For FS1, Opinion Rules the Day

When Jamie Horowitz took the reins of FS1 as president of Fox Sports National Networks in 2015, he decided to chart a new course for the three-year-old service. He put a heavy emphasis on opinion-themed, sports-centric talk shows during the network’s daytime block, rather than try to compete with the tried-and-true news/information format that became a cornerstone of its closest competitor ESPN, through its SportsCenter franchise.

“What we realized was the people don’t want to get sports information anymore in the mornings — they’ve already discussed what happened during the game with their buddies and their family and now they want to know whether their takes are as interesting as the shows we have on the network,” FS1 executive vice president of content Charlie Dixon explained. “We knew we had to create habit-forming programming — people want to know what they’re going to get every day.”

Horowitz was intimately familiar with ESPN, having joined the network as a senior producer in 2006 and serving as the network’s executive vice president of original programming and production — launching such programs as ESPN2’s popular sports-debate show First Take — before leaving in 2014 to head up NBC’s Today.

In 2015, FS1 set out to aggressively seek out the biggest names in TV sports talk to sit behind its cameras and microphones. In August of that year, FS1 and Horowitz signed longtime ESPN talk-show host Colin Cowherd to helm the afternoon sports-talk show The Herd.

This past September, veteran sports-talk personality and ex-First Take co-host Skip Bayless and former National Football League star Shannon Sharpe joined the roster for Undisputed, a new morning sports-debate show that firms up a daytime block of original, talk-themed content that Horowitz hoped would appeal to viewers who already knew the day’s breaking sports news of the day but wanted to gain perspective from a variety of different opinions and outlooks.

“Jamie Horowitz is the reason I came over to Fox Sports,” Bayless told Multichannel News. “Jamie took a big risk on me at ESPN and I like to think it paid off, and then fate struck again and I had the ability to reunite with him at Fox. I couldn’t have been more excited about the opportunity.”

The experiment seems to be working. After only two months on the air, Undisputed has grown audience for its 10 a.m. to noon timeslot by 400% year over year and, more importantly from a competition standpoint, has closed the gap to ESPN from a factor of 23:1 to a 3:1 ratio.

Further under Horowitz’s tutelage, FS1 has cut into ESPN’s audience lead on a total-day basis in 2016 from 8:1 to 4:1, in large part to its growth in daytime hours and the success of its primetime live event programming. FS1 set ratings marks in October and was the most watched network in primetime among all cable networks for two weeks straight (Oct. 10-Oct. 23) on the strength of live Major League Baseball playoff coverage — specifically of the Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers National League Championship series.

Horowitz, in the spotlight as Multichannel News Sports Brand Executive of the Year (sharing honors with WNBA president Lisa Borders), spoke with MCN programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the evolution of FS1 and what’s next for the national sports service.

MCN:Was there a big adjustment for you working at Fox Sports, particularly after having been successful at ESPN?

Jamie Horowitz: I think I told my boss [Fox Sports president and chief operating officer Eric Shanks] during the interview that I’ve always been a Fox guy, but I’ve just worked other places. There’s a fearlessness to the Murdoch spirit. I think that’s really one of the many reasons I was excited to join Fox is because when we did market research and we asked sports fans what do you want in a sports network, the words they would use — not knowing Fox was asking — were honest, combative and filled with risks. They think they’re describing just a sports network, but they were describing the values that we hold dear here, so I knew this would be a great match.

MCN:Obviously, your biggest competitor remains the well-established ESPN sports brand. How did you want to position FS1 against its biggest competitor?

JH: First, I want to say I love ESPN. Not only did I love it as an employee while working under [ESPN president] John Skipper, but I also loved it as a consumer. I grew up on SportsCenter and, in a lot of ways, ESPN and Fox are in the same business. But to me there are four different components of being a sports network: there’s live events; there’s pre- and post-game shows; there’s news and highlights; and there’s opinion based programs. We’re making a big bet on live events and so is ESPN. We’re making a big bet on pre- and post-game shows; so is ESPN.

ESPN is making a big bet on news and information: 54% of their schedule is SportsCenter. We’re making a big bet on opinion-based programming. The thing that helps build a brand for a company and that eats up a ton of hours are the daily shows. So one of the changes we made when we joined FS1 is that we were going to make a huge investment in opinion-based programming, and that will be our source of differentiation.

When you wake up in the morning, I just think sports fans go to the phone to get the headlines and the highlights, then they turn on the TV to find people with perspective. And that’s the bet we’ve made with Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, Colin Cowherd, Katie Nolan and Jason Whitlock — you are seeing us make these bets time and again.

MCN:How have those bets paid off at this particular point?

JH: We’ve improved the time period by 400% — it looks like a typo. Someone could say its coming from a low base, and I’d say that’s the point. The point is that people weren’t coming and now they are in record numbers. It’s amazing — from 10 a.m. to [noon], we saw the [audience ratio] in that timeslot was 23:1 [compared to ESPN]. That’s like me playing my 7-year-old son in basketball. Now it’s 3:1 — some days its less than 2:1. It’s incredible.

MCN:Some will say that that improvement came at a high cost of acquiring the talent that you just mentioned.

JH: There’s a great misunderstanding about these shows from a financial point of view. They say the talent is highly compensated and that is true. However, that is the lion’s share of the cost to the show. These shows are actually incredibly inexpensive to produce, relative to a traditional news-and-information show that has to send trucks all over the country at all hours trying to gather the news of the day. That’s an expensive operation. We still report the news, except [Undisputed co-host] Joy Taylor will read it and say, “Oh, that’s an interesting story ... I didn’t know Jerry Jones said that to some other news organization.” Then we even play that sound bite, so we’re delivering the same news but adding our opinions about it. So it’s nice when you can say your programming is economically efficient and it rates higher.

MCN:What do you say to critics who say your sports talk shows are all discussing the same one or two stories all day long, just with different voices?

JH: That is a misunderstanding of how TV actually works from people who never actually produced television. The way I try to explain that is to say if you ran a Starbucks and were serving lattes in the morning would you say to your boss, “You know you serve lattes all morning; we should probably stop it this afternoon.” No, you wouldn’t — when coming to Starbucks, there is an expectation of what they are. And the person who comes in at 10 in the morning is not the same person that’s there at three in the afternoon. And so when people say to me that I heard Skip at 9:30 in the morning talking about [Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Tony Romo], and then at 2:30 Colin was talking about the same thing, I say, “Yes!” They are talking to different viewers, and the viewer at 2:30 is just as important than the one at 9:30, and they deserve the most interesting stories of the day.

MCN:So you have daytime covered with opinion-themed programming and live sports events in primetime. Are there any other dayparts you’ll be focusing on in the near future?

JH:Undisputed has generated strong ratings, and, more importantly, they’ve driven up ratings for The Herd, which is up 64% year over year. So you don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room to say if you put a compelling show on in front of The Herd and it’s up 64%, why don’t you do the same thing for Skip and Shannon? So our plan is to at some point in the next couple months start the process of meeting with talent and creating a show to lead into Undisputed.

MCN:How do you see FS1’s overall development evolving a year from now?

JH: Listen, I think the goal for these studio shows is to create habit-forming television and to speak directly to what the viewer wants from those shows. Eric Shanks says it best: I am more optimistic about FS1 today than any day in its history. I share those sentiments and my bet is a year from now I’ll be more optimistic on that day than I was today and every day since then. It’s such a fun time to be at FS1 because we are in such an incredible growth mode.

SIDEBAR: FS1’s Tale of the Ratings Tape

Under the tutelage of Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz, FS1 has scored big year-to-year ratings growth both in total viewers and in its target male 18-34 audience, according to Nielsen.

FS1 2016 vs. 2015 (Total Day)*

+14% on Household Rating

+12% on Persons 2+ (average audience)

+10% on Men 18-34 (average audience)

FS1 2016 vs. 2015 (Prime)*

+25% on Household Rating

+24% on Persons 2+ (average audience)

+16% on Men 18-34 (average audience)

*Period for 2016 is 1/1/16-12/4/16; Period for 2015 is 1/1/15-12/6/15

SOURCE : Nielsen, Fox Sports

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.