Fox’s much-anticipated jump into the world of cable sports networks is set to commence on August 17, when Fox Sports 1 will officially launch. The network has big aims — its no secret that it wants to challenge ESPN’s cable empire, and it is well-positioned to do that. Fox already has the rights to highly valuable sports properties, broadcasting Major League Baseball, the NFL, NASCAR, and college football, and it’s going to get even bigger in the future when it broadcasts the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Fox Sports 1 will give it the cable partner it needs to, in theory, challenge the ESPN-ABC juggernaut, and Rupert Murdoch has experience in tackling giants in the TV world: Fox News quickly became a major player in cable news and Sky Sports helped the company break into sports broadcasting in Britain. Originally, I was hopeful it would provide a breath of fresh air in the world of sports television. But I found this part of Bloomberg Businessweek’s look into how the network plans to proceed with its approach to sports and its flagship show disappointing:
The structure of Fox Sports Live, which will feature the usual highlight packages along with guests and analyses, depends heavily on Onrait and O’Toole’s schtick. “Our humor is going to take some time,” says O’Toole. “We’re not going to come in there and stuff it down people’s throats, but Jay Onrait is very unpredictable. He may drop his pants.”
Around the FS1 offices, the words “fun” and “irreverent” are thrown around to describe everything. Scott Ackerson, one of the producers who created Fox NFL Sunday, says ESPN does a great job “teaching about sports, educating. Most of their shows deal with X’s and O’s. We’re not going to do the traditional, everything-is-a-game story. … We are going to have football players talking about baseball, Andy Roddick talking about basketball. This is going to be elite athletes having fun.”
Fox’s idea is that fans are bored by informative talk about sports, and that what the sports media needs is even more irreverence. So instead of delivering programming that might inform the debate you’re having with your bar buddies, it’s going to produce shows that mimic the debates you have with your bar buddies. Perhaps it’s just me, but listening to anchors tell endless jokes while Andy Roddick, a tennis player, talks about basketball sounds fairly awful. And I’m guessing the general audience will feel the same way, since Fox has already tried this before. Remember The Best Damn Sports Show Period? That was a cable sports show built around concepts like “jockularity” and humor, and it regularly featured comedians and former athletes talking broadly about sports. It lasted eight years but was fresh for about 15 minutes, and it spent its last couple years doing endless highlight countdown videos until Fox finally put it out of its misery in 2009.
Best I can tell, Fox Sports Live is supposed to be competition for SportsCenter, but what it sounds like is a different version of First Take or Sports Nation. So forgive me if I’m a little turned off by the fact that Fox is thinking of basing its new network in part on the same concept that gave us a terrible show with a similar irreverence. ESPN needs an on-air competitor, particularly because its own in-house daily programming has gotten quite stale. Competition has driven ESPN to improve its print and web products, and it could do the same for TV. I don’t doubt that Fox Sports 1 will continue the company’s solid coverage of live sporting events. But if “jockularity” becomes the network’s driving principle, I’m beyond skeptical that it will deliver — or push ESPN to develop — the type of quality sports programming fans and viewers actually deserve.