SBJ/July 10-16, 2017/Media

Shanks: Fox still to ‘execute our playbook’

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Fox Sports President Eric Shanks says the strategy remains despite departure of Jamie Horowitz.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Fox Sports’ programming strategy will not change one bit after Jamie Horowitz’s stunning and sudden dismissal last week in the wake of a sexual harassment probe.

That’s the main message from Fox Sports President Eric Shanks, who in his first public comments since Horowitz’s firing spoke to SportsBusiness Journal about the company’s plans to move forward without one of its highest profile executives. Shanks said he was more perplexed than angry by press reports last week that painted Fox Sports as a company in disarray. He especially pushed back on reports of low morale among the company’s rank and file.

“There’s been an odd re-energizing to succeed and execute our playbook,” Shanks said. “We have a great team here that has bought into our strategy. … It’s tough to find people who are walking around and moping.”

Citing the fact that Fox Sports and Horowitz have retained lawyers, Shanks did not offer any comments on Horowitz’s departure or the sexual harassment probe that is ongoing at the company. But Shanks was eager to dispute the narrative that Horowitz’s departure has left a sports division that is rudderless and unsure of its future.

In fact, Shanks said that he is in no hurry to fill Horowitz’s role, which carried the title of president of national networks when he left. Fox hired Horowitz two years ago to strengthen its daytime studio lineup. Horowitz responded by ditching news and highlights in favor of debate programming. In October, Horowitz expanded his Fox Sports empire by overseeing digital, too.

Shanks has taken over many of Horowitz’s responsibilities and has met with the talent, many of whom have a tremendous amount of loyalty to Horowitz, such as Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless, who Horowitz convinced to leave ESPN for Fox.

“We have a team in place at FS1 that is executing at a really high level,” Shanks said. “At this point, I’m not looking to fill the position.”

As Fox Sports’ president, Shanks stressed that he oversaw the development of FS1’s strategy and owns all of the decisions that were made during Horowitz’s two-year stint. He referenced Fox’s upfront presentation, which highlighted the network’s sports programming much more heavily than in the past.

“Everyone here has set this strategy and vision,” Shanks said. “We have the playbook right in front of us. We are recommitting ourselves to execute the playbook that we started.”

That means Fox Sports Digital will continue to pursue a strategy to emphasize video that promotes their television personalities. The strategy resulted in around 20 layoffs of writers and editors last month, a move overseen by Horowitz but completely backed by Shanks.

“That was a strategic decision totally endorsed by me and the entire company,” Shanks said. “Our unique consumer proposition is that we make premium video.”

There is no part of Fox Sports that Shanks is ready to switch now that Horowitz is gone. That means FS1 shows such as “Undisputed” and “Speak For Yourself” will continue to be a focal point for Fox Sports.

“At its core, these are high-profile, credible personalities that people enjoy watching on television,” Shanks said. “The idea of ‘Embrace Debate’ really has been overplayed. Good TV is good TV.”

It also means that the morning show “First Things First” will launch with Nick Wright and Cris Carter this fall, as scheduled. The show will be based in New York, and Shanks said he is committed to “making sure that our shows have all the resources that they need.”

In the days after Horowitz’s dismissal last week, some Fox executives privately expressed hope that the company’s business priorities will move away from Horowitz’s pet projects.

Horowitz had a force of personality, and Fox’s strategy fell in line with his. For example, many Fox Sports staffers reacted in anger this January when Fox ran a promo for Skip Bayless’ midmorning FS1 show during the NFC Championship game.

The game drew a whopping 46 million viewers, ranking as Fox’s second-biggest audience of the year behind only the Super Bowl. With commercials going for $1.75 million per 30 seconds, some executives questioned why Fox’s brass would give such valuable real estate to a show that only draws around 100,000 viewers on FS1’s daytime schedule.

The answer went back to Horowitz, the brash, young executive who was an aggressive defender of FS1’s Embrace Debate strategy. At the time, several Fox employees grumbled that these types of moves resulted more from the force of Horowitz’s personality than well-thought out business decisions.

But Shanks said the buck stops with him on those decisions. His message to Fox employees shaken by Horowitz’s exit is simple.

“We’re going to be defined by how we react to this and how we move on from this,” he said.


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