"I think it's time for
That tough talk is coming from an unlikely source — 81-year-old Regis Philbin. The former daytime television talk show host and
Given that Philbin is more accustomed to speaking to housewives and is more than twice as old as the viewers Fox Sports 1 is hoping to attract, his hiring seems unusual to say the least.
"It is a bit out of left field, but that's what we do," said Fox Sports Co-President Eric Shanks of the hiring of Philbin to host "Crowd Goes
Even Philbin acknowledged surprise when the offer came. "I never thought I would be on an hour-long sports show," he said, adding he wasn't even aware
Since then, the hard-core Notre Dame football and
The launch of Fox Sports 1 and smaller sister channel Fox Sports 2 highlights the dominant and growing role sports is playing in the modern television industry. At a time when broadcast and cable networks are struggling to keep viewers in front of the television and off the Internet, sports has become their surefire antidote to Web surfing and cord-cutting.
Fox, which has made a career out of taking on giants, first with its broadcast network and later with its cable news channel, will be starting this fight with one hand tied behind its back. Fox Sports 1 still doesn't have distribution deals locked up with some of the nation's biggest pay-TV operators, including
And the competition is formidable. "It is not a hill they have to climb, it's the Grand Canyon," said Mark Shapiro, a former ESPN executive. "ESPN has built such a big moat around itself the Russian army of the Cold War couldn't get in."
Moreover, while no one in sports broadcasting likes to hear it, there is not exactly a shortage of product out there. When ESPN launched in 1979, the consensus was there weren't enough sports or fans to sustain a 24-hour cable network.
Flash forward 34 years and now the sports that critics used to make fun of ESPN for carrying in its early days have networks of their own. There's a channel devoted to fishing. Another aimed at horse racing enthusiasts. Even big game hunters have two networks targeting them.
There are more than 20 national sports networks that don't have the letters E-S-P-N in their names. The
The big broadcast networks and cable channels also have a heavy diet of sports. CBS,
And that ever expanding universe, more than beating ESPN, is what is motivating Fox. "In the shaky swampy world of television programming, the one solid granite-like area is sports," said David Hill, a senior executive vice president of Fox Sports 1 parent
Hill, who ran Fox Sports for decades and now oversees among other things
"We spend more time and effort on audio than anyone else," he said proudly. "Close-up audio is far more emotive than close-up video.
Shanks said Fox Sports 1 has hired a couple of hundred people in front of the camera and behind the scenes. The majority of the shows will be done on the Fox lot in Century City where a huge new soundstage was recently completed. Shanks, who started in production at CBS Sports, said the trick is to give fans an "information pill with a little bit of sugar."
Keeping it light
Philbin is not the only unusual hire Fox Sports 1 has made. Its flagship show "Fox Sports Live" — a nightly three-hour recap of the day's highlights and news — will be anchored by Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, two unknowns imported from Canada, where they hosted "SportsCentre" for the TSN sports channel there.
The pair are known for their morning zoo style, poking fun at the absurdities of sport with an ironic sensibility inspired by
"We're not good enough broadcasters to be serious," cracked the lanky Onrait, who resembles a young Vince Vaughn.
The two have been compared to Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, whose stint as hosts of ESPN's "Sports Center" in the 1990s helped make that cable channel part of the zeitgeist.
Shanks said there is a simple litmus test for Fox Sports 1 personalities: "Do you want to hang out and have nachos with our guys?"
But Fox Sports 1 will need more than a pair of wise-cracking Canadians and a spry octogenarian to bring ESPN to its knees. Not only does ESPN have a more than 30-year head start, it also has just about every major sport including the National Football League locked up for the next several years. While Fox has football on its broadcast network, a cable package may remain a dream for the time being. Wednesday, Fox did seal a high profile deal to telecast the U.S. Open men's and women's golf championships.
ESPN is the engine that drives its parent
Hill knows changing the habits of sports fans won't be easy.
"The first thing we have to battle is inertia," he said "For 30 years people have been watching ESPN. We understand that. We know it. We get it."
Fox isn't going into the fight completely unarmed. It has rights to NASCAR, a big chunk of college football, ultimate fighting, lots of soccer and starting next year Major League Baseball. "We're starting from a pretty strong position," Hill said. On his wish list are the NBA and the NFL. The former may be attainable in the next few years, but the latter could be locked up into the next decade.
Hill and Shanks point to
"Would you pick this point in time to go into a business that people think is mature and people think, 'Gosh, do you need another national multi-sport network?' and the question is, did people think there was enough news when
The addition of a new sports channel will give media buyers something to leverage against ESPN. "Competition is good," said Sam Armando, a senior vice president in Chicago at SMGx, a media buying firm. While Armando doesn't think Fox Sports 1 will immediately challenge ESPN, it has enough big sports to get a serious look from advertisers.
ESPN President John Skipper isn't sweating Fox Sports 1 and doesn't think the Fox News analogy works. "There is a dramatic difference," Skipper said. "If CNN had exclusive rights to the inauguration, election results and weather, Fox News wouldn't have snuck up and whupped them."
ESPN hasn't built an empire by ignoring its rear view mirror. Over the past few years, it has been shelling out billions to lock up several marquee events, including the
"We bought up a lot of beachfront property," Skipper said.
Still, it'd be foolish to dismiss Fox Sports 1. CBS made that mistake 20 years ago when
Hill is optimistic that Fox Sports can get on the map quickly. "It will take us two or three years to create a visible and emotional bookmark in people's minds to say, 'I'm going to switch on Fox Sports 1.'"