In his vision presentation for FS1, Jamie Horowitz distinguished between ESPN and the Fox brand. He portrayed Fox as the “fearless, defiant, insightful, relentless, blunt” company. Those were “Fox words.” ESPN, owned by family brand Disney, could only go 80 percent of the way toward what fans want. Fox could give 100 percent.
“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. That passes the smell test of Yeah I get that but it becomes really clear when you look at the portfolios. Both companies are in the cartoon business but they approach it two different ways. They are doing Mickey Mouse and we are doing the Simpsons. Both are cartoons but two very different offerings.
“It’s really most pronounced in the movie space. They are doing Frozen and we are doing Deadpool, right? People know the Fox brand. If I wouldn’t have told you who did Frozen and who did Deadpool, you would have been able to fill in the mad lib appropriately. Both these companies have really strong brand promises. There’s a portfolio difference. How precisely does this benefit us? When we went on that road trip and asked sports fans what they wanted in a show, we added the adjectives and ranked the 12 most common ones: fearless, defiant, insightful, relentless, blunt… these are “Fox words” these are not words people use to describe Frozen or Mickey Mouse.”
Horowitz viewed FS1 as the edgier network, a “Deadpool” to Disney’s “Frozen.” It was a solid pitch. The project was still in development when Horowitz was ousted. But that gritty, less politically correct counter to ESPN never materialized. The edge in 2017 is where politics, race, and sports intersect. FS1 has backed away from it.
FS1 did sign on Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd, two of the most polarizing personalities at ESPN. Bayless had a well-honed reputation for being a troll. Cowherd was known for treading the line with his commentary and occasionally crossing it. The implication from Horowitz was that Disney fuddy-duddies restricted both Bayless and Cowherd. FS1 should have been the forum for those incisive provocateurs to bloom. They haven’t.
To be fair, I have been tracking FS1 daytime programming, not watching it religiously. But a substantial part of my job over the years was monitoring both Bayless and Cowherd for provocative blog material. Perhaps they are getting less exposure on FS1. Maybe “the line” has just moved. But instead of flowering, both figures seem to have become less punchy and less political than they were at ESPN.
It’s hard to see Skip Bayless making race an explicit talking point on Undisputed. Modern Cowherd seems more measured than the guy who blew his way out the door at ESPN with comments about Dominican baseball players. That may be for the betterment of everyone involved and society, but skewing too far the opposite way makes it difficult to get attention.
Horowitz and FS1 have passed by opportunities to get edgier. Horowitz did offer Clay Travis his own show. But it was offered on the condition that he not discuss politics. Travis has built his whole brand on being ready 24/7 with a fearless, defiant take on the hot button issue du jour. FS1 wanted him, but wanted to water him down.
Jason Whitlock is on FS1 daily on Speak For Yourself. He’s still fearless, defiant, blunt, and unapologetic. But he was not featured in Horowitz’s vision presentation, beyond a cameo in the epic text message chain video. Where he has made waves of late has not been on FS1 but appearances on other Murdoch-owned outlets: Fox News, Fox Business, and the Wall Street Journal.
One could include Katie Nolan in there as well. She’s a different sort of “edgy,” more bomb-thrower than iconoclast. Nolan’s humor did feature in Horowitz’s vision presentation. He portrayed it as emblematic of where he wanted Fox to be. Working her situation out was still in flux when Horowitz was let go. But the enduring impression from her FS1 tenure has been FS1 not finding a way to use her (beyond social media girl segments) in well-trafficked situations. If such betting markets existed, they would have Nolan leaving for ESPN, to add a bit more bite to their programming.
— jamesmiller (@JimMiller) July 7, 2017
Edgier and more political commentary may not have worked. FS1 is not Fox News. It’s not a standalone product that can carve out and cultivate a unique audience. The main business of FS1 is broadcasting (and selling advertising on) live sports events. Trolling politically correct liberals may not be an optimal strategy, when you want them to come back for the World Cup.
That said, the hot, rising sports media property right now is Barstool Sports which, throughout its history, has offered that “extra 20 percent” and quite a bit more on occasion. (FS1 did reportedly have talks with Barstool about a linear program.)
Horowitz saying FS1 was the network offering that “extra 20 percent” may have been better than doing so in practice. But, FS1 doing so would at least have offered a clear distinction between the two network’s non-live sports offerings, which has been a major issue for FS1 from day one. Right now, FS1 feels less like The Simpsons and more like “the Mickey Mouse spin-off starring Goofy who was out of contract.”
Without Horowitz, FS1 probably backs further away from the edge and the debate shows morph further into unequivocal promotional vehicles for Fox Sports broadcasting. Get ready for the Bayern Munich takes.