LOS ANGELES >> Fox Sports 1 has been maligned since its launch in 2013 for continuing to change identities and philosophies. The network has found its stride during the past year, however, with executives showing patience in trying to let things develop.
“We’ve grown past ‘embrace debate.’ I think we’re a more mature network now,” said Mark Silverman, the president of Fox Sports national networks. “I think we have some shows with a little more element of debate and others that are smart, entertaining and interesting to sports fans.”
Silverman was named to his current post in January 2018 and his team is guiding FS1 through its third iteration. When it launched in August 2013, FS1 was geared toward news and highlights, which didn’t last long. Jamie Horowitz was hired in 2015 and tried to install an “Embrace Debate” format that had some success while he was at ESPN. Horowitz lasted only two years before he was fired .
This version of FS1 is geared toward studio shows with a mix of debate, interviews and analysis and it’s finding traction among viewers. Last year’s studio programming generated a 28 percent increase in viewers over 2017.
According to Sports Business Daily , FS1 finished third among the most viewed sports networks last year, behind ESPN and NBCSN but ahead of ESPN2.
FS1 has built its fortunes around Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless, but it has also surrounded them with other shows that give the network at least 12 hours of studio programming a day. Those numbers have continued to increase over the first quarter of this year. According to Nielsen, Bayless’ “Undisputed” and Cowherd’s “The Herd” are both up 3 percent over the same period last year. “Undisputed” is averaging 148,000 viewers in its late morning time slot and “The Herd” is averaging 108,000 from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern.
Cowherd, who recently signed an extension with Fox, said he figured it was going to take time before there was growth. For one, he was trying to put together a successful television show with a radio simulcast instead of the other way around.
Also, when “The Herd” made its debut on FS1 in September 2015, it was on an island with no other consistent programming around it. “Speak for Yourself” and “Undisputed” debuted in 2016 followed by “First Things First” in 2017 and “Lock It In” and “Fair Game with Kristine Leahy” last fall.
“They had to wait for people to get out of contracts and recruit. It also takes time to build chemistry,” Cowherd said. “I think the lineup that we built has been great. To me the game plan is simple — hire people who have strong opinions about the biggest stories.”
Bayless, whose debate style and stands on certain sports topics have drawn plenty of critics, has benefited from promotion on Fox’s biggest sporting events. Cowherd is more widely distributed because he also has a radio show and he appears on Fox’s Sunday NFL show that airs before pregame.
“We’ve grown steadily. I’m pretty sure we found an audience, or they found us,” Bayless said. “The promotion on big events helped because it brought awareness of where we were on their local dial. We continue to scratch and claw, though, for more audience, eyeballs and awareness.”
The biggest surprise might be the “First Things First” morning show, which has increased 30 percent in a year while averaging 61,000 viewers.
Nick Wright, who hosts the morning show with Cris Carter and Jenna Wolfe, said he has been happy with the reassurance FS1 executives have given him that they are focused on the long haul and not short-term results.
“Our show is about trying to build that relationship with the audience and be the most informed,” he said. “The good thing is we have shows that play to a different speed and people can watch throughout the day.”
“Lock It In” is the first gambling show to launch on a national sports network and “Fair Game” is a long-form interview show. Both air in the late afternoon at a time when it is often difficult to build an audience.
Charlie Dixon, FS1’s executive vice president of content, said the goal for the remainder of the year is to keep building on what the studio shows have accomplished. The only new show on the horizon is a weekly look at the WWE, which will premiere in the fall when “WWE Smackdown” moves to Fox.
“The hardest thing to do is not touch it. There are growing pains with any relationship and shows,” he said. “We need to learn from them, and we all need to be on the same page.”
As far as other live programming, Fox lost the Champions League, UFC and BIG3 basketball over the past year, but is looking to add other properties. One possible addition could be the XFL due to a relationship with Vince McMahon and the WWE.
“We are still growing and finding our way. We may have been overly ambitious coming out of the gate,” Silverman said. “We had to learn and find out what is working and bring in a couple guys and shows we can build off of.”