On my bookshelf as I write this, there's a copy of a book, written in 1997, by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. It's about ESPN's SportsCenter, which by that point had exploded into enough of a cultural phenomenon that… well, that Olbermann and Patrick got to write a book about it. Part of the book is a glossary of the show's many catchphrases: "En fuego," for instance, or "I can read his lips, and he's not praying."
The Big Show-era SportsCenter came along at exactly the right time: It was equal parts informative and entertaining at a time when most fans were getting their first and only look at the night's highlights. And the loose, fun approach to narrating those clips took not just SportsCenter but ESPN in general to new levels of popularity.
Next month, ESPN faces perhaps its strongest challenge yet in the cable-sports marketplace when Fox Sports 1 launches on August 17. And though it's hardly the first nightly highlight show to go up against SportsCenter, Fox Sports Live is taking aim at ESPN's flagship program by embracing the tone that turned Olbermann and Patrick (not to mention anchors like Craig Kilborn) into stars.
Fox Sports 1 has made a pretty wide range of hires, from household names (Regis Philbin) to smart columnists (Jason Gay) to ex-jocks (Gary Payton, Andy Roddick, et al). But it was the hiring of Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole as anchors on Fox Sports Live that suggested the network's nightly highlight show might have the feel of the Olbermann-Patrick SportsCenter.
Onrait and O'Toole may be largely unknown in the U.S. right now, but they were wildly popular in Canada, where they anchored TSN's SportsCentre. (How big are they north of the border? Following the announcement that they'd been poached by Fox Sports 1, Canada's prime minister sent out a Tweet that he was sad to see them go.) Onrait and O'Toole have this type of following because they anchored their show in an irreverent, often hilarious way. Here's a clip for the uninitiated:
Of course, the show that Onrait and O'Toole will be anchoring is airing in a very different media landscape than the one Olbermann and Patrick experienced in the 1990s. Must-see highlights are now shared in real time, and no one waits until an 11 p.m. broadcast to find out game results. Fox Sports 1 is banking that Onrait and O'Toole can anchor the show in a way that they're the draw, instead of the highlights themselves. It's not a bad bet: If their TSN work is any indication, it could be worth watching them do their thing even if the highlights they're narrating are stale by the time they air.
But again, entertaining the audience was only half the formula of SportsCenter in its heyday. And this is where Fox Sports Live's plan isn't as promising. Informing viewers in 2013 needs to go beyond reading scores and showing clips. Fans already know what's happened by the time a nightly show like this goes on the air. Fans today are smarter than ever, and they can handle smart analysis, should a network choose to provide it. Fox Sports Live, though, appears to be doubling down on the entertainment aspect of the show.
As Steve Lepore explains over at Puck the Media, Fox Sports Live (on weekdays at least) will sort of be two shows at once. It'll show highlights, but it'll also feature a panel discussion, hosted by Charissa Thompson, that includes a handful of former athletes: Roddick, Payton, Donovan McNabb, and Ephraim Salaam. But according to Lepore, the plan isn't to just have McNabb talk about the NFL and Roddick talk about tennis. Said McNabb, on the conference call that announced the details of the show: "People want to hear Gary Payton talk about badminton."
That line, even if said jokingly, suggests a problem with Fox Sports Live's format. Gary Payton has surely forgotten more about basketball than most viewers will ever know, but with all the panelists chiming in on the news of the day, we probably shouldn't expect a lot of next-level analysis overall. It sounds like this part of the show will be surface discussion -- the kind of conversation that doesn't require all the panelists to be experts on a given topic. The hope, presumably, is that the personalities will mesh well and it'll make for entertaining conversation anyway. But it seems like a missed opportunity.
Fox has the resources to bring in smart people to say smart things about sports. But the panel described here sounds like it takes a page from the ESPN "embrace debate" playbook, which is what Fox Sports 1 should be offering an alternative to. And remember: Viewers these days can watch not just ESPN's or Fox Sports 1's nightly highlight show, but the sport-specific ones airing on the league networks. Those networks may not be perfect, but baseball fans have the option of watching baseball people talk about their sport, just like, say, hockey fans have the option of watching the NHL Network's nightly show. They don't want to watch Gary Payton talk about baseball or hockey any more than they want to watch him talk about badminton.
Perhaps not coincidentally, while Fox Sports 1 readies its new programming -- and its nightly highlight show in particular -- ESPN has made the splashiest moves of all. Keith Olbermann -- more than a decade after napalming the bridges in Bristol (to use the famous phrase of a former colleague) -- is returning to host a nightly show on ESPN 2. (The network also poached stat-wizard Nate Silver from The New York Times, raising the ESPN's average IQ even further.) But with Olbermann on ESPN 2, and SportsCenter still chugging along on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 is hoping that a fun, sometimes irreverent nightly show will strike a chord with fans, just like it did when Olbermann was in the SportsCenter anchor's chair.