Fox Sports 1, Fox’s well-funded, fully stocked, wannabe ESPN-killer, began airing this past Saturday morning. As Curt Menefee appeared on-screen to deliver the fledgling network’s mission statement, the ticker crawling across the bottom of the screen flickered to life. “Our promise to you is we will share your passion for the game, never take ourselves too seriously, and most importantly, never put ourselves before the game or the athletes,” Menefee said, as the ticker displayed NASCAR’s Pure Michigan’s 400 lineup. Can a sports channel be a sports channel if it doesn’t use every single pixel of screen space to share inessential information with its viewers? FS1 may be new, but it’s not going to be the network that finds out.
FS1, using the power and pocketbook of the Murdoch empire, has what no wannabe ESPN rival has had in the past: big-time sporting events. (Or, it will. Right now, it has the very popular UFC bouts and a first-night champ who, in honor of FS1’s premiere, orated a trash-talk poem that would have made a professional wrestler proud.) In the run-up to launch, Fox claimed FS1 would have a different attitude than ESPN, a ”jockularity” distinct from that network’s stat-happy wonkiness. This greater sense of fun would, allegedly, be best showcased on Fox Sports Live, FS1’s nightly answer to SportsCenter, hosted by two improvising Canucks, Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole. But in their totally competent weekend debut, the pair failed to come up with even one good joke about Mark Sanchez’s experiments with pirate facial hair, a comedic freebie if there ever was one. Three days in, “jockularity” remains a portmanteau, not a reality.
Launching a 24-hour network in sports’ sleepiest season and being perfectly passable is no small accomplishment, but still, everything on FS1 is acceptable without being remarkable. Fox Sports Live is nearly indistinguishable from SportsCenter, except that its scroll of superflous information—this day in sports history!—runs down the right side of the screen and not the left. Onrait and O’Toole do a solid Olbermann and Patrick impersonation, but the most interesting part of their shtick is their Canadian pronunciation of the word “Out,” which, for a limited time only, turns every baseball segment into a nationality crisis. Will Americans accept their baseball news if it’s delivered by a Canadian?? Onrait and O’Toole are doing what they can to squash their native vowel sounds, so in a week or two, no viewer will be prompted to ponder this question.
Fox Sports Live, like FS1 more generally, shows an interest in Ultimate Fighting that ESPN does not. For now, UFC makes up the bulk of FS1’s programming, and this weekend’s bouts were the lead segment on Live. (I admit to disliking UFC for the very reason many people, presumably, like it—the fighting—but I’m impressed by any sport that lets its players wear light-pink boxer briefs.) Onrait and O’Toole also regularly throw to Charissa Thompson, who oversees a panel of retired professional athletes, including Donovan McNabb, Andy Roddick, Ephraim Salaam, and, sometimes, Gary Payton and Gabe Kapler, opining on the sports news of the day. The retired journeyman Kapler had apparently not gotten the memo about jockularity, citing some statistics from Baseball Prospectus about the Dodgers’ and Tigers’ respective chances of making the World Series. I imagine he was forced to sit in front of the studio’s massive scoreboard in a dunce cap repeating to himself, “I will be more jockular.”
Roddick has a well-established history of being a colorful chat, but it was McNabb who won me over, and not just because he was wearing excellent socks. (Though he was.) Talking about the contemptible Ryan Braun, Kapler said that Braun needed to dramatically apologize to his teammate, maybe even cry a little. McNabb, with so much disdain in his voice for our current state of apology theater thatI felt a little bad for Kapler, deadpanned authoritatively, “I don’t need him to cry.” He followed this bit of sense with some real talk, saying that if he were A-Rod he absolutely would have lawyered up and denied everything, because: money.
Countering the professionalism of Fox Sports Live is Crowd Goes Wild, Regis Philbin’s strange new sports talk show, which got off to a pretty rocky start Monday afternoon. Regis began the show like he was doing Live with Regis and Kelly—“I had a disastrous dinner with my wife …”—but the studio audience was totally silent, a little flummoxed by Philbin’s adorable curmudgeon routine. (Regis’s story was not as irrelevant as it first sounded. It led into an anecdote about how no one knows what channel FS1 is on. Regis said he only knew it was on 123 in the Bronx. It’s not. It’s on channel 99.)
Crowd Goes Wild features another panel kicking around sports news—this one also surreptitiously moderated by a blond woman, Brit Georgie Thompson—but intermingles more canned bits. In one flat segment called “Hello My Name Is,” the panelists read out the bio and fun facts of wrongfully ignored sports personalities like the Detroit Tigers or Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce. In another, the show’s Twitter expert, a brunette named Katie, read aloud not-particularly-funny tweets about A-Rod, as if anyone needs help finding those. The most confounding segment was a video of the panelists giving Regis a horse, called Regis the Horse, for his birthday. That was then followed by a 10-minute segment of Regis the Horse competing in a random steeplechase race. That was then followed by a really dry interview with Oscar De La Hoya. Competence is not always created in a day.
The channel’s deep-dive sports-specific programs are all more solid than Crowd, because they’re not trying to do anything nearly as complicated. The network’s college football show is moderated by yet another blonde, Erin Andrews, and the content is boilerplate. The opening segment was about Johnny Manziel and his upcoming season, with half the panelists arguing it would be a disaster and Eddie George countering that it would be, “I looked this word up: stupendous.” The show opened with Cleatus Hadokening, but otherwise the optics were atrocious. All five panelists sit around a round table, so two have their back to the camera. Did no one at FS1 ever appear in an elementary school play where they were warned against doing just this? At least on Fox Football Daily, the channel’s NFL show (first topic, RGIII’s knee) the panelists are sitting in a row in big leather chairs, like huge ex-football players and talking heads should.
Probably the most promising and problematic program is One on One, a 30-minute sit-down with an athlete that’s billed by by Menefee in his introduction as an antidote to frenetic sports programming, in which “the snapshots are fast and frequent, but they rarely give the whole picture.” Michael Strahan’s inaugural interview with Tom Brady included commercial breaks (for Hooters and Cheerios and FS1, if you’re curious), highlight reels, Menefee dropping in sporadically to re-introduce the show, and numerous, obvious cuts. Instead of a 30-minute interview, it was probably 15 minutes and, as has been pointed out, Strahan didn’t even ask about Brady’s murderous teammate Aaron Hernandez. If this is the whole picture, the whole picture is about as narrow as that always scrolling ticker, which during a re-airing of the Brady interview read “NFLPA expected to file grievance on behalf of former Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez because team did not pay him $82K workout bonus for participating in offseason program.”