Keeping Score

Fox Sports 1 Debut: Six First Impressions Of The New Network

Lots of motorsports, UFC, and "Three Things You Need To Know" mark the first weekend of the all-sports channel.

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Fox Sports 1, Rupert Murdoch’s grand effort to compete with ESPN for the eyeballs of sports fans, made its much-hyped launch this weekend. We can say this much:  the lights went on, and Fox Sports 1 seemed to avoid the kind of embarrassing glitch or muck-up that could ruin any debut. Motor sports and UFC programming dominated the opening two days: on Day 1, Saturday, Fox Sports 1 offered 11.5 hours of live NASCAR and UFC, and network execs were quick to trumpet the ratings. During Saturday night prime time, for example, Fox Sports 1 said it posted an average audience of 1.7 million, a tenfold increase over what Speed, Fox Soccer, and FUEL TV drew, combined, on a comparable night last year. (Fox Sports 1 replaced Speed on the cable dial. Here’s Speed’s handoff to Fox Sports 1, at 6 AM eastern on Saturday morning. The first face on Fox Sports 1: football pregame Curt Menefee).

You can’t draw any real conclusions about the network’s fate from opening night ratings, or the quality of the first two days. But feedback never hurts, right? I tuned into Fox Sports 1 for three hours or so last night, and here are a few  impressions:

1. The production quality is just fine: it has the Fox Sports feel. The ticker at the bottom wasn’t distracting, and I was pleasantly surprised that it provided an update from the World Track and Field championships, a somewhat fringe event for fans just looking for the red-meat: baseball and football news. A small point, but as someone indeed interested in track, just something that stood out for me.

2. The format of an 30 minute interview show, Fox Sports 1 on 1, is mighty promising. These more in-depth, conversational chats often deliver rare insight about big-name athletes. The show made me think of Roy Firestone’s old chat show on ESPN, Up Close, which had some classic moments.

Unfortunately, Fox Sports 1 on 1 went with a big-name, Tom Brady, for its debut, and Michael Strahan’s talk with him was predictably dull. Brady’s terrific life — Hall of Fame career, super-model wife — is far from fresh or interesting at this point, and he offered such bromides like “I love the game” and that he doesn’t “get a lot of joy thinking about the individual accomplishments.” Strahan didn’t really challenge Brady on anything, though that wasn’t totally his fault: Brady is not a subject the who attracts tough questions. I kept waiting for Strahan to ask Brady something about the Aaron Hernandez situation. But that question never came, which was disappointing, though pretty unsurprising. If the interview was taped before Hernandez was arrested in late June — he was charged with first-degree murder —  Menefee, the host of Fox Sports 1 on 1, should have disclosed that.

(MORE: Fox’s Sports Network To Debut Saturday)

3. Fox Sports 1 sprinkles sports news updates into commercial breaks, via a bite-sized package called “Three Things You Need To Know.” That’s probably a smart, viewer-friendly move. As the night progressed, Fox did a nice job of mixing up the stories — a few NASCAR items, football injury news, the Philadelphia Phillies snapping the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 10-game winning streak in the debut of interim manager Ryne Sandberg,  Serena Williams losing in a U.S. Open tuneup tournament. The “three-things” format, however, kept creeping into the Fox College Football Kickoff show – analysts told us three things you need to know about the Atlantic Coast Conference, three things you need to know about the Big 10. That got a little tiresome.

4. Prior to launch, the network played up how “fun” the programming was going to be. So tuning into the college football show, I feared a yuckfest. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. Fairly straightforward and informative.

5. Thank you, Fox Sports 1: my four-year-old son sauntered out of his bedroom and joined me on the living room couch right before the start of UFC Unleashed. As he was getting comfortable, a black screen appeared with this message: “Warning: The following program contains extreme sports and violence and may not be appropriate for younger viewers. Viewer discretion advised.” OK then. Let’s pause that for a moment. Head back inside, little guy.

6. I was most interested in checking out Fox Sports Live, the network’s hour-long highlight show, and answer to ESPN’s Sportscenter. The network hired Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, two wildly popular anchors on TSN in Canada, for the show, betting that pair’s chemistry can attract a cult following in the States, like Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann did on Sportscenter back in the 1990s. In promos, the network said Fox Sports Live would be “unexpected,” “unconventional” and “unfiltered.” In fact, Fox Sports Live was going to “turn sports news upside down.”

That’s a pretty tall order, especially in today’s world. Sports highlights are a commodity: you can catch the scores and information on your smartphone. And nearly every memorable play is immediately uploaded online: you don’t need to wait until 10 PM to see it. So no matter how “unexpected” and witty and fun Fox Sports Live may be, can it ever be destination viewing?

We’ll find out soon enough. Based on Sunday night’s sample, nothing’s being turned upside down. (Here’s a review of Saturday night’s Fox Sports Live debut). The most memorable part of the program: a slow-motion clip showing Indianapolis Colts backup quarterback Chandler Harish accidentally hitting Fox sideline reporter Pam Oliver in the face with a football during pre-game warmups. Onrait and O’Toole were pleasant, but by no means spectacular. At one point, O’Toole said: “Just a reminder, you’re watching Fox Sports Live; so far, we haven’t been cancelled.” Maybe a tad funny, in a “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not” kind of way. Other than that….to be fair, Fox Sports Live usually features panel discussions with former ESPN SportsNation anchor Clarissa Thompson, Andy Roddick, Donovan McNabb, and some others to mix things up. But as Onrair and O’Toole said at the top of the show, the panel only works during the week.

Fox Sports Live ditches the story rundown that you see on the left side of the screen on Sportscenter. Instead, at the start of the show the producers kept one bulletin on the right: “Breaking News Exclusive — A-Rod Suspension – Fox Sports MLB Insider Ken Rosenthal reports Alex Rodriguez could have settled with MLB for far less than 211-game suspension.” It just lurked there. Maybe I’ll get used to it. But for now, it was distracting, a bit of an eyesore. As the program progressed, the show rotated different bits of info into that right side slot: this day in sports history (Larry Bird retired in 1992), NASCAR standings, more “Three Things You Need To Know” (rrrrgh!), etc.

Okay, enough nitpicking for now: Fox Sports 1 is getting started, and so far, all is fine. On Monday, Regis Philbin’s show — The Crowd Goes Wild — debuts at 5 p.m. eastern; Fox Sports 1 viewers were reminded of this about 30 times Sunday night. A daily NFL talk show debuts at 6. The network deserves a look. In the meantime — what’s this I’m seeing on Twitter? Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster plunked Alex Rodriguez on Sunday Night Baseball? I need to switch over to ESPN.

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