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Volume 25 No. 29

Media

Fox kicked off its coverage of the FIFA World Cup today with the opening match between Saudi Arabia and host country Russia, and early reaction on Twitter leaned negative. MSNBC's Ayman Mohyeldin: "I can tell already it’s gonna be a long month watching Fox’s commentary and coverage of the @FIFAWorldCup." SEC Country's Matthew Speakman: "Fox Sports‘ trash announcers always make the champions league painful and now they’re gonna make the World Cup painful." Quartz editor Mike Murphy: "It’s 2018 and the Fox website to watch the #WorldCup is trying to force me to enable Flash to watch the games." Rochester-based WHEC-NBC's Brennan Somers: "I'd rather spend the next month watching the #WorldCup on Telemundo versus listening to Alexi Lalas on FOX." The Athletic's Richard Deitsch: "When Cantor is on the call, I am going more with Telemundo. And that's no disrespect to John Strong, who I think is terrific." But some observers struck a more positive tone. NBC Sports' Men In Blazers: "Godspeed to @RobStoneONFOX and @AlexiLalas and all our colleagues at Fox. To broadcast a World Cup is both an honor and a grueling endeavor. We wish them Courage and are looking forward to making great memories." The MMQB's Albert Breer: "This is a pretty good weekend for Fox. Both the NBA and NHL end early, and they've got the World Cup and US Open. Just like you'd draw it up."

EARLY RETURNS: The availability of pregame coverage was an issue in some markets. Deadspin's Timothy Burke tweeted 19 Fox affiliates in the U.S. "do not have #WorldCupFever, have elected to air local news, infomercials, or Wendy Williams instead of live network coverage from Russia." USA Today Network photojournalist Adam Wesley: "@FOXSoccer has already dropped the ball. Their pregame show going on right now for the opening match of #WorldCup2018 is not airing on my local Fox in Green Bay (and other markets). Good thing I have cable & Telemundo but c'mon, Fox" (TWITTER.com, 6/14).

INTERESTING TEST: In Austin, Kevin Lyttle wonders if the positive momentum soccer is enjoying in the U.S. is "enough to justify" Fox' $400M "broadcast-rights gamble" for the World Cup. Author Michael MacCambridge said "everything is working against" the World Cup being a "big event" this year in the U.S. MacCambridge: "Because of the time difference in Russia, most of the matches will be occurring in the morning. For the first time in the memory of most American soccer fans, ESPN isn't broadcasting it. And the U.S. isn't playing. If, in the face of all that, the tournament still gets substantial viewership numbers -- and dominates sports talk for the next month -- that would be telling." Fox' Stuart Holden acknowledged the lack of the U.S. means "decreased ratings" for the World Cup. However, he said he thinks soccer has "grown up enough in the U.S. to weather the storm" (AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, 6/14). In Atlanta, Mark Bradley wrote a "changing U.S. will pay attention to the World Cup, even without U.S. involvement and the latest games from Russia starting" at 2:00pm ET. He predicted that Fox' ratings "will be better than you'd think" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 6/9).

QUESTIONABLE DECISION: In N.Y., Hannah Withiam noted Fox is "sending just two broadcast pairs to Russia" while the rest of the on-air talent will be "calling games from Fox's studios" in L.A. Fox World Cup Exec Producer David Neal "wouldn't say whether the U.S. team's absence factored into the decision to do most of the group-stage games 'off-tube.'" From the quarterfinals on, all games "will be broadcast" from Russia. Neal: "You have to get the most out of your resources, and one of the things that I did as I was analyzing where we were gonna spend our resources was that soccer is a game that's uniquely done this way" (N.Y. POST, 6/11). The GUARDIAN's Aaron Timms wrote the idea of calling World Cup games from a studio in L.A. is "ludicrous." There is "no comparison between what you experience at the stadium ... and the restricted, antiseptic view offered by TV." It is "not hard to see why Fox has gone down this road -- viewership of the World Cup is likely to be lower than if the U.S. had qualified, mandating a slimmer spend on tournament coverage -- but understanding the decision does not make it any better" (GUARDIAN, 6/12). In Boston, Chad Finn writes it is "difficult to blame Fox for cutting a financial corner or two upon the U.S. team's failure to qualify," as that is "going to have a significant effect on viewership stateside." However, it "opens up the question" of whether Fox is as "committed this year as it will be in eight years, when the matches are played in North America, and the U.S., presumably, will be a playing participant" (BOSTON GLOBE, 6/14).

FERNANDO MANIA? YAHOO SPORTS' Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote people watching the World Cup will get to know Fox' Fernando Fiore "soon enough," as fans will "hardly be able to miss his outsized personality and comedy routine on the wall-to-wall Fox Sports broadcasts." Fiore is "known to break into song during live shows, while his colleagues pick apart plays and stats." Schaerlaeckens: "He dances. He wears funny hats. He mimics. He demonstratively rolls his eyes." Fiore has "carefully cultivated his persona, consciously setting himself apart from your milquetoast, dime-a-dozen soccer analyst" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 6/10). In Philadelphia, Jonathan Tannenwald writes Fiore is "charismatic, loud, and a passionate lover of the world's game." His World Cup broadcast presence will mean "a lot of people will cast judgement on Fiore who haven't before" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 6/14).

VOICES CARRY: In N.Y., Andrew Marchand wrote Aly Wagner, who will "become the first woman World Cup game analyst, is a rising star." It is "too bad she will be calling games from a studio in LA instead of on-sight." Wagner has "stood out for her insights and by being opinionated without making it all about herself" (N.Y. POST, 6/13). Meanwhile, in S.F., Bruce Jenkins writes ESPN during previous World Cups had the "good sense to employ a number of British announcers, an absolutely crucial element for international events." Fox this year has "enlisted only two ... leaving the rest to Americans" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 6/14).

LIKE YOU'RE THERE: N.Y.-based tech startup LiveLike has partnered with Fox Sports to produce the World Cup for fans in social VR with all 64 games during the tournament available through the Fox Sports VR app for free. The production also includes sponsorship integration with Adidas (THE DAILY).

Fox Sports said this is the largest show they do -- double the size of their Super Bowl coverage
Photo: FOX SPORTS

Fox Sports' compound for this year’s coverage of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island was "so big it had to be divided into two pieces: a small one alongside the course, and a bigger one beyond it," according to Neil Best of NEWSDAY. Fox Sports VP/Field Operations & Engineering Brad Cheney said, "This is the largest show we do at Fox Sports -- double the size of the Super Bowl, triple the size of NASCAR and the baseball postseason." Fox Sports Dir of Field Operations Sarita Meinking said that there are "more than 700 Fox employees at the event staying in more than 400 rooms in seven hotels, with an additional 150 or so people in rented houses." Meinking: "This has been, I would say, logistically the most challenging one I’ve done so far at Fox." The operation this week "includes 101 cameras" and 38 miles of fiber optics. Fox was "criticized for some elements" of its first U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in '15, but even then it got "strong reviews for its technical innovations, such as tracing shots in the air and enhancing on-course audio." Every U.S. Open since then has "added wrinkles, such as a fairway feature this time that will trace the ball toward the possible landing zone." As the ball nears, the "zone narrows to show where the ball actually is going to land" (NEWSDAY, 6/14). Best noted Fox' "technical touches" to its U.S. Open coverage "have been well received." Fox Sports Coordinating Producer Mark Loomis said, "Other networks have talked about the fact that they’ve looked at some of the stuff we’ve done and they’ve used it themselves. Imitation is always a good sign." He added, "The shot tracer technology that we’ve used, I read a lot about how people miss it when it’s not there. We’ve obviously been at the forefront of that" (NEWSDAY, 6/12).

LESS IS MORE: Loomis said that when it comes to covering the U.S. Open, having fewer announcers is "better than more." GOLF DIGEST's Sam Weinman noted Loomis acknowledges that the first few years of the net’s golf venture "went overboard with the sheer number of announcers." He was "worried his announcers would get burned out by Sunday." Loomis: "We really want to be good on Sunday and if people are working all day Thursday and Friday they’re going to be exhausted, so I was trying to avoid that." Fox this week is splitting its on-air booth into two teams featuring Joe Buck-Paul Azinger for two hours and Shane Bacon-Brad Faxon for two hours, and Loomis said the viewer will be "more comfortable that way" (GOLFDIGEST.com, 6/12). Golf course architect Gil Hanse, who is part of Fox Sports' team this week, said that his role on the telecasts will be to talk about Shinnecock Hills from the "perspective of 'architecture and agronomy.'" In Philadelphia, Joe Juliano notes Hanse tries to "make sure that he speaks in terms that the common golfer understands." Hanse: "We talk about things like false fronts on the greens. What is a false front? Explain it. So to explain these little terms that get thrown out there, I try to do it the best way possible" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 6/14).

Comcast yesterday "made an unsolicited offer to buy" most of 21st Century Fox for roughly $65B, "kicking off a bidding war" with Disney, according to a front-page piece by Ramachandran & Schwartzel of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. The assets "range from a storied Hollywood studio and international pay-TV distribution to cable networks and a stake in streaming company Hulu." That is a "premium of nearly 20% to Disney’s all-stock offer for the same set of assets." Neither bid "includes Fox News, Fox Sports 1 or the Fox broadcast network." Sources said that Disney is "lining up financing in the event it chooses to counter Comcast’s offer with new terms that include cash." The Comcast offer "follows a federal court ruling Tuesday that approved" AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. The AT&T ruling "emboldened Comcast to relaunch its bid for Fox with an offer that isn't much higher than what it had earlier proposed." Sources said that Comcast "may continue to have regulatory issues, given it is the largest high-speed broadband provider in the U.S." Fox has "set a July 10 meeting for shareholders to vote on the sale to Disney" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 6/14). In N.Y., Lee & Barnes in a front-page piece write the move by Comcast to outbid Disney "reflects an industry under threat from Silicon Valley, where deep-pocketed technology companies like Netflix and Amazon are stealing audiences, ad dollars and big name creative talents." There are "questions about how hard Disney will fight." Cowen & Company media analyst Doug Creutz said Disney Chair & CEO Bob Iger "has never (as far as we are aware) been put in a position where a proposed acquisition faced a significant competitive challenge such as this, so it’s hard to gauge his sensitivity to price" (N.Y. TIMES, 6/14).

Roberts is confident that Comcast's existing businesses could quickly cut Fox's debt
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

ART OF THE DEAL: In Philadelphia, Bob Fernandez cites analysts as saying that Comcast "needs to make the deal to keep up with new threats from technology firms that are increasingly expanding into entertainment." Financial services firm Moody's said that the Fox and related Sky TV deal "could lead to almost" $100B in debt and "potentially transform the conservatively run Comcast into the second-most-indebted company in the world." Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that he and the board "were confident that the company’s existing businesses ... could quickly cut the debt" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 6/14). CABLEFAX DAILY's Amy Maclean notes that is a "point Comcast has been stressing since its stock has taken a shellacking following the Sky bid." Roberts said that he "believes that leverage will be brought back down, partly due to the predictability of being in the subscription business" (CABLEFAXDAILY.com, 6/14).

PRESSURE ON IGER, DISNEY: USA TODAY's Wong & Baig write a successful Comcast deal "would be a blow to Disney and Iger, who has pinned Disney's future to hit movies and TV shows it could gain with Fox that could bolster Disney's own streaming services" (USA TODAY, 6/14). DEADLINE.com's Dominic Patten noted regardless of if it is personal, business or a combination and how much  Iger "might not be smiling right now, the Murdoch clan are corporately obliged to give the offer from the Philadelphia based owners of NBCUniversal due consideration" (DEADLINE.com, 6/13). GBH Insights analyst Dan Ives said, "This is a golden offer that will put considerable pressure on Iger and Disney to step up their game on another bid." The AP's Mae Anderson noted if the Comcast bid succeeds, a major cable distributor "would control even more channels on its lineup and those of its rivals." That "could lead to higher cable bills or make it more difficult for online alternatives to emerge, though there is not yet evidence of either happening following other mergers." For Disney, a successful Comcast bid could make its planned streaming service "less attractive, without the Fox video" (AP, 6/13). CNBC’s Joe Kernen said there is "no way Disney can say, ‘We’re standing with this and we want Fox to live up to (their original offer).’” CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin said Comcast has now put Iger "in a box," and he "has to come back and do something” ("Squawk Box," CNBC, 6/14).

REFLECTION OF THE TIMES: The AP's Anderson writes the battle for Fox "reflects a new imperative among entertainment and telecommunications firms." Entertainment programming is "becoming more important as ways to deliver it to consumers proliferate." Cable companies like Comcast are "no longer competing only with satellite alternatives such as DirecTV, but also stand-alone services such as Netflix and cable-like online bundle" (AP, 6/14). Anderson writes Disney's deal "includes getting" Fox' RSNs, but Comcast "already has similar regional networks through NBC Sports." Getting the Fox networks would "expand Comcast's territorial reach" (AP, 6/14). In Newark, Mike Rosenstein writes if the Fox-Disney merger is approved, YES Network "will be owned by the same company which owns the ESPN empire." What all this "means for Yankees fans is this: One way or another, the YES Network will find itself part of a larger, media conglomerate." With that "comes more cross-promotion with other company-owned properties." Both Comcast and Disney "own several sports media outlets, so there will also be a chance for increased exposure of Yankees coverage to out-of-market fans, as well as exposure to Yankees fans of non-Yankees related content." Being owned by Comcast or Disney "would, in theory, help YES Network negotiate carriage agreements with other service providers, and perhaps avoid the type of spat between Comcast and YES which led to a two-year blackout of the channel, before a deal was struck" in '17 (NEWSDAY, 6/14).

EXECUTIVE MOVEMENT: VARIETY's Littleton & Lang cite sources as saying that after months of rumors, 21st Century Fox President Peter Rice, who "oversees all of Fox’s TV operations, has been on track to make the move to Disney in a senior management role and could potentially succeed Iger when his contract expires." Fox TV Group co-Chair & CEO Dana Walden is "also said to be planning to join Disney," as is FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. Iger has been on a "charm offensive with Rice, Walden and other top Fox division heads, as he assembled a dream-team for the enlarged Disney" (VARIETY.com, 6/13). 

AT&T DEAL AFTERMATH: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Matt Wirz notes AT&T's deal to purchase Time Warner will be "dwarfed by an even bigger figure: the combined combined company's approximately" $181B debt load. Increased revenue from Time Warner's media properties and postdeal cost-cutting is "expected to generate cash to pay down the additional debt over time" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 6/14). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Flint, FitzGerald & Bruell in a front-page piece note AT&T is "trying to gain ground in a marketplace battle to win over cord-cutters who are dropping cable and satellite services including its own DirecTV." It is "planning to release a roughly $15-a-month bundle of channels, including Turner’s CNN, TNT and TBS, that doesn’t include sports networks." AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV is the "closest blueprint Time Warner has for what may lie ahead." After AT&T assumed control, it "combed through the executive ranks and gave many people new, less-impressive titles and lower salaries" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 6/14). The N.Y. TIMES details the "Winners and Losers" of the AT&T verdict (N.Y. TIMES, 6/14).