New player on the field
"Fox Sports Live" goes head-to-head with ESPN's "SportsCenter, fielding a team of ex-jocks including Donovan McNabb.
Donovan McNabb, Gary Payton, Andy Roddick, and Gabe Kapler. If all goes well, these men of all (sports) seasons will one day collectively be the answer to a trivia question. Like the original MTV VJs.
They make up the charter panel of ex-jocks assembled by Fox Sports 1 to provide field-level perspective to the new channel's flagship program, Fox Sports Live.
The challenge for FS1, which launched two weeks ago, taking over the cable slot formerly occupied by Speed, is to copy the format of the industry's predominant leader, ESPN, while at the same time add enough bells and whistles to give it a distinct identity.
Like SportsCenter, Fox Sports Live is essentially a full-tilt mix of scores, highlights, and news, introduced by a pair of anchors (in Fox's case, Canadian imports Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole).
Periodically, the camera switches over to McNabb & Co. for a debate of the day's sports issues. The discussions are moderated by the manifestly leggy Charissa Thompson. (Like Fox News, FS1 has an affinity for blonde on-air talent, a roster that includes Julie Stewart-Binks, Molly McGrath, and Georgie Thompson.)
The channel's regular schedule also includes a talk show (Crowd Goes Wild, hosted by Regis Philbin) and daily in-depth programs devoted to specific sports including pro football, soccer, and car racing.
This week, it added Mission October, a sort of Hard Knocks for the baseball diamond. Each week between now and the World Series, the program will deliver an inside-the-dugout look at a different team in the playoff mix.
Preliminary reaction to Fox Sports from the journalists who watch TV sports for a living has been mixed.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch calls it "a mixed bag. I like the highlight readers Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole. They're smart and ironic. It will be interesting to see if they can turn on a dime when real news comes on the air.
"The panel is going to be a long haul," he continues. "The chemistry needs some work and the discussions are disjointed."
Overall he feels "it's a significant work in progress. It's going to be far different on Day 100 than it was on Day 5."
The sports media columnist for the SB Nation website, Stephen Lapore, says, "I like the uniform production style but they haven't figured out yet what they want to be in terms of content and talk.
"The best program so far is Fox Football Daily with Jay Glaser using his relationships with NFL insiders to break stories," Lapore says. "The Fox Sports Live anchors are clever. But Regis seems disengaged [on Crowd Goes Wild]. It's like he's waiting for his agent to call with the next game-show offer."
Challenging an entrenched sovereign like ESPN, is of course, a daunting task.
"ESPN is the CNN of sports news," says Lapore. "It's on in the sports bars, in the hotel bars, in the college cafeterias.
"It's really tough to dig into a franchise like the one ESPN has going. I don't know what Fox has up their sleeve but they better have something," says Philadelphia radio sports talker Mike Missanelli. "When people trust a certain brand, they stick with it. It's like Channel 6 in Philadelphia. All the other channels are always trying to win over their viewers and they can't do it."
Both sides, Fox and ESPN, are keeping the competitive rhetoric mild, not wanting to provide the other guys with quotes to post on the studio wall.
"We have no grand illusions that that we will come on and be a ratings juggernaut," says Bill Wagner, executive vice president of programming at Fox Sports. "We're not setting ratings goals in the near term. We're in this for the long haul. Our success will be judged in years, not weeks or months."
After an impressive opening night, when 1.7 million tuned in to Fox Sports 1 to see a UFC light heavyweight battle between Chael Sonnen and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, the average audience in primetime has settled down to less than a tenth that size.
For its part, ESPN has been buttering up the new kid. "They're a great organization," says Norby Williamson, the channel's executive vice president of programming. "We have a lot of respect for them."
At the same time, ESPN has been aggresively reloading, signing big names like Keith Olbermann, whose eponymous nightly show debuted on ESPN2 this week, and renowned statistician Nate Silver. And SportsCenter just took the wraps off a sprawling, new, high-tech studio.
Fox, meanwhile, is studiously trying to establish an irreverent tone, displaying a willingness to laugh at the sporting world - and at itself.
Returning from a recent commercial break, O'Toole acknowledged his show's distractingly busy graphics, saying, "This is Fox Sports Live, and yes, we do have a lot of stuff on the screens."
"Soon you won't be able to see us at all," Onrait chimed in. "And then we can finally do this show wearing nothing but a pair of Donovan McNabb's multicolored socks. Until then, let's take a trip around the National Football League."
Glaser is also taking the gonzo approach on Fox Football Daily. "For years I had all these crazy, messed-up behind-the-scenes stories," he says, "Now I get to tell them."
One recent anecdote involved waiting in the locker room to do an interview with Peyton Manning. "He's the ultimate practical joker," Glaser says. "One by one he has his teammates come in completely naked and weigh themselves. The first guy comes in and I'm on the phone. The next guy comes in and there's no way I can miss this because he goes into a stretching routine a foot in front of me. I turn around and see Peyton, laughing hysterically. That's the kind of story that will separate us."
It's going to take more than raunchy jock stories to make Fox Sports 1 succeed. In order to reach a critical mass of viewers, the channel will need to acquire the rights to top-tier events.
And that's why the real winner in this cable rivalry may end up being the sports leagues and conferences.
"I think Fox will aggressively go after the NBA in two years," says S.I.'s Deitsch. "I don't know if they'll win because the league is very happy with ESPN and Turner. But they will be a player in the negotiations.
"The commissioner of the NBA is David Stern now, but it will be Adam Silver for the next negotiation," Deitsch says. "Imagine you walk in the door at your first meeting with the owners and tell them, 'I just got you an 80 percent raise.' You're an instant hero."
Oh, and lest we forget: the orginal MTV VJs? Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, and Alan Hunter.