It’s kind of a funny story.
Fox Sports Wonderful – otherwise known as Fox Sports 1 to those who’ve already seen the half-hour infomercials after every Dodgers and Angels game lately – has been in this ready-or-not, here-we-come overdrive for the last few months. It has splattered promos, press conferences and personality profiles every which direction to make sure we know there’s a planet-altering launch about to happen on Saturday.
Along with that, it should be pointed out, comes the simultaneous appearance of Fox Sports 2. The first replaces Speed channel; the second supplants the Fuel channel. It’s a tag-team effort.
Fueled by talking points that seem to speedily circle back to how much “fun” they’re all about to put back into sports, the momentum for these best damn new sports channels has been growing like fungus around Fox’s L.A.-based campus.
But who was going to buy into it?
For weeks, the dish, satellite and teleco carriers who may have only been mildly annoyed in having to charge about a quarter a month to subscribers of Speed and Fuel balked as expected about having to approve a jump in the neighborhood of 80 cents to its customers, with the likelihood it would double somewhere down the road.
It took some compromising to verify today that DirecTV, Dish and Time Warner Cable will each have FS1 and FS2 for the launch, but all may not be so tidy yet.
Fox can claim, as it did in its press release, that “every major distributor (is) on board, making this the biggest sports cable network launch in history, and one of the largest network launches ever.” That’s a 90-million home landing area.
But sources in the industry who are familiar with DirecTV’s situation say the company has not signed a deal and it could be weeks, or even months, before the satellite provider does so. Until then, distributors will allowed Fox to upgrade Speed to FS1 as long as there is no extra charge for the channel.
Once the real price kicks in, expect some fundamental push-and-pull on both sides.
“Having everyone on board speaks to the strength of the product and the investment Fox has made, and it speaks to the partnerships we have with distributors – we can work things out without a big public spat, which is good for everyone and we don’t have this hanging around all weekend (during the launch),” Fox Sports co-President & co-COO Eric Shanks said this morning.
Shanks, a former DirecTV big wig who has seen these things get unraveled from the other end, says he can now focus more on what really seems to frighten him the most – measuring first impressions versus the long haul for any FS1/FS2 success.
When they flip the FS1 switch at 3 a.m. Saturday, the underwhelming highlights of the live coverage will consist of practice runs from the NASCAR and World Truck Series in Michigan, followed by an impressive UFC card at 5 p.m. highlighted by Chael Sonnen against “Shogun” Rua.
That feeds into the first “Fox Sports Live” studio show at 8 p.m., a news-and-infotainment entity that could siphon viewers away from ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and be positioned to snuff out Keith Olbermann’s re-appearance on ESPN2 starting Aug. 26.
Monday is the first airing of L.A.-based studio shows such as “Fox Soccer Daily” (1 p.m.) and “Fox Football Daily” (3 p.m.), surrounding the New York-produced “Crowd Goes W!ld” (2 p.m.), hosted by 81-year-old Regis Philbin, if you happen to be curious.
See what they did there with the title – the “i” is replaced by . . . never mind.
Until some real rights-fee contracts start to take effect in 2014 and 2015, the live event content will be a minimalist mash-up of more minor motor sports, some overseas soccer games, boxing matches, poker shows, rugby . . . a lot of the back-of-the-closet stuff you thought you already bypassed as filler on Fox Sports West or Prime Ticket but were afraid to look between the infomercials for reverse osmosis vacuum cleaners.
While college football that has previously been on Fox Sports Net or FX will be redirected to FS1 in the coming weeks – including USC hosting Washington State on Sept. 7 and Arizona on Oct. 10, UCLA at home vs. Utah on Oct. 3 — the major game stuff (NFL, MLB, marquee college football) will stay on Fox’s national network for the time being.
And as for those who’ve taken to comparing this FS1 thing as a challenge to ESPN in the way Fox News came out of nowhere to shake up CNN in the political news genre, that angle really doesn’t seem to concern Shanks.
Even if it was Fox Senior Executive vice president David Hill who said early on: “We have to convince the sports-viewing public that what we have on offer is better — or as good as — what ESPN has been offering.”
“The people writing about it are absolutely making a bigger deal than how we think of it internally,” said Shanks. “We’d be doing this whether there’s competition or not. That doesn’t mean we’re not competitive. We really believe there’s room for an alternative voice and sports is an area with lots of room. But on a day to day basis, when we’re making a show rundown, we’re not thinking about what ESPN is doing. We do what we want to do at Fox.
“It’s understandable (for the comparisons). The ratings will come out, they’re public, and that’s the easiest way to compare. But we know from Day 1 we have a lot of work to do, we’re clearly an underdog, and a work in progress.
“There’s always an opportunity for us to adjust and react. Mistakes are bound to happen. But we really don’t think about failure. We don’t sit around and say, ‘Gosh, if this show does this number it won’t be on the grid.’ We’re not an entertainment channel measured by the hits we make. This is a long-term build to reaching a point in 2015 where we will have NASCAR Sprint Cup races, MLB League Championship Series games, U.S. Open golf, the World Cup . . .
“But then, as much as we want to say it’s a marathon — and it is – first impressions always count, too. Our ‘opening night’ may last a month or couple of month, but once the curtain is lifted and people see it, it’s exciting and scary with all creative work being seen and judged for the first time.”
You know Bristol, Conn., will be watching, and judging, and adjusting as well. In just the last week, ESPN snagged high-profile Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, a move Shanks admits “was a blow” to the company that had plans to incorporate his unique voice in news and studio shows.
ESPN chief John Skipper has been pulled into the media crossfire in explaining how the Worldwide Leader in Sports might have to go back and develop a counterattack to all the fun bombs apparently headed for the skies above us.
“If all you’re going to do is have fun, I’m not quite sure how you’re going to handle Johnny Manziel or a scandal at Penn State,” Skipper told the Hollywood Reporter. “The sports world is large and complex and requires lots of tones and abilities. I think their position is fairly limiting, and I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that we’re the boring old dreadful storm troopers.”
Fox bosses content they’ll transgress efficiently between sports “news” and sports “jocularity” with its “Fox Sports Live” nightly show, which is split up between a desk of two anchors on one side – Canadian imports Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole — and an feng shui’d arrangement of ex-athletes like Gary Payton, Andy Roddick and Donovan McNabb waiting to out-talk each other on the opposite end.
What FS1 will likely have endure for a time is that in trying to tickle viewers’ funny bones every which way, it runs the risk of having other people making fun of it.
Fox doesn’t see this as a be-funny-or-die proposition. It depends on your perspective.
“Rupert (Murdoch, the patriarch of the Fox Networks) always says that of all the things he’s done, he’s not prone to looking backward,” said Shanks. “With Fox Sports now being here 20 years (formed in 1994 when it bought the NFL’s NFC rights), we could be waxing poetic about all that. But we happen to be here starting something new. That’s kinda neat.
“It’s scary, because you work so hard with a lot of talented people behind the scenes, with no one watching, then you flip the switch and get judged by viewers.”
Funny how that works.
== If NBC could figure out how to include Jason Sudeikis every step of the way as the confused American coach promoting its English Premier League soccer coverage, it would be a jolly good thing. The bottom line is that NBC Sports will rely on knowledgeable Americans to navigate through its plan to show all 380 EPL matches, which they clearly tout to be a task that isn’t even done in the United Kingdom. It starts with five games this weekend on NBC Sports Network and Channel 4 this weekend, with Arlo White subbed into the international feed as the main play-by-play man, Lee Dixon and Grame Le Saux as the featured analysts, and a studio show hosted by Rebecca Lowe and including Kyle Martino, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe will appear before and after many of the telecasts. Martino insists NBC won’t change how the games are covered based on what Sky Sports in the U.K. has already established, but that NBC will “stay true to the authenticity and history there, and add some of these little aspects that NBC is known for when it comes to storytelling.” NBC is also giving free to dish, cable and teleco companies its “Premiere League Extra Time” package – some 184 games that won’t be on the NBC networks, as long as the viewer already has access to NBC Sports Net through their system.
== Al Michaels, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently in Canton, Ohio, is the headliner among seven named Thursday as the Class of 2013 for the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, set for Dec. 17 in New York. The announcement was made at the SVG/Variety Sports Entertainment Summit at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. The hall that honors many executives and innovators as well as broadcasters will also add Howard Katz, the current NFL senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations who also had years at ABC and ESPN; and Mickey Wittman, who refined the first aerial camera first attached to a blimp,
== Former NFL player Hugh Douglas vows he’ll have more to say about what led to ESPN firing him this week from the “Numbers Never Lie” show, the aftermath of a racially-charged and alleged intoxicated confrontation he had with co-host Michael Smith at a National Association of Black Journalists party in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 2. “I am very disappointed to be leaving ESPN and will have more to say about this situation and my future at the appropriate time,” Douglas apparently said in a tweet when it happened.