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At 3 a.m. PT, a switch was flipped, and Fox Sports 1 went “live.” But only a handful of people could see it. That’s because Fox Sports 1 wasn’t launching for a week. It was Aug. 10, and Fox launched a shadow feed — a 24-hour dress rehearsal to allow producers to tinker with programming.
SportsBusiness Journal media reporter John Ourand spoke with Wanger last week on lessons learned during the shadow week.
■ Johnny Manziel was a big topic last week. How did your shows handle it?
WANGER: “Crowd Goes Wild,” which is going to be a sports/comedy, sports/entertainment type show, took a different angle with Johnny Manziel. They got a handwriting expert in yesterday and discussed what Johnny Manziel’s handwriting says about him as a person. “Crowd Goes Wild” has a different slant on things. They are going to have a different take on Johnny Manziel. … “Fox Sports Live” reported on what happened with Johnny Manziel. But there, you’re going to have our panel of experts that will have a unique perspective on it. It’s people that are recognizable: future hall of famers and all-stars.
■ Another big story was in Washington, D.C., with Robert Griffin III questioning Mike Shanahan’s strategy.
WANGER: RG3 was great on our air. We had Donovan McNabb, who played for Mike Shanahan. Donovan has a unique perspective on what’s going on with Mike Shanahan and RG3 because he was there. He was in the organization. That’s just one example of what we can bring to the table.
■ What have you learned from the shadow week?
WANGER: The No. 1 thing is the ability for our producers to see what’s working, to see what’s not working. We want them to get the work flow down because there’s a lot of workflow issues in the control room. The second thing is in the guts of the building and the guts of the channel — the internal architecture. We have news breaks scheduled. We have [10-second interstitials called] stingers scheduled. We have commercials. All these need work. We need dry runs at it.
■ Can you give specifics?
WANGER: “SportsCenter” has a rundown on the left side. We call that a wing. Ours is on the right side. We don’t always have a rundown for what’s coming up next. Sometimes we have interesting information and extra information about what the talent is talking about.
■ During shadow week, how aware were you of ESPN and NBCSN?
WANGER: When we’re in the control room during “Fox Sports Live,” of course we had on ESPN because you want to see how they covered a story or when they got to a story. You are absolutely monitoring the competition.
■ What will viewers like?
WANGER: Viewers will see a fresh take on sports or a fresh look. The channel is going to look different. There’s going to be a lot of personality on the channel.
■ What else should we expect?
WANGER: We’re going to make mistakes. People will probably overreact to our initial ratings. Our ratings are going to be small. All new channel ratings are small. It will take people a little bit of time to get used to the channel and know where to find it. We have no grand illusions of coming out here and being a behemoth. This is going to take a long time. I always say our success will be measured in years, not days, weeks or months.
It’s been a constant theme in the pay-TV industry for the past decade: Distributors complain about the cost of sports, but they are powerless to stop it. In discussing the Time Warner Cable-CBS battle last week, financial analyst Craig Moffett said, “These disputes always end up with the broadcaster winning.”
Just days before last week’s scheduled launch, Fox told some of the biggest U.S. distributors that they could carry Fox Sports 1 with the same deals and at the same rates that they carry Speed, which costs about 23 cents per subscriber per month. The move surprised industry insiders. In essence, Fox decided to punt, opting to fight Fox Sports 1’s carriage battles another day.
Score one for the distributors, at least for now.
Much of the leverage came from sheer numbers. Fox was seeking significant increases from DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Cablevision, which account for nearly 55 million homes. It’s bruising enough to fight any one of those distributors on their own. But carriage fights with all of them — all of which have been champing at the bit to take a stand against sports costs — at the same time? Fox executives, led by distribution president Michael Hopkins, said no thanks. It made more sense to spread out these deals over the next few years and negotiate them one at a time.
Distributors also believed that they gained more leverage as the channel’s launch approached. On background, many of them pointed to a key juncture as a turning point. That being March 1 — when company executives unveiled Fox Sports 1 and pledged to launch the channel to 90 million homes. At the time, one distribution executive said, “The only way Fox can get to 90 million is with my subscribers.” Other distributors had the same thought: Fox needs us right now more than we need them.
Fox signed rights deals and advertising clients predicated on the channel having 90 million homes. News stories had the network at near full distribution. There seemed to be no question that it would have full distribution at launch.
On the other side of the table, distributors held their cards and bet that the longer they waited, the more likely Fox would move from its initial asking price in order to bulk up its distribution numbers. Even as the distributors became embroiled in high-profile fights with other networks (Time Warner and CBS; DirecTV and Pac-12 Networks), they believed they would be able to wait out Fox Sports 1.
The massive PR effort by Fox continued in the weeks leading up to launch. The network sent out multiple releases each day on FS1, from new talent to planned shows to charter advertisers. But distributors believed that Fox faced more pressure as the Aug. 17 launch date neared. What if after so much hype, the next big competitor to ESPN launched only to a handful of homes? Talk about a buzz kill.
Distributors are used to being the punching bags when it comes to sports channels. Leverage will return to Fox, which is certain to get the price it wants for FS1 eventually — maybe as early as this fall.
That’s when Time Warner Cable’s affiliate deal for YES Network ends. Fox, which owns part of YES and handles its distribution, could get its Fox Sports 1 price during those negotiations. Cox’s deals with several Fox-owned RSNs are up at the end of this year, as well. Expect Fox to package Fox Sports 1 at that point.
But for this one moment, distributors took solace that they did their part to keep sports rights down. It’s a solace they know won’t last long. As one executive said last week, “This feels never-ending.”
One year ago, it was another new sports channel that some, including me, thought could bring big changes to the sports media business, albeit on a much smaller scale than Fox Sports 1.
The Al-Jazeera-owned beIN Sport and its sister channel beIN Sport en Español officially turned 1 last Thursday. Amid the hubbub of Fox Sports 1’s launch, I thought it was a good time to check in on its progress.
At its launch last August, I thought beIN would be more of a disruptive force over its first year than it was. It already had outbid GolTV for rights to the top soccer leagues in France, Italy and Spain. Plus, it picked up rights to all away U.S. men’s national soccer qualifying matches.
Many thought it would be a player in the bid to win U.S. rights to the English Premier League, which NBC won last October, but it wasn’t.
One of the channel’s top executives told me that he was satisfied that beIN has met its goals so far. The first year was about establishing itself. Now, the channel is focused on growth.
BeIN will try to jump-start growth with new print and digital ads.
To jump-start that growth, beIN is starting a digital and print marketing campaign this week to improve brand recognition with consumers. One print ad has a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding up a yellow card alongside ad copy that says: “beIN Sport: America’s International Sports Network.” Ads will run in major national dailies and select soccer trades.
The marketing campaign comes the same week that Al-Jazeera is launching its U.S. news channel.
The focus on growth will start with distribution. Because the network is not Nielsen-rated, it’s hard to say how many homes the channel is in. It has deals with many of the big distributors, including Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable and Verizon, but some deals put beIN’s two channels on sports tiers, which aren’t well-distributed.
To help it with distribution, beIN plans to expand its TV Everywhere streaming service, beIN Sport Play. Last week, Verizon and Dish Network rolled out the service, which can stream up to seven live games at the same time.
“This is what we have planned from the beginning,” Briceno said. “We view beIN Sport Play as a complement to our total offering, where we are able to show a lot of the overflow product that we have.”
On the programming side, beIN had an uneven year. For a smaller network, its programming lineup is formidable. It has rights to some of the world’s biggest soccer leagues, like La Liga in Spain, Serie A in Italy and Ligue 1 in France. But the few beIN productions that I’ve seen have been surprisingly less than polished. I’ve watched the channel a handful of times in the past year, typically when it carries U.S. soccer World Cup qualifiers.
For a U.S.-Jamaica game in June, beIN’s pregame and postgame production was marred by technical problems and production glitches that you wouldn’t expect to see from an established TV network.
Briceno acknowledged some problems but stressed the big picture. “We’re a new channel. We don’t say we’re perfect. We have room to improve,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that those matches were never available before, or they were on a pay-per-view basis. We are the first network to transmit those matches in HD and we made a tremendous financial effort to have that coverage from places that are hard to reach, like Jamaica.”
Briceno outlined plans to improve programming, from adding to the original programs it offers in prime time to bringing in more high-profile talent.
BeIN will start to highlight some of the popular teams (like Barcelona and Real Madrid) and stars (like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi) that are on its air. This can be achieved on a show it has on both networks called “The Locker Room,” to focus on Mexican players for its Hispanic channel and U.S. athletes who play overseas on its English-language channel.
“The only goal that we have this year that is really important for us is that we want the American audience, regardless of whether they are Hispanic or general-market people, to come to beIN Sport as a destination for anything that is related to any of the properties that we have exclusively,” Briceno said.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.