Mark Silverman

From the outside, FS1 is still largely associated with the “embrace debate” model brought in by former Fox Sports president of national networks (and former ESPN and NBC executive) Jamie Horowitz during his time there, which started in September 2015, included the dismantling of everything from to Garbage Time and Fox Sports Live (both 2.0 and 3.0), and ended in July 2017 with Horowitz’s firing amidst sexual harassment allegations (he’s now reportedly a consultant for DAZN). But now, they’re at least publicly trying to disassociate themselves from being all about debate.

Horowitz spoke over and over again about wanting to emulate Fox News (by positioning itself as “provocative and opinion oriented“) and claimed FS1 could debate things ESPN wouldn’t. He launched debate shows like Undisputed and Speak For Yourself, and saw debate as a tentpole of the network’s programming, arguing that Skip Bayless boosted ratings for the shows around him. And even after Horowitz’s departure, FS1 largely stuck with the debate plan.

But Fox finally officially filled Horowitz’s president of national networks role in January 2018 with Big Ten Network’s Mark Silverman (previously, they’d had Fox Sports president and now-CEO Eric Shanks overseeing FS1 personally, with help from other executives like executive VP of content Charlie Dixon, a Horowitz hire), and some recent comments from Silverman suggest the network’s philosophy is changing and they’re trying to publicly emphasize the non-debate parts of their content as well. Joe Reedy of The Associated Press published a feature on FS1 Wednesday, and it starts with quite an interesting quote from Silverman:

“We’ve grown past ‘embrace debate.’ I think we’re a more mature network now,” said Mark Silverman, the president of Fox Sports national networks. “I think we have some shows with a little more element of debate and others that are smart, entertaining and interesting to sports fans.”

That quote could be picked apart if you really want to break it down, especially with Silverman’s description of their two categories as “debate” and “smart, entertaining and interesting to sports fans.” And the discussion of “grown past ’embrace debate'” seems a bit odd, considering that FS1’s highest-profile and highest-rated show is still Undisputed (clearly a debate show). Also, Speak For Yourself continues to be debatey even after Colin Cowherd’s exit and Marcellus Wiley’s entrance; in February, that show spent 21 minutes debating if “being an only child has contributed to the toxic environment around LeBron James.”

Those aren’t the only shows on the network, of course, but their profile means they get much of the attention. And while Cowherd’s The Herd may not technically be “debate,” it’s often got some of those elements, just with Cowherd himself lobbing out strong takes instead of going back and forth with a debate partner. (There are even some cases where it is a bit of the latter, when you have a Joel Klatt or a Baker Mayfield on the show.) So it’s, say, debatable, just how much FS1 has “grown past” debate.

But the larger sentiment of Silverman’s remarks is interesting, and it maybe brings some further context to FS1’s current identity and to where he wants to take it. FS1’s moves in Silverman’s tenure (primarily, Cowherd re-upping to host The Herd but leaving Speak For Yourself, Wiley entering Speak For Yourself, and the launches of Kristine Leahy interview show Fair Game and gambling show Lock It In) haven’t really seemed to signal a bold shift from FS1’s previous content in their own right, but they are perhaps a little different than what Horowitz-era FS1 focused on.

And hearing “grown past ’embrace debate’ from an executive in Silverman’s position is notable, as it suggests that if there are further new shows launched, they may not be debate shows. And it’s certainly notable to have Fox’s president of national networks talking about “smart, entertaining, and interesting” shows rather than how he plans to emulate Fox News’ line of opinion. But don’t expect FS1 to radically reinvent itself any time soon; further comments from Dixon and Silverman to Reedy suggest that there aren’t any further moves on the horizon beyond a WWE studio show this fall, and that the primary plan right now is to let their existing shows grow:

Charlie Dixon, FS1′s executive vice president of content, said the goal for the remainder of the year is to keep building on what the studio shows have accomplished. The only new show on the horizon is a weekly look at the WWE, which will premiere in the fall when “WWE Smackdown” moves to Fox.

“The hardest thing to do is not touch it. There are growing pains with any relationship and shows,” he said. “We need to learn from them, and we all need to be on the same page.”

…“We are still growing and finding our way. We may have been overly ambitious coming out of the gate,” Silverman said. “We had to learn and find out what is working and bring in a couple guys and shows we can build off of.”

We’ll see what the future holds for FS1. As Reedy notes, they saw some ratings growth last year (28 percent overall), and placed third in total day numbers behind ESPN and NBCSN (the latter of which got a big Olympics boost). They even edged out ESPN2 for the first time (176,000 to 173,000 total-day viewers), although that has a lot to do with ESPN2 dialing back its own original content and mostly rerunning ESPN studio shows during the day. And Nielsen has them seeing some first-quarter growth, with Undisputed and The Herd both up three percent (to averages of 148,000 and 108,000 viewers respectively); those numbers aren’t huge by many standards, but they seem to work for FS1.

Overall, though, it’s maybe more notable to wonder about where the channel’s going from an identity perspective, and Silverman’s comments here illustrate that it’s not all debate-focused these days. Comments only mean so much, though, especially when they’re as general as those ones. The proof will be with what further shows are, if and when Silverman does launch those. And what’s going to be really interesting is what happens when Bayless’ contract (reportedly an average of $5.5 million annually for four years) comes up next fall. Then we’ll find out just how much FS1 still wants to embrace debate.

[The Associated Press]; Silverman screencap from Wochit Entertainment on YouTube]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.