What Does Mark Silverman's Big Ten Network Past Suggest About the Future of Fox Sports?

What Does Mark Silverman's Big Ten Network Past Suggest About the Future of Fox Sports?

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What Does Mark Silverman's Big Ten Network Past Suggest About the Future of Fox Sports?

With Mark Silverman now installed as president of national networks at Fox Sports, the logical question is: what level of continuity will remain? Silverman, who has overseen every aspect of the Big Ten Network since its 2007 genesis, has being given a wide berth — with programming, production, marketing, and digital for Fox, FS1, and FS2 under his purview.

Silverman inherits the vehicles (in addition to a lot more responsibility in oversight of production) previously driven by Jamie Horowitz, whose willingness to traffic in hot takes and fully embrace debate is reflected in the top-line programming of FS1 and FS2. Fox Sports president Eric Shanks has repeatedly said that the company is committed to executing the existing strategy: one that emphasizes strong opinions on studio shows and promoting on-air talent over original journalism.

While I’d anticipate things to remain largely unchanged in the short-term (Charlie Dixon remaining as executive vice president of programming is a giant clue), it’s interesting that Fox went with a person whose work product is so drastically different in tone and tenor. The Big Ten Network has exceeded expectations and provided a blueprint for success and viability. But BTN has done it on the strength of live programming, not the studio shows which largely serve as shoulder programming and a bridge to the next game.

Outside of a few notable exceptions, there is no stand-alone show attempting to reinvent the wheel or weighty salaries necessitating air time in the interest of ROI. Contrast that with FS1, which puts on a caravan of talent-heavy studio programming. Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd are under contract through 2020 and 2019, respectively. The network just threw a bunch of eggs into the Nick Wright-Cris Carter basket with First Things First.

It may be cost-prohibitive to tinker with responsibilities and visibility at the top of the talent pyramid. It may not be in the cards to retreat from the formula that drives these shows — adversarial debate aimed at gaining social traction. But if Silverman doesn’t green-light any changes to the recipe, it will be a deviation from what he did at BTN.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Dave Revsine, arguably the face of BTN, is effusive in his praise for Silverman.

“He just a fabulous boss,” Revsine said. “I cannot state enough how much I like him personally and professionally. I would tell you the same thing on or off the record: His door is always open literally and metaphorically. You always feel like he is available. He doesn’t micromanage, he hires good people and lets them to their thing.”

Multiple reporters and producers who work at the network echoed the sentiment to me. They painted Silverman as someone who works with people, not against them, and as someone willing to let the best possible idea emerge. He may not be inclined to embrace debate as passionately on television as Horowitz, but he did so behind the scenes every day as a boss.

With that in mind, Silverman is more likely to take a scalpel to existing programming than a butcher’s knife. Odds are that the changes will be small, more edits than rewrites, and centered on ancillary offerings as opposed to the bread-and-butter. Second-tier talent and programs could be up for review, especially those unbolded ones not performing up to expectations.

The way the network does highlights could also be up for review. During Silverman’s long tenure in the Chicago, his network maintained a devotion to the traditional highlight — even as ESPN scaled back SportsCenter and Fox all but eliminated them from broadcast. Some of that is surely a reflection of a lack of other viable options, but it could be instructive in a few ways.

First, Silverman’s programming has skewed more toward down-the-middle than commentary-driven. He’s said to appreciate smart takes more than ones that go viral. Perhaps re-launching the nightly sports highlight show is a way to bring that BTN sensibility to a larger stage.

Secondly, on the few occasions BTN has gone off the beaten path, they’ve been able to discover some talent. Consider Jordan Klepper, who now hosts The Opposition on Comedy Central. Klepper and Tim Baltz, who is also on the show and has appeared in Veep, Parks & Recreation and other high-profile sitcoms in recent years, were once correspondents on Friday Night Tailgate — a comedic studio show.

Over the past year, FS1 did not renew the contracts of Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole while canceling Fox Sports Live. Katie Nolan left for ESPN, all but eliminating the potential for a lighthearted nightly answer to Scott Van Pelt’s late SportsCenter. Could Silverman re-explore such a possibility with in-house talent, hoping to catch lightning once more? Two potential candidates from BTN for such a project: Rick Pizzo and Mike Hall, who currently has a weekly variety show (Sports Lite).

Another possibility for Silverman is to take the Big Ten Network’s best program (The Journey) and adapt it. Perhaps no sports program on any channel is as beautiful to watch than the docu-series. With a more diverse package of rights available, the content options are staggering. To not explore a way to translate this success would be malpractice.

Finally, Campus Eats, BTN’s commitment to wholesome, full-calorie Midwestern flavor, is a testament to the idea that compelling programming does not have to be fueled by conflict. Jenny Dell is a star just waiting for a biggest platform and plays a lower-key Guy Fieri quite well. The concept — traveling Big Ten country to find deliciousness — is another easily piggybacked into a nationwide idea.

Again, these are are tweaks and not overhauls. But it is prudent to see what Silverman has been up to and how that work has translated to television as he assumes the reins at Fox. He is not Jamie Horowitz 2.0. How much that’s reflected in the on-air offerings under his guidance remains to be seen.

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