Fox Launches Late-Night Sports Salvo

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

New York— Fox Sports Net launched a major assault in
its sports-news battle with ESPN by signing two of ESPN's most popular sports-news
anchors.


Sports and news personality Keith Olbermann — who bitterly left ESPN and sports last
year to take a high-profile news-anchor position at MSNBC — signed a deal with Fox
Sports Net last week to be a feature anchor and senior correspondent for the network's Fox
Sports News.


Fox Sports Net is hoping that the presence of the popular and quick-witted Olbermann
— along with newly acquired longtime ESPN personality Chris Myers — will help to
boost ratings for the year-old Fox Sports News service. But industry observers feel that
the personalities alone won't be enough to close the gap between Fox Sports News and
top-rated SportsCenter.


Olbermann will be the feature sports anchor at Fox Sports Net beginning in December, said
Arthur Smith, its executive vice president of programming and production. The network,
however, has yet to name a coanchor.


Olbermann — who signed for about $800,000 to $900,000 per year, according to press
reports — will be charged with helping the network to increase its profile, as well
as to draw viewers. The well-traveled anchor is a favorite of TV-sports writers, and he
has been the subject of glowing profiles in such publications as People and TV Guide.


Fox Sports News had been on a ratings roll, increasing its audience in every quarter
through September since its launch in 1997. It was averaging a 0.8 Nielsen Media Research
rating during its 10 p.m. to midnight block, compared with a 0.6 a year ago.


But SportsCenter's ratings have been on fire since late September. Buoyed by Major League
Baseball's home run-record chase and ESPN's new Sunday-night National Football League
cable package, SportsCenter's 11 p.m. show posted a 1.3 rating in October, compared with a
0.2 rating for Fox Sports News, ESPN said. CNN's SportsNight averaged a 0.3 rating in
October, according to CNN.


"We have 10 to 15 household names that appear on the network and on
SportsCenter," said John Walsh, ESPN's senior vice president and executive editor.
"We have a strong lineup, and it makes us feel really good about what we've done
here; it shows that we're helping to set the sports agenda."


Fox, however, believes that Olbermann is a known commodity who will attract viewers, much
as he did while hosting SportsCenter during the mid-1990s. During Olbermann's stint at
MSNBC as host of The Big Show, the network's primetime ratings increased, particularly
this year.


Driven by MSNBC's wall-to-wall coverage of the Monica Lewinsky-President Clinton sex
scandal, MSNBC's primetime ratings went up by 0.1 every quarter, settling at 0.5 most
recently, up by more than 60 percent from last year's 0.3.


However, sources close to the situation said the Lewinsky coverage drove Olbermann away
from MSNBC. Over the past few months, Olbermann has made public his displeasure with
having to cover the Lewinsky story. But in a conference call with reporters last week,
Olbermann said his decision to leave MSNBC was based more on his desire to return to
sports news than on anything to do with the 24-hour news network.


"I tried to be as professional as I could with the coverage of the story,"
Olbermann said. "If there never had been a Lewinsky story, this would have happened
anyway."


MSNBC representatives did not return several calls placed last week.


Industry observers believe that while Olbermann was a nice coup for Fox Sports News, it
will take more than a popular personality for it to compete with SportsCenter. With each
regional-sports network cutting to Fox Sports Net at different times throughout the night,
it will be difficult for the network to efficiently promote Olbermann nationally.


Steve Zapay, sports-television columnist for New York Newsday, said, "It's like a
team that didn't make the playoffs adding one player and expecting to go to the World
Series. It's also a difficult watch because you never know when that show will be on in
the different regions."


Prentis Rogers, TV/radio-sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, agreed.


"He has a style, but I don't know if people tuned in to SportsCenter in and of
itself, rather than for Olbermann," he said. "What Fox needs to do is to break a
few big stories to close the gap."


Smith admitted that Fox Sports News still has a ways to go in its competition with ESPN,
but he said it is moving in the right direction. With the additions of Olbermann and Myers
— who will appear as a Fox Sports News anchor, as well as hosting the network's
magazine program, Going Deep — Smith said the network now has a great mix of strong
content, well-known personalities and credibility for viewers.


"ESPN has had a 17-year jump-start, but we've come an incredible way since launching
as a national service in January," he said. "I think that we're moving as fast

as we possibly can."

Related