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Media column: New network launches Saturday; late-night TV about to get interesting

WEEKLY MEDIA COLUMN

Though America is hardly clamoring for another all-sports network, we’re getting one anyway, when Fox transforms Speed into a multisport channel dubbed Fox Sports 1 at 6 a.m. Saturday.

The Fox Sports 1 menu includes college football (including Big 12 and Pac 12 games), college basketball (those conferences, the Big East and others), Saturday MLB games starting in 2014, a daily NASCAR show at 4:30 and Sprint Cup races in 2015, a weeknight NFL show at 6 p.m., UFC matches, soccer (a daily show at 4 p.m. and the UEFA Champions League, plus other matches), high school football, and Crowd Goes Wild, which is a 5 p.m. roundtable discussion show hosted by Regis Philbin, of all people.

"It's no secret -- we're a huge underdog in this race," Fox Sports COO Eric Shanks said of the competition with ESPN.

But the most intriguing subplot here is that late-night sports television is about to become far more competitive.

In recent years, among live sports studio shows, SportsCenter’s only serious competition at 11 p.m. were similar niche shows on NFL Network, MLB Network and NBA TV. That’s about to change.

Beginning Aug. 26, Keith Olbermann likely will lure some viewers from SportsCenter with his new ESPN2 studio show from 11 p.m. to midnight.

And beginning Monday, Fox Sports 1 hopes to do the same with Fox Sports Live, a nightly three-hour marathon (11 p.m. – 2 a.m.) with highlights narrated by popular Canadian sportscasters Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, as well as a nightly roundtable discussion, moderated by ESPN defector Charissa Thompson, that will feature former tennis star Andy Roddick, former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, ex-NBA star Gary Payton and former NFL offensive lineman Ephraim Salaam.

Fox Sports executive vice president Scott Ackerson said: “I don’t know if Keith would have been back [at ESPN] if Fox Sports Live and Fox Sports 1 didn’t exist.”

In some ways, Fox Sports Live sounds suspiciously like the late, not-so-great Best Damn Sports Show Period, a Fox cable incarnation that was too sophomoric and inane to survive long-term.

“Best Damn took a lot of liberties with being irreverent,” Shanks said. “We’re not going to be scripting comedy with this show.”

Said Ackerson: “I don’t want to sound like we’re going to have a clownfest.”

Fox is gambling that people will care what Roddick, McNabb, Payton and Salaam have to say about all sports, not just those they played.

“They want to hear me talk about basketball,” McNabb insisted on a recent conference call. “They want to hear our insights on [other] sports.”

Not so sure about that, Donovan. If they’re informed, intelligent and entertaining opinions, perhaps.

But Fox realistically needs to do something different that SportsCenter to have any chance of attracting an audience. Whether this is the right approach – or the right cast – remains to be seen.

“There is an appetite for a show that has a consistent cast of people giving opinion and insight, as well as highlights,” Shanks said. “We want to add spontaneity to sports television.”

### All major cable and satellite providers will carry Fox Sports 1, including Comcast and DirecTV.

### Fox grabbed U.S. Open golf rights away from NBC and ESPN beginning in 2015, and early round coverage will air on Fox Sports 1.

### Far more under-the-radar than Fox Sports 1’s launch: Fox will rebrand Fuel Channel as Fox Sports 2 beginning on Saturday, with UFC heavily featured.

A WORD ON ESPN

While we’re on the topic of late-night television, a few thoughts about ESPN’s 11 p.m. and late night editions of SportsCenter, which set a lofty standard for highlights show but nevertheless irritate us in some regards. Among SportsCenter’s few missteps:

### Sometimes prioritizing analysis over news. SportsCenter viewers often are forced to wait longer than they should for NFL, MLB and NBA highlights because ESPN feels obligated to trot out its analysts – a Rambis here, a Kruk there, a Legler over here – to explain what we just saw, even though no explanation is usually necessary.

The most egregious examples this year: 1) In January, on a day NFL coaches were hired and Lance Armstrong admitted doping, ESPN – before reporting any of that - devoted five minutes to college basketball analysis with Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams. Where’s the news judgment in that? 2) Last week, ESPN had multiple analysts opine on Alex Rodriguez’s suspension, shedding little new light on the subject, before revealing names of any of the other suspended players.

### Excessive coverage of legitimate or manufactured stories, such as Tim Tebow, the season-long obsession with the Lakers and Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday, which became a tiresome multipart series. And already, ESPN has begun unsubstantiated speculation on the Lakers’ chances of landing LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony next summer.

Last year, ESPN president John Skipper told his producers to curtail Tebow coverage and said it wasn’t the first time he felt the network was giving too much attention to a story.

“We’ve created an internal group to look at SportsCenter to balance the issue of hitting stories and staying on them” without overdoing it, Skipper said during a visit to South Florida earlier this year.

“The average person watches 20 minutes. We are ultimately in the business of trying to drive viewership to sell ads. But we are cognizant of not wanting to beat a story to death.”

### This likely has happened to most viewers: You’re waiting for a story that should be coming up shortly – according to ESPN’s on-screen graphic -- only to see it move down the rundown or disappear altogether. Exasperating.

By the end of August, SportsCenter will face more legitimate competition than it ever has. At the very least, it should be interesting to test-drive the new options. Ultimately, Olbermann could end up siphoning more viewers from SportsCenter than Fox Sports Live does.  

 

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