SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/Media

FS1, ESPN take turns counterprogramming

Fox hired popular Canadian sports hosts Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole to host an 11 p.m. news and highlights show on FS1 called “Fox Sports Live.”

ESPN responded by bringing back one of its most popular “SportsCenter” anchors, Keith Olbermann, to host an 11 p.m. show on ESPN2.

After Fox announced a football show for 6 p.m., ESPN loaded up on NFL between 3 and 5.
Photo by: JOHN ATASHIAN / ESPN
Fox announced plans to produce a daily, hourlong football show at 6 p.m. for FS1 called “Fox Football Daily.”

ESPN countered by retooling its afternoon lineup with two hours of NFL studio programming (“NFL Insiders” and “NFL Live”) from 3-5 p.m.

Though executives usually are reticent to admit it publicly, it’s not unusual for established channels to counter program in advance of a competitor’s launch. ESPN added more NFL programming and expanded its social media show “SportsNation” around the time NBC Sports Group rebranded Versus into NBC Sports Network 19 months ago.

ESPN is making similar moves in advance of FS1’s Aug. 17 launch. ESPN President John Skipper acknowledged as much last week when he announced Olbermann’s hiring.

“Clearly the timing of some of what we’re doing is intended to put us in a competitive position,” he said in response to a question about FS1.

The thought process for FS1 executives is similar. As the new channel nears, its executives made programming decisions based on ESPN’s schedule. Take its “Fox Sports Live” 11 p.m. news show, for example. Fox executives say they were conscious of ESPN’s 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” — its most popular edition — when they decided to launch “Fox Sports Live.”

“In order for us to be a credible channel for the audience and a clear alternative, we had to go head-to-head with them and present something that’s different and unique and bold,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president of programming and research.

“SportsCenter” is ESPN’s flagship program. ESPN won’t change the show’s content because of Fox. ESPN, however, will use another one of its channels — ESPN2 — and Olbermann as a way to reach viewers that might be drawn to the FS1 personalities.

ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross said the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” already has evolved over the past several years, and he doesn’t expect to make changes to it because of “Fox Sports Live.”

“‘SportsCenter’ at 11 p.m. is tighter than it was,” Gross said. “We’re moving from topic to topic or highlight to highlight quicker. We’re more aggressive about revisiting stories. That’s something that’s evolved over the last few years. We know that people aren’t watching the whole show. It’s OK to revisit a story, with another treatment, halfway through the show.”

Another battleground for the sports networks is the afternoon programming block, from 4-7 p.m.

“That time slot kickstarts the network,” Wanger said. “We’re going to make a big investment into our afternoon block. You’re going to want to get the network jumpstarted leading into your prime-time schedule.”

FS1 kicks off its afternoon programming with a half-hour show called “Fox Soccer Daily” at 4 p.m., which will be followed by “NASCAR Race Hub.” Fox views this hour as a way to give consistent windows to passionate fan bases before ESPN. Fox’s soccer show starts 90 minutes before ESPN2’s. And neither ESPN nor ESPN2 has a NASCAR-specific show in its afternoon lineup, Wanger pointed out.

Interestingly, ESPN announced plans to launch its own soccer show, “ESPN FC,” in May. The show launches Aug. 11, six days before FS1’s launch.

A big battleground will be at 5 p.m., when FS1’s Regis Philbin show, “The Crowd Goes Wild,” goes up against ESPN’s popular hour of “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.”

“We really wanted to give a great alternative and counter program ‘Around the Horn’ and ‘PTI’ on ESPN,” Wanger said. “While those shows might embrace the debate, ‘The Crowd Goes Wild’ will find the fun, so to speak, in sports. We think it’s great counter programming.”

Wanger also views “Fox Football Daily” as a good counter to the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.”

“‘SportsCenter’ covers all sports,” he said. “Our show will focus on the most popular sport in America.”

Though it has tinkered with some of its afternoon programming, NBC Sports Network executives say they are not reacting to program schedules from other outlets.

“We don’t look at what other guys are doing when we program our channel,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports Group. “We want to give our shows time to find their audiences.”

Miller highlighted “ProFootball Talk,” which covers the NFL, and “Crossover,” which features a well-known host in Michelle Beadle, as shows that he wants to give time to grow.

Miller said his main focus is on live sports rights, and he wants to create shoulder programming around those live sports rights, which include the NHL, English Premier League and Formula One.

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