Q&A: Fox Sports 1 Execs Gear Up For Rollout

Co-COOs Freer, Shanks Discuss National Service's Gameplan

Armed with an impressive array of live rights and commitments to news and original fare, Fox Sports 1 will launch on August 17 in a record 90 million homes. Converted from motor sports-focused Speed, the general sports service will compete against category kingpin ESPN, as well as NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. Fox Sports Media Group co-presidents and COOs Randy Freer and Eric Shanks sized up Fox Sports 1’s lineup in a recent interview with Multichannel.com news editor Mike Reynolds. An edited transcript follows.

Multichannel News:  Why now with Fox Sports 1?

Randy Freer: We have looked at our cable assets for the last decade and when we looked at Speed as an automotive network, there was a point in time where you could only take it so far from a distribution standpoint, from an advertising standpoint and from a creative standpoint of a programming and a viewership standpoint.

Over the years, we were never able to see a path where we acquired enough rights to make the channel relevant. But over the last three years, we have been able to acquire enough rights that gives the channel the opportunity to have enough events on it that we can bring people into the channel, make it relevant.

MCN: ESPN is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. There are NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. Where does Fox Sports 1 fit into that landscape?

RF:  This is not about us versus them. This is about the sports market and its importance. It's large enough for multiple players to create programming and produce live events and create conversation and opportunity around those live events in a big way.

Eric Shanks:  And we're obviously realistic about expectations. And even though ratings are an easy way to compare two entities in the same marketplace, we're realistic in the fact that ESPN is a fantastic service and has been at it for a long time. So setting internal and external expectations in a pragmatic way is something that we think about.

RF:  It's not a zero-sum game. When you look back and you look at when Fox Broadcasting started, the market for broadcast networks expanded, when Fox News started the news market expanded. There's a lot more people watching news today than were back in the '90s.

Look, there are a lot of people in the sports business today and there is a lot of product out there but it's not a zero sum game as it relates to events or other programming.

MCN: You’re coming out of the gate with 90 million. That has to be the biggest launch ever for a cable network, sports or otherwise,

ES:  Certainly sports.

RF:  I don't think there's been anything as large as that, but I think you're right. I think this is the largest new network out there.

MCN: Kagan data puts Speed’s monthly subscriber license fees in the 22-25 cent range. Analysts say 30 percent of [News Corp.] deals are coming up in 2014, another 40 percent in 2015. So a lot of negotiating remains to be done for Fox Sports One?

ES:  We can’t comment on individual deals. But you could imagine that like any company that has distribution deals, they don't always come up at the same time so there's always something up

MCN: When you start the first year, you said that 55 percent of the lineup, about 4800 hours are going to be live programming between events, originals and news. Is that where you are today?

ES:  …I don't know what the right number is where you would say all right, it's time to go, but this is what we have and we're ready to go. We've made the commitment to be live as much as possible, not just with events but with a significant news presence, a daily stripped block from 5-7 p.m. afternoon live events with UEFA Champions League and Europa, which helps us really start the network much earlier than a lot of people get to start their network.

MCN: Speaking of the afternoon block with Regis’ Crowd Goes Wild and Fox Football Daily, those are centerpiece that you're going to get people to come in everyday with…

ES: Yes. We think it's a competitive time slot. There's good content, there's good shows out there not only in the sports world but 5 p.m. is a time when people are coming home from, starting to come home from work and from school and figuring out, between news, sports and entertainment, what they’re going to tune to.

We think that we have something fun, that we have something unique based on the format of the shows and the personalities that we have with them that we'll be a clear alternative and hopefully at some point turn into one of the first places that people go.

MCN: You've made a number of personnel announcements relative to Fox Sports Live. There are more to come?

ES:  We continue to try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. We still have I would say a handful of probably key on-air positions to fill. Obviously, time is getting short but the pieces are coming together. We had people in the studio again [last month] to try and narrow it down, so hopefully something is coming soon.

MCN: Your morning news programming is scheduled to launch the week before Fox’s coverage of Super Bowl XLVIII?

RF:  I think morning is a tricky time. We definitely at some point want to do something in the morning because we think that you can have fun in the morning. You can do some signature stuff in the morning to help sports fans get ready for their day, plan their day.

There are a lot of things we have to solidify first. And that's why at the upfront we said that morning wouldn't launch right off the bat.

MCN: Monday night is going to be boxing, Wednesday night with the UFC. Those are anchor positions…

ES:  Yeah. Golden Boy most Mondays, UFC every Wednesday and then.. Look, I think that we also work with the UFC, we work with all of our partners to see exactly what the best night is. When you start out, you get really nice, pretty grids, and the research department tells you this is that and everybody buys in.

RF:  And I think the one thing to add to that is we are excited about the UFC and we're excited about the Ultimate Fighter, especially this year, especially when you look at what's going on and where they are in their process. I mean it's a show that has moved around a bit over the last 18 months but still, from a ratings standpoint, just is dominant with men 18-34, men 18-49.

MCN: UFC has been a winner for Fuel. Is Fuel going to become Fox Sports 2 this year?

ES:  I think that the logo or the bug that's on a particular channel is really a matter of branding. It makes a lot of sense probably to be unified under one particular Fox Sports brand and have a hierarchy there. I think that the exact timing of a move to brand everything the same is probably still a little bit of a work in progress.

RF:  And I think the other side of this too is Peter [Rice] and David [Hill] and Chase [Carey] have charged us with really looking at the Fox Sports business as the Fox Sports business. And that incorporates the broadcast network, our cable networks, and our RSNs as well and looking at how things move from one place to another in a way that makes sense and how we grow all of those assets across the board, literally through distribution in cable and satellite as well as digital distribution and everything else.

MCN: Talk about Fox Sports Go

RF: We’ll launch Fox Sports Go, an app for authenticated subscribers, in conjunction with Fox Sports 1 with significant “couch rights,” a one-stop experience.  It will, of course, be your app for scores, highlights, VOD, but also one’s entry point to Fox Soccer Plus and other vehicles we have.  It is a significant move to an aggregated application for TV Everywhere as well as your daily sports habits, like scores, highlights and fantasy.  Through it, we’ll have curated channels around our sports pillars that will provide us a leadership position by delivering massive video content across multiple platforms beyond the big screen.

MCN: Soccer: When does Fox Soccer go dark? 

ES: While a lot has been speculated and reported as fact, we haven’t made any announcements about Fox Soccer. Fox Soccer Plus will continue to feature a wide assortment of terrific soccer and rugby matches from UEFA Euro 2016 and 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, CONCACAF Champions League, Gold Cup, Women’s U17 and U20 tournaments; FA Cup; Hyundai A-League; International Challenge Cup; NWSL; UEFA Europa League; 10 different international rugby tournaments and leagues; plus a variety of related highlight, magazine and original programs.

MCN: Where does the Big East fit on the schedule? 

ES:  In general, Big East basketball will be concentrated on Monday and Thursday nights, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings. We only have 24 Golden Boy fights and some are expected to move to Tuesdays during college basketball season. We expect that Fox Sports 1 will have a modest schedule of women's basketball and Olympic sports 

MCN: Can you give a sense for Fox’s overall regular-season MLB lineup in 2014.

ES:  Our new agreement with MLB gives us rights to 52 national regular-season windows, two per Saturday, double the 26 we have now.  There will be 12 exclusive Saturday windows with up to 45 games in those windows on Fox. Fox Sports 1 will carry as many as 40 single-game windows, 14 of those will be selected in a manner similar to the 12 windows on Fox. The other 26 carried by Fox Sports 1 are going to be games televised that day by Fox-owned regional sports networks. We haven’t made any decisions yet about whether the telecast on Fox Sports 1 will be side by side with the local RSNs or if the locals will run alternative programming.

MCN Rights: Will you make a play for more NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide?  NBA? The national Big Ten contract? An NFL Thursday night package?

RF: As a sports media business, we are open to having conversations with all major sports entities, be it a league, conference or event organizer, who offer high- quality programming that provide consistent  ratings, passionate fans, gifted athletes and intense competition.

MCN: What are your expectations for Fox Sports 1 on August 17, 2014, a year after launch?

ES: We’re going to start out with the goal of being perfect, but knowing that’s not a realistic expectation. Still, it’s what you strive to achieve. We expect to look back on the first year as a tremendous learning experience, but first and foremost, did we hold true to our philosophy of that sports should be fun, both for fans and the people who work here.  There will be a lot more information to process once the light goes on, and after that we expect it to be an evolutionary process, constantly reviewing and tweaking the product.