SBJ/Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011/Media

Fox eyes new sports focus to grow FX

FX is ready to get back into the game.

Fox executives are looking at TNT as a model for its own FX channel, which means the network is certain to play an increasingly prominent role as Fox bids for sports rights.

TIFFIN WARNOCK
Hill suggests FX will be in mix for major sports rights bidding.
“There’s been very envious eyes cast at TNT from FX,” said David Hill, chairman and CEO of the Fox Sports Media Group. “They realize that the reason that TNT is as strong as it is, is because of the investment in sports.”

Though FX stepped away from the sports world five years ago — NASCAR races made up the last regular sports programming on the network — its executives think sports can help it grow even further. Whereas sports like Major League Baseball and NASCAR once had a regular space on FX’s schedule, the only sports that can be seen currently come when games run too long on Fox’s broadcast channel.

The idea is to bring a broadcast model — with a mix of sports and entertainment — to cable, and Fox thinks TNT has the blueprint for how it would look.

TNT carries NBA games and NASCAR races, which are some of the channel’s most-viewed telecasts. Last year’s coverage of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals produced four of cable’s 75 most-watched telecasts of the year. By contrast, none of FX’s shows made that list.

Fox executives think live sports are a main reason why TNT has better distribution numbers (100 million to FX’s 96 million), higher subscriber fees (more than $1 to FX’s rate in the mid-40-cents range) and more viewers than FX.

“I always thought Fox was missing a weapon by not having a closer working relationship with FX,” said media consultant Neal Pilson, who ran CBS Sports in the 1990s.

A decision to add a major sports package to FX would mark a change in strategy from five years ago, when FX lost its NASCAR rights package and decided to concentrate on producing edgy, original programming. Hit shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have helped its standing in the 18- to 49-year-old demo that Fox covets, but channel executives have long believed that it will take a high-quality sports package for FX to better compete with drama-heavy entertainment channels such as TNT and USA.

Since Chase Carey came back to News Corp. in the summer of 2009, he has put a priority on acquiring sports rights. And he has made sure that FX is part of Fox’s pitches.

FX was part of Fox’s bid to pick up the ACC’s rights last summer. And the network’s recent deal with Conference USA gives Fox the option of putting games on FX.

Hill suggested that the channel will look to pick up a bigger property to help FX in the same way the NBA helps TNT. Hill doesn’t oversee FX, but he is close to Carey, and Pilson noted that network sports executives like Hill covet cable channels like FX. “You always want the flexibility and added negotiating strength by offering multiple channels for coverage,” Pilson said.

Any move to bring FX back into the sports fold would be welcomed by sports leagues, ensuring that another well-funded bidder will help keep rights fees high.

With Comcast’s acquisition of NBC closing and Fox looking for sports to place on FX, one league executive predicted that there will be more than enough bidders trying to get the biggest sports properties.

The NFL is expected to make an extra cable package available when its next round of rights come up after the 2013 season. MLB’s rights come up after the 2013 season, and NASCAR’s in 2014. And bidding for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics is expected to start later this year. FX expects to have a seat at the table for most of those.

“What FX has proved is that in terms of the development of new drama genres, it’s done better than anyone else,” Hill said. “Maybe, the time might be right for an investment to see that as a multi-entertainment platform.”

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