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Low Ratings, Internal Squabbles & a Run at Time Warner: Fox Sports 1's First Year

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The Super Bowl is the premier TV event of the year, always drawing – by far – the largest audience, and often setting records. The 2014 Super Bowl on Fox was another rousing success: 111.5 million people watched Seattle bludgeon Denver, making it the “most watched TV show in US history.”

With a captive audience like that, it was the ideal time for Fox to promote the hell out of its new TV channel, Fox Sports 1. Just a few months earlier, before FS1’s launch in August, network executives were optimistic about FS1’s potential to rival ESPN.

But the Super Bowl came and went, and there was barely a mention of FS1 during Super Bowl week, and only one :30 promo and one :15 promo during the game.

“They had the Super Bowl and could have promoted FS1, their new hosts [on Fox Sports Live], they could have reached 112 million viewers … and they didn’t do anything,” Brad Adgate, the senior Vice President of Research at Horizon Media told The Big Lead this month.

There were even internal grumblings at the network about Fox fumbling the opportunity. “A total swing and a miss,” an employee of the network who didn’t want to be named told The Big Lead. “It was a perfect opportunity to showcase talent and we blew it.”

FS1 quietly had its first birthday last weekend, but there was little to celebrate. In nearly a dozen interviews with employees at Fox, industry insiders and rival network executives, it is clear many viewed FS1’s first year a disappointment, and there was more skepticism than confidence about 2015.

[RELATED: The Honeymoon Phase of the Mike Francesa-Fox Sports 1 Marriage Appears to be Over]

But David Nathanson, the general manager and chief operating officer of FS1 and FS2, insists that there is optimism about year two.

“Our focus was to build a lasting sports brand that would allow Fox Sports to go deeper and bring fans closer to the sports they love,” Nathanson told The Big Lead this month. “We’re building the foundation to do that. There’s a lot of room to grow.”

In the internet age of instant gratification and social media’s warp speed, the question everyone seems to be asking: But how long is it going to take?

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ESPN has a 30+ year head start on Fox Sports 1, and it’s almost as if ESPN is the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers combined – infinite payroll, can afford the best and brightest – and FS1 is an expansion team, finding its way like the Tampa Bay Rays. ESPN executives and decision-makers, none of whom would speak on the record about FS1, seem to agree with one theory: Fox’s “jockularity” crashed and burned quickly.

If Fox Sports 1 thought creating a channel that would be an extension of two shows – their top-rated NFL pregame show, Fox NFL Sunday, and the quasi-TV hit from the 00s, the Best Damn Sports Show Period – would resonate with viewers, they may have misjudged sports fans.

Maybe Fox NFL Sunday is a hit … because it is on right before football games? Perhaps it stomps the other pregame shows in the ratings because the 1 pm games on Fox usually feature a) teams from the largest TV markets (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia) or b) teams with the largest national followings (Cowboys, 49ers)?

The Best Damn Sports Show had its moments a decade ago, but a scaled-down version of it on Fox Sports Live has struggled to gain traction, and seems to be constantly changing, from the format to the talent.

A wise TV man once told me that there are three ways to judge sports TV shows – the money they bring in, the ratings they generate, or the cultural relevance they carry with sports fans. If a show can nail all three of those – say, ESPN’s College Football Gameday – excellent. More likely, shows hit on one, maybe two buckets. At ESPN, Sports Nation makes money; First Take generates ratings and Keith Olbermann’s show is a highbrow hit people watch on You Tube the morning after.

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A case could be made that three original shows on Fox Sports 1 – Crowd Goes Wild, Fox Soccer Daily and Fox Football Daily – didn’t fill any of those buckets, and perhaps as a result, all were cancelled. The lone show that survived, a college football pregame show, has been moved from Saturday morning to Friday at midnight, and it lost host Erin Andrews. According to this press release, the show will feature seven white males.

Ratings for those shows were dismal, and didn’t lead to keeping viewers around for primetime, or gain an audience each week/month.

According to statistics provided to The Big Lead by Adgate, Fox Sports 1 averaged 88,000 male viewers 18-49 years old in prime time over the last 11 months, and a total of 122,000 people 18-49 years old in prime time. ESPN’s numbers were 762,000 and 1,070,000, respectively.

“The hard part about FS1 – Oprah network went through the same thing – is you really don’t get a chance to hide,” Adgate said. “Everybody got the numbers and was scrutinizing them. It was a disservice to think they’d get next-day results.”

Only one new show has been announced for this Fall thus far: A fantasy football show this fall starring Jay Glazer, David Spade, Katie Nolan and a cast of characters.

An industry insider who deals with Fox regularly said this about their programming: “They’re like the CW – if you’re selling a scripted show, you look there, but you hope that’s not where the show ends up.”

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One of the biggest issues that hasn’t been covered much in the media is Fox’s difficult decision about how to treat the Speed TV viewers it acquired when the network changed to FS1.

NBC Sports Network faced the same challenge – it used to be the Outdoor Life Network (1995) then became Versus (2006) and then was re-branded as the NBC Sports Network in 2012.

NBC inherited longtime viewers of the network who actually enjoy the fishing/hunting programs. It’s not millions of viewers, but a significant enough number that to completely alienate them would mean totally losing them – along with advertisers.

For a fledgling network, you can’t completely lose those viewers and that money, so NBC keeps the fishing/hunting shows during the day, and slowly eases into other programming at night and on weekends as it acquires TV rights and creates original shows. It would be quite the jolt for NBCSN to suddenly dump the daytime outdoor shows and introduce a 3-hour block of debate/insider shows.

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FS1 faces the same predicament. It’s going to take some time to transition from taped car races during the day to progressive, smart original programming that pries viewers away from ESPN. When executives compare weekly ratings from Speed TV in early 2013 and see some numbers topping FS1’s offerings in early 2014, what’s a network to do?

“One of the lessons we learned – we came out of the gate with a bunch of different programs, all of which we’re proud of, but we’re constantly assessing and evaluating whether shows make sense to us in the long term,” Nathanson said. “You can expect us to introduce new formats and concepts in our 2nd year.”

The network will need an army of forward-thinking producers and talent, all of which costs money that FS1 doesn’t seem to want to spend right now. One industry insider estimated FS1 and FS2 could have lost up to “nine figures” between the new networks in year one, and “budgets are being slashed.”

And the synergy problem remains an issue for Fox – the radio hosts don’t generate enough juice to push content on Fox Sports.com and TV; there are only a handful of writers who produce scoops or provide thought-provoking content to then go on the radio/TV to talk about it and make it a “story” all day/week.

“Maybe they could hire some big names from ESPN – Stephen A. Smith or Sage Steele,” Adgate theorized. “Fox has 18 or 19 regional sports networks – maybe they could cultivate some of that in-house talent. I think you need a mixture of veterans and kids and hopefully they can click and kind of create something.”

There could be many causes for the lack of original programming – money, reluctance, lack of bodies, whatever – but an industry insider paints this picture: FS1 President Eric Shanks and his then-co-President and co-Chief Operating Officer, Randy Freer, had a falling out in 2013 prior to the launch, and internally, “a large group of white men in their 40s” were battling over territory in a quest to be Shanks’ new No. 2 because things pretty clearly were not working out between the co-Presidents.

Two months after FS1 launched, Freer was named President and COO of Fox Networks group. It was called a “step up” in a press release, but a Fox source who didn’t want to be quoted said that Freer lost a power struggle to Shanks.

“The squabbling led to the network falling behind, and they never really could catch up,” an industry insider said. “None of the shows were executed as they were originally envisioned. And the infrastructure wasn’t there for FS2 – they’re still working on that. And now that the new networks have lost a lot of money, you don’t know how long it’ll be before they get around to original programming again. It could take awhile.”

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And yes, Fox Sports 1 got unlucky. When it landed a TV deal with the Big East, it got the Big East in name only, not the juggernaut conference that was the epicenter of college basketball for much of the 80s, 90s and 00s.

The 2013-2014 watered-down version of the Big East was devoid of powerhouses Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville and Notre Dame. The latter two left – along with Rutgers – after FS1 and Fox struck a deal.

In their place: Creighton, Xavier and Butler (the Bulldogs minus Brad Stevens aren’t the same plucky bunch that went to back-to-back Final 4s a few years ago).

And as a result, the ratings for Big East games were abysmal: 0.0, 0.1 and a couple 0.2 games. MLB regular season games on FS1 so far this season have rated lower than expected.

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If announcing icons Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery are calling a game but nobody is watching, does it even happen?

Which is why you have to wonder: When will Rupert Murdoch make another run at Time Warner? After attempting to purchase the media giant this summer, the media mogul eventually backed down, but the acquisition makes too much business sense for him not to try again.

Time Warner has an impressive sports portfolio – the New Yorker even touched on it recently – but one event stands out above all the other rights: The NCAA Tournament. The only sporting event better than the NCAA Tournament is the World Cup … and Fox has the next two World Cups, 2018 in Russia and 2022 probably in a country TBD following the debacle that was Qatar. One would assume Fox is moving heaven and earth to get the ’22 Cup to the United States.

It’s calling for a bit of a conclusion, but if a Time Warner deal were to go through later this year or next year, one wonders if those games Turner had to bury on TruTV in the first round would be shifted to FS1. It’d be quite a year for FS1 to host World Cup games and important NCAA Tournament games. And by then, Fox will definitely be televising NBA games – that could happen as early as 2015 (if the Time Warner merger happens) but more likely 2016, one night a week (probably Saturday).

Of course, that’s all ridiculously optimistic, and four years (or more) away. By that time, the 2013-2014 first-year struggles of Fox Sports 1 will be completely forgotten.

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