By Zach Arnold | July 18, 2013
One of my favorite sports sites, Awful Announcing, has been doing a great job in covering the impending launch of the Fox Sports 1 channel. I’ve always had a soft spot for Awful Announcing but they have really stepped up their game lately and two reports on their site deserve your attention.
With four big fight cards coming up for UFC in August, the launch of Fox Sports 1 is critical for Zuffa’s success. The channel needs to be strong. So, having a big launch will be important. Given that FS1 is a rebranding of the Speed channel, you would think that the launch would be easier… but Fox Sports 1 is having trouble with cable and satellite companies. The problem? Carriage fees.
According to a report in this week’s Sports Business Journal, John Ourand reports that three cable and satellite providers, Dish Network, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are still negotiating carriage agreements. Awful Announcing has learned that a fourth provider is also negotiating and perhaps balking at Fox’s proposed 80 cents per subscriber cost. In Ourand’s report, the deal to carry Fox Sports 1 would eventually increase to $1.50 per subscriber.
The whole financial model for Fox Sports 1 is to basically accomplish what ESPN has accomplished, which is swallow up your television bill with an excessively high carriage fee in order to make an exorbitant profit. It’s the whole point of all of the Fox Sports television properties, from the regional networks to the Big Ten channel. When Rutgers entered the Big Ten, the excuse publicly was that it would be good for recruiting to enter into the New York market. The real answer as to why Rutgers was so key for the Big Ten is that the Murdoch empire would be able to soak up carriage fees on cable/satellite systems in the Northeast. So, everyone who is a subscriber has to pay for the carriage fee whether or not they actually watch the station in the first place.
If the television providers balk at the FS1 carriage price, then that puts a damper on FS1 expansion plans. Furthermore, it reminds us to John McCain’s attempts to create an a la carte system for pay TV subscribers. Such a system would basically slash ESPN’s revenue by at least 50% and shrink the universe in terms of number of cable channels in existence because many conglomerates own a family of channels (think: Discovery, A & E, Lifetime, etc. in same universe) and a la carte would burst that bubble.
So, negotiation over carriage fees is one hurdle for FS1. However, these types of disputes generally end up in some sort of settlement no matter how nasty they get publicly. That’s one issue. The second issue, however, is much more critical regarding the creative direction of Fox Sports 1 as a channel. If Fox Sports 1 wants to be a serious player, they need to be a real alternative to ESPN and part of that strategy should be focusing on the fundamentals of reporting and doing the things right that ESPN currently is not. The celebrification of sports by ESPN creates a myriad of conflicts, tension, and frankly some unwatchable programming on the network. It also impacts what kind of reporting is done on Sportscenter regarding stories that should or should not be focused on.
Awful Announcing warns, however, that Fox Sports 1 will be an ESPN alternative… but will it be the one many critics want?
A quote Fox Sports senior vice-president (marketing) Robert Gottlieb gave to Cynopsis (via Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch) is interesting on that front:
“It’s pretty simple, while it’s not a tagline, the message is that it’s time for sports to be fun again. There’s the perception that sports and sports television has gotten too corporate and fans ultimately want to come for fun. The fun of the great comeback, the fun of performances that we will never forget that give you goose bumps. It’s not about steroids, Tim Tebow and other BS that keep getting crammed down our throat. So for FOX Sports 1, it’s in our DNA. We make things more fun, more colorful and more vivid and that’s our position of what we are promising to viewers. Fans want an alternative.”
So, if we’re to believe Fox Sports management, the ‘alternative’ to ESPN will basically be a Spike-ified version of a sports channel. Or, to put it more grotesquely, a Best Damn Sports Show Period programming cycle on steroids. I guess they can put the clip of James Toney dropping his pants in a parking lot on a loop.
Robert Gottlieb is right — sports fans want an alternative. They want a network that will honestly report on all sports leagues, including the ones in which the network has television & business relationships with. That has been a heavy point of contention between viewers and ESPN for many years. What viewers seeking for an alternative from ESPN want is a network with a more serious approach to reporting. They want a network that is willing to go against the establishment and do things in a non-corporate fashion.
When Fox Sports talks about wanting to be different than ESPN, we should take them at their word. Both Fox & ESPN have deals with Major League Baseball. On the various Fox properties, the issue of baseball’s drug problem is rarely discussed. On ESPN, however, they have let their A-team tackle the steroid scandals in baseball and the network has done a remarkable job of reporting what is happening with baseball’s drug culture. Bob Ley with Outside the Lines and TJ Quinn, the gold standard of all scandal writers, have carried the day and brought an amazing amount of sunlight onto baseball’s biggest drug users. Pedro Gomez also has done remarkable work. This is ESPN’s strength. Despite ESPN/Disney having so much cash tied into MLB, the network has made the conscious decision to let Quinn and others do their job. The proof is in the pudding.
This is what viewers respect about ESPN. They just wish ESPN would be aggressive in reporting on all their sports properties and acknowledging the competition when it comes to reporting on big stories.
So, when Fox Sports management starts mocking ESPN about their core strengths, it’s a warning sign of things to come. Those looking for an ESPN alternative aren’t looking for Skip Bayless wannabes. They aren’t looking for softball-style celebrification programming. They want red meat. So far, NBC Sports Network has failed big in this category. It’s why their upcoming Premier League agreement is really a make-or-break moment for the network’s future. The NHL is the only sports property saving NBCSN in terms of relevance. Who would have ever thought that OLN slash Versus slash NBCSN would be nostalgic for the days of WEC events?
Right now, all sports league have drug problems. However, the UFC & MMA in general has a really bad drug culture. From pain killers to testosterone to diuretics, combat sports right now is as dirty as horse racing and track & field. The UFC is the face of this problem in Mixed Martial Arts, given how many high-profile names are testosterone users and are not punished for such drug usage. When a drug scandal rocks the UFC in the future, and it will soon enough, how will Fox Sports 1 handle the situation? What will the critics of ESPN, looking for an alternative sports network with gravitas, think then?
If we are to gather how serious a network Fox Sports 1 will be, then it’s fair to say that the recent hirings the network has made will give us a clue as to what ‘alternative’ means. They have Jay Onrait & Dan O’Toole from TSN for comedy. They have their own college football version of Skip Bayless, mind you a more polished & presentable version, in Clay Travis. And then there are the impending flood of ESPN refugees like No-Charissa-ma Thompson & Mike Hill. Will these personalities be heavy hitters when it comes to handling major sports stories like drug scandals, given the current philosophy of Fox Sports management?
When Fox Sports talks about being an ‘alternative’ to ESPN, most people assume that they will aim to be a sports network with a more serious, cutting, biting programming philosophy. Instead, it appears that they are going to go for the Michelle Beadle playbook. Beadle, the former host of Sportsnation, never believed in taking sports seriously and always felt that sports coverage needed a strong tie-in with pop culture. After she left Sportsnation, she went to NBCSN for Olympics coverage but has now moved onto Access Hollywood and hosting episodes of Breaking Amish on TLC. I kid you not.
If Fox Sports 1 goes for the full Beadle-ification, then don’t expect the network to cover any scandals involving the UFC seriously at all. It will open the door, however, for ESPN to go after sports properties closely aligned with Fox. The UFC has had an amazing ability to control their message recently on ESPN. They had Chris Weidman do the Bristol car wash and got the network to allegedly go along with a request to not show the actual finishing punches from the Weidman/Silva fight. Will this blackout policy extend to the promotion of the rematch in December?
Let’s see how long that creative control lasts with Bristol once Fox Sports 1 is active and ignores scandals involving sports properties they have relationships with.