of Tuesday night Sun Belt football or Wednesday night “MACTION” were once unheard of as well. Even playing college football on Friday remains minor-league in the eyes of many fans who think that night ought to be set aside for high school ball. College football, in the second half of the season, becomes a four- or five-day-a-week sport. The idea that early-Saturday “breakfast football” is a bridge too far is patently out of step with the reality of the sport on television in the modern age.

Is Fox Sports 1 wedded to a formula, or to the need to provide compelling programming that will win the attention and loyalty of college football fans? The choice is one between conventionality and creativity. We’ll see what FS1 does to change the college football television equation… if anything… in the coming years.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.