Inside Blitz is the only sports/media/gambling column on the internet. To email the author: Jmcintyre at thebiglead dot com.
In 2013, there was a tremendous piece in the New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh about the cable news TV networks trying to figure out what the audience really wants. Fox News, which arrived to the cable news scene 16 years after CNN, quickly understood one key to reeling in viewers – strong opinion – and it didn’t take long for the network to surpass CNN in the ratings game. From the New Yorker piece:
On Fox, the anchors and commentators can seem like protagonists, doing battle with the “pinheads”—one of O’Reilly’s favorite terms—who just don’t get it. This battle needn’t be explicitly ideological: the network has always had a weakness for titillating legal stories and for celebrity misbehavior. But if the CNN approach emphasizes reporters chasing news around the world, the Fox News approach suggests that the real news is being made right in the studio, by the hosts themselves.
In sports, live events dominate nighttime programming. But over the last decade, ESPN began to generate controversy – and ratings and revenue – on ESPN2 thanks to the opinion of its studio hosts. By almost any metric you choose, a ranking of sports cable TV destinations for studio programming goes ESPN, ESPN2 and the trio of CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 lumped together in spots 3-5.
But, roughly 20 months after its debut, Fox Sports 1 appears to be on the verge of a significant breakthrough: Making bold, controversial hires that signal the network could be moving in a different direction.
Over the weekend, Fox hired combative, polarizing MLB legend Pete Rose to be a baseball analyst. Rose came out of the womb ornery, and at the spry age of 74, he instantly rises to the top of MLB analysts you want to hear from (even though his sartorial selection leaves something to be desired). Fewer advanced stats and more blunt honesty? Yes, please. No filter and never speaking with a thought of what the always-angry twitter mob might say? Check.
Rose appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.
If sources at ESPN and Fox Sports are correct, FS1 will announce in the coming days that it is hiring Jamie Horowitz – yes, the showrunner who brought Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless together on ESPN’s successful and loathed First Take – to preside in some capacity over sports . The sides have been speaking since January, an offer was presented a month ago, and barring a major surprise, Horowitz is headed to LA.
I discussed this on my radio show earlier this month with Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch (audio here, Apr. 12, 38 minute mark), and we both agree: If FS1 hires Horowitz, other dominoes could fall in the coming months that might have the network looking completely different in 2016.
Much has been written about Horowitz – following a quick exit from the Today Show, he was savaged in this Vanity Fair piece about Brian Williams – but his track record at ESPN was impressive: Created SportsNation (which the internet briefly loved!), was the only producer willing to take on Keith Olbermann upon his return to the network (another Horowitz show the internet loved!), “finding” Michelle Beadle and Charissa Thompson, and most importantly, his willingness to take embrace debate and create controversy.
And on that note, let’s hear from CNN’s Jeff Zucker, who had a memorable quote in this must-read on CNN anchor Don Lemon:
“There’s certainly a lot of interest in Don Lemon, and that’s a good thing for Don and for CNN. You know, Don is a little bit of a lightning rod. Frankly, we needed a little bit of lightning.”
And that’s what FS1 lacks, a lightning rod. Rose is a start, but if you have spent any time watching the debate shows on ESPN, you’ll see baseball isn’t a sport that is as conducive to the format as the NBA and NFL. Horowitz would begin to take the network down that road. Does FS1 want to merely exist, or does it want to pull away from CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network and make a run at ESPN2?
Plausible scenario: Horowitz brings over Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd – whose contracts are up in the next 10 months – and starts stirring the debate pot. In two hires, Fox could take away ESPN’s #2 radio draw (based on revenue) and potentially put an end to First Take – another lucrative show – because Stephen A. Smith has said to more than a few people at ESPN he wouldn’t do the show without Skip.
In 2013, ESPN President John Skipper made several bold moves – hiring Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock, in addition to stealing Nate Silver’s site from the New York Times and giving Dan LeBatard (controversial!) a TV show and prime radio real estate.
And if Horowitz really wanted to generate headlines, what if he did something like: Instead of putting debate on in the morning, why not at 6 pm, opposite ESPN’s signature brand, Sportscenter? Or how about shaking up Fox Sports Live by changing the format to a debate show and doing away with the highlights that everyone’s already seen online?
To take it a step further – FS1 brings in a few more rabble-rousers to appeal to millennials, starts to make use of its bevy of newsbreakers – like Jay Glazer, Mike Garafolo – and go after ESPN’s mid-day shows?
It took 20 months, but Fox Sports 1 appears to be on the verge of making some smart, bold moves.
ODDS & ENDS
Tweets you don’t expect to see: ESPN reporter unhappy that ESPN didn’t get the Tim Tebow scoop since he, you know, works for ESPN … the most disappointing Pulitzer news: Writer who just won a Pulitzer this week had already left his newspaper for PR because the money was better … watching Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN? Agree with this, or disagree? … yes, Magic Johnson is right: A TV squabble has not hurt the Dodgers’ brand … Maryland’s college newspaper will only print one day a week … after 11 years with the team, the Hornets are looking for a new play-by-play guy … ESPN’s Shelley Smith, who is going through chemo to battle breast cancer, will return to the network April 30th … and finally, Alex Flanagan nails it on the Britt McHenry saga:
“No publicity is bad publicity” seems truer today than ever before. In our oversaturated TV market, executives want people who stand out, ones that can move the needle. It seems like more often than not, they don’t care what’s behind what’s making the needle move. The outcome of McHenry’s insensitive behavior is a higher Q-rating, an increase in Twitter followers and an explosion of Google hits when you search her name on the internet. In the long run, it will probably lead to her climbing the corporate ladder even quicker.
The only way the tow truck incident hurts Britt McHenry in the long run is if she has another debacle.