Fox Takes on The Sports Broadcast Establishment

When Fox Sports launches its new FOX Sports 1, a 24-hour sports channel/network on Saturday, August 17, it will represent a major challenge to an established giant that heretofore nobody has dared to wake up. Not to this extent. ESPN’s deep pockets and entrenched audience following will be tough to penetrate, but if anyone can do it, it’s the Rupert Murdock machine. No doubt the millions of potential ad dollars are the driving factor.

Coinciding with Fox Sports 20th anniversary year, the network is calling FOX Sports 1 the “largest sports cable network launch in U.S. history.” The MLB Network said the same thing when it launched on January 1, 2009 in 50 million homes.

To be distributed and produced in the 720p HD format, the new FOX Sports 1is actually the network’s rebranded “Speed” channel and hopes to provide 5,000 hours of live events, news and original programming to 90 million homes across the globe. (ESPN currently counts about 99 million homes passed worldwide.) Many of the requisite cable, satellite and Telco carriage deals have already been secured.

Similar to ESPN’s expanding channel empire, there will also be a sister channel, Fox Sports 2, which replaces Fox’s Fuel TVat the same time. The studios will be based at Fox Sports headquarters in Los Angeles, although the networks will also use Fox offices in New York Cityand Charlotte and North Carolina (home to the main studios and production/post facilties for the Speed channel). FS1 and FS2 will absorb sports programming from not only its predecessors but also from Fox Soccer after that channel is replaced by FXX in September 2013. And lots of other programming deals have been made.

Initially, the big difference between Fox and ESPN looks to be that Fox wants to be more than just an all-sports channel. Or, as Eric Shanks Fox Sports co-president, said, "our demo is anybody with a television set.”

The plans is to offer entertainment hosts like Regis Philbin and sports personality Charissa Thompson as well as sports athletes like tennis legend Andy Roddick, NBA great Gary Payton, and NFL stars Donovan McNabb and Ephraim Salaam. It will launch in primetime on Saturday with 16.5 hours of live sports coverage, such as a NASCAR event followed by a six-and-a-half-hour block of UFC programming. This will be followed up that night and on subsequent nights with highlight coverage of all of the professional, collegiate and high school sporting events.

Indeed, the new channel will also present a nightly sports news program to challenge ESPN’s "Sports Center." It’s called "FOX Sports Live" and will offer the typical assortment of news, opinion and highlights. There'll be round-the-clock coverage via regularly scheduled programs, hourly updates and an on-screen-all-the-time lower-third information ticker.

For its part, ESPN does not seem to be too concerned; at least not publically. “We're very confident in our position and try to put the focus on making ourselves better and competition will do that for you,” said ESPN vice-president Mike Soltys. “Fox, with the level of success that they've had in other ways over the years, is certainly a formidable competitor, but competition has always made us better so we anticipate that this will be the same situation.”

Clickspring Design, based in New York, has designed all of the new studio environments in Los Angeles, which includes lots of colorful backdrops and interactive touch screens encourage the anchors to roam freely about the set. Studio “B”, in particular, features a 360-degree set that allows producers to change the look (new backdrop and camera angels) of different shows quickly.

If nothing else, the new network represents opportunity and a new potential proving ground for new technology. At FS1’s launch, terabytes of storage from a company called NetAppwill support the entire broadcast production and distribution chain. The network will use a combination of its E-Series for broadcast resolution production storage, FAS systems for video proxy and MAM metadata storage, and clustered ONTAP arrays for high-availability storage of automation system playlists in support of the channel’s on-air servers. NetApp said this installation will offer a real-world test of its platforms and how they provide the appropriate tool for broadcast sports production and playout operations.

So, with new competition from all of the various sports leagues as well as ESPN (ABC Sports), NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports, is there room in viewers’ eyeball capacity for yet another 24/7 sports channel? Many people think so, but it could lead to the further shutting out of people who do not subscribe to a pay-TV service.

“People want to watch sports live, in comfort and on the most available screen, which means advertisers will pay for commercials, viewers will watch them and subscribers will pay for them,” said Chris Taylor, telecommunications instructor at Ball State University in Indiana. He also directs the university’s Emmy-winning “Sports Link” program. “’Startup’ is a wrong label for FS1, it’s an established brand with secure and established funding.”

Taylor said that in addition to America, the new channel already has a global reach with outlets and partnerships in Asia, Italy, Germany, Latin America and other parts of the world.

“There is an insatiable appetite for sports on all platforms and devices. It's true reality TV, true DVR-proof programming,” Taylor says. “Combined with endless digital distribution, sports is one of, if not the, fastest growing segment in media.”

Many studies have shown that sports media is the most popular form of content on TV and mobile devices. The race to control and monetize that content is on, in a big way. However, for Fox Sports, it will take more than a rock and a slingshot to succeed.

[The new channel is owned and operated by Fox Sports Media Group, a division of 21st Century Fox.]