Here Comes Fox Sports 1, Part 3 of 5: NBC & CBS Sports Networks Make This Seem Hard

nbc and cbs logosThis Saturday, August 17, 2013, Fox Sports 1 will launch and become the newest entrant in the sports network business. In the five days leading up to Fox Sports 1’s launch, Uzo will take a daily look at the sports network business, its players, the landscape and what this all means for the future of television, the media and the economy as a whole. The series is dubbed, “Here Comes Fox Sports 1.” In Part 2, Uzo questioned whether Fox’s entrance means a change for the overall cable sports landscape. Today, he talks about the failures of CBS and NBC.  

CBS Sports Network
When I was a young, dumb, wet-behind-the-ears, 24-year old sitting in CBS Sports production meetings about the weekly NFL broadcasts, I had very little impact on anything that was being decided in those meetings. In fact, my only contribution of any relevance to anybody else in that room was that I was in charge of producing and printing out the schedule for every major or semi-major sporting event happening that upcoming weekend. Along with times and location, I had to include the network those games were being broadcasted on.

At that time, in 2008, CBS had just purchased the National College Sports Network (CSTV), and some (albeit, not very many) of the games on my well-put together schedule were on that channel. Because I obviously was not CC’d on any memos of remote significance, early on in the season, not long after CBS had bought CSTV, I would label games on our sister channel as “CSTV,” mainly because that is what I knew it as, but also because every other site on the internet was calling it that.

Needless to say, that’s not what we were supposed to call it internally, and I was yelled at a handful of times as a result. The channel was to be dubbed CBS College Sports.

Now, I was dumb, young and wet-behind-the-ears, so I didn’t think anything of this naming decision at the time. All I knew is that if I wrote CSTV on the rundown one more time, my little production assistant job was going to be had. I would soon fix my mistake. But unfortunately, in the 5 years since purchasing CSTV, CBS hasn’t fixed the channel.

Fast-forward to today, and not only is this channel no longer called CBS College Sports, but it no longer is a college sports-only channel. The present-day 29-year old me (with a newly-minted, overpriced MBA) looks back at the 24-year old me and says why didn’t you ask one, simple question?

“Why the hell is the #1 network in the U.S. wasting time branding a college sports channel?”

The reason it is a simple question is because anybody, even in 2008, should have known that a college sports only cable channel would never work. First of all, there are no college sports during the summer. Second of all, only two sports get enough viewership to demand any semblance of respectable cable subs fees. And lastly, has anybody checked out the success of ESPNU, which by the way, is not moving the dial despite having the world’s biggest sports entity behind it?

But I digress. That’s in the past. In April 2011, CBS renamed the channel the CBS Sports Network and figured out that in order to make waves, they were going to have to compete with the big boys by doing big boy sports. The channel, however, remains a non-factor. I, an avid sports fan, sports journalist and former employee of CBS, have never, to my knowledge, seen the channel on-air. If it were not for the fact that I know people who swear they work at the channel, I would not even know that it exists.

So what is the CBS Sports Network doing wrong? For time’s sake, and because I don’t get paid by the word (or paid at all for that matter), I’ll just go with the first three mistakes that come to mind.

First, CBS apparently has not attempted to put any significant content on the channel. Now, this is not a mistake of omission. I know that Sean McManus knows that they have to have programming to make CBS Sports Network a viable contender. Thus, they are choosing not to buy the programming. Perhaps they cannot afford it. Perhaps this channel is not of utmost importance to them. But no matter how you dice it, they are choosing to stay away from the pricey bidding wars over bringing sports rights to cable television.

Second, CBS lacks distribution. Now distribution problems often stem from not addressing the aforementioned issue of not having content people want to watch. But as we stand now, CBS Sports Network is in an estimated 50 million homes. That’s not going to get it done. Part of the issue is that they launched a network of this purpose with far too subscribers. They should have stayed out of the big boy game until they were in more homes–or at the very least, they should have gotten into more homes soon after launching. On the contrary, NBC Sports Network launched in 80 million homes. Fox Sports 1 will launch with 90 million homes. To have only 50 million homes on the roster will not get you to the bargaining table with the likes of the NFL, NBA or MLB. They need assurances that when they have big games on your channel, that anybody willing to pay for basic cable will have access to it.

Thirdly, where’s the talent? Listen, I will be the first among many to tell you that television talent is mostly purchasable, transferrable and replaceable. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to have it. And when your lead personality is “Jim Rome,” you don’t have it. The only reason I know who Jim Rome is has to do with the fact that I was in sports. And CBS Sports Network’s other major talent, Doug Gottlieb–and I mean no disrespect by this–but I had no idea he left ESPN until I started doing research for this piece a few days ago. I do remember the whole black-joke fiasco he made during the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but I was in Cuba at the time–so maybe my lack of knowledge on this one is my fault.

My bad.

All that said, CBS Sports Network is doing one thing right (and this alludes to the first problem), they are not chasing bad money with good money. Instead of buying the NFL or NBA rights, CBS Sports Network has invested in bull riding, lacrosse and fringe college sporting events.

I think CBS knows they made a mistake from the get go when they purchased CSTV on the eve of losing the head of their production unit. So they aren’t wasting money by pumping dollars into major contracts or big-time TV personalities for a network without a dedicated production or business head. Instead, they are doing what they can with the niche sports they have. They will have several opportunities over the next 3-4 years to up their programming, and perhaps they will. But then again, they could have done that when they last bid on the NCAA Tournament, with which instead of bringing college basketball tourney games to their own cable channel, CBS opted to let Turner Sports bring it to theirs. But maybe CBS Sports Network will get lucky, and Professional Bull Riding will become the next major sport in America. You think I’m kidding, but if you ride enough niches for long enough, something may pan out–then again, you may just get thrown off the ride by the bull.

NBC Sports Network
NBC has done things a little better than CBS with regards to its sports cable network. Now, they obviously had the advantage of re-branding a previously existing sports network that people actually watched. However, there are three strategic decisions they made that have really made a big difference between the two entities.

One, the NBC Sports Network combined all of its assets from Comcast, Versus and NBC to make this channel work. So in essence, whereas CBS was coming to the table with Jim Rome and a couple of college basketball games, the NBC Sports Network already had the NHL, the Olympics, NASCAR and Notre Dame football.

Two, NBC Sports continued to make investments in sports content. Mainly, they outbid Fox Sports and ESPN for the rights to the 2018 and 2020 Olympics. That cost them a cool $4 billion-plus. And they did that before they knew they were going to make a return on the 2012 Olympics. So they were here to play, and they were going to build another makeshift moat in the cable sports landscape around Olympic coverage.

Three, and lastly, NBC Sports Network  invested in original programming in a way that CBS Sports did not. Specifically, by bringing Bob Costas and Dan Patrick to the network, they were able to create shows that audiences would tune in for. Additionally, shoulder coverage of the Olympic trials & games, NFL Playoffs and the Superbowl, allowed the network to build off its already existing contracts with major sports providers.

Now, allow me to pull the tongue away from my cheek. Because with all that said, the NBC Sports Network is still pretty much a “nothing burger” on the sports media landscape. For starters, the network probably is not in enough homes to really compete for NFL rights. Right now, the network is in about 77 million homes. They may be able to work a deal with the NBA at that number, but the NFL, whose ratings defy gravity and go up every year, can ill-afford to sell games to a network that has almost 25 million fewer subscribers than the leading cable channels.

Additionally, while the original programming on the network is of note with big names like Costas and Patrick, there is still very little in terms of ratings success for most of those shows. While CBS Sports clearly is not the model of success in this arena, they did do a good job of promoting the crap out of Jim Rome’s show. So even if nobody’s watching it, at least we know it’s on television–somewhere. NBC Sports Network did not really put that much effort into promoting their lead guy, Dan Patrick. Yes, they advertised the crap out of it on their own network and during coverage of the Super Bowl in 2012, but beyond their own walls, I did not see much of anything.

Last but not least, the NBC Sports Network has failed to bring major sports to its cable channel. Yes, they have hockey, but at this point and time (and by no help of the strike), the NHL is not a major sport that moves the dial. The network is going to have to find a way to get basketball on its channel, or it will not succeed. The better plan is to get football over to their cable channel, but it is unlikely that NBC wants to take Sunday Night Football away from their broadcast channel, given that their broadcast channel is already going through TV ratings withdrawal. Not to mention, the NFL would never let them do that anyway, as it would not benefit the Shield much from a revenue or ratings standpoint.

So How Does Fox Sports 1 Take Heed?
There are three things that Fox Sports 1 should take away from the lessons of NBC and CBS. But is Fox actually taking heed?

1. Distribution: Clearly, this is a major issue. Not being in enough homes prevents you from having major success of any kind. Think of it this way. If the multi-billion dollar YES Network (of which Fox is a partial owner) was only in 50% or 75% of the homes in New York City and not every single New Yorker, would it be as successful as it is today? Probably not. The value in a cable network is in its ability to cover its fixed-costs with subscribers, and its variable costs with ratings. A lack of distribution hurts any network on both fronts. Fox Sports 1 has apparently learned this lesson. While Fox reps are still in disputes with some carriers about the upping in subscriber fees they want for converting “Speed” into “Fox Sports 1,” it is anticipated that Fox Sports 1 will be in 90 million homes this Saturday morning.

2. Content Investment: NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network have failed to regularly broadcast any worthwhile, appointment TV sporting events. If you are not in the business of putting major college football, MLB playoffs, the NFL or the NBA on your network, you are going to have a hard time consistently drawing the types of audiences that make cable distributors fold and advertisers salivate. Fox Sports 1 appears to have learned this lesson. They have invested $9 billion in sports content since 2011, and they have baseball coming to the network next year. On top of that, they have secured rights to top college conferences, future World Cups and the USGA’s US Open.

3. Talent: CBS Sports Network definitely failed to get the on-air talent they needed to carry a slew of 24/7 programming. NBC Sports Network had veterans in the bag, but failed to promote their shows. Despite having their famed football crew, Fox Sports 1 may be failing on both accounts. First, they have primarily gone with unproven talent or talent from arenas outside of sports broadcasting. For example, having the two guys from Canada anchor their version of Sports Center is a risky bet, and one they might live to regret. Additionally, Fox Sports 1 has stolen some ESPN talent, but not anyone that was a primary studio host–so really, they just got the people ESPN was not really willing to fight for.

Now, in Fox Sports 1’s defense, over the last 15 years, ESPN has made their talent, not the other way around. So if you have the events that get people to your channel, then you can make notoriety with any on-air person of decent talent. But when you are starting off, you cannot bet on that. And while original programming is always a trial-and-error process, it is always nice to eliminate the mistakes others have made before you. CBS, NBC and even ESPN were victims of not having big enough talent at times. Fox Sports 1 should see this as a problem, especially since they are directly going after shows like PTI and Sportscenter with some of their time slotting. That said, it’s not as if PTI and SportsCenter are generating ESPN’s multi-billion dollar profits. But they are important for developing an identify–something neither NBC Sports Network nor CBS Sports Network have right now.

So as we look at NBC and CBS’s attempts at a sports network, it is safe to say that they are behind where the public thought they would be by now. Maybe CBS’s lack of investment in sports programming is on purpose and they are right where they want to be. Maybe NBC’s lack of external marketing, slight distribution problem and lagging sports are where they planned to be a year-and-a-half after launching. But when these entities came to bear, especially the NBC Sports Network, we the people of the media looked at them as future challengers to ESPN. And while we all knew it would take time, the strategic footing that both of these channels have laid to this point has to be questioned…at least from the outside looking in.

As for Fox Sports 1, they seem to be heeding most of the warnings. They will have distribution, and they have legitimate, attention-grabbing sports on deck. I feel they are taking a big risk on the talent part of this equation, but admittedly, that’s the smallest of their problems. That said, it’s also the problem that could be fixed much more easily (and cheaper) than either the content or distribution concerns. But as we sit here today and try to compare where Fox Sports 1 is now and where NBC and CBS were prior to their launches, Fox Sports 1 appears to be much further along and has a better strategic direction. I feel safe in saying that a year and a half from now, Fox Sports 1 will be ahead of both CBS and NBC’s cable sports outlets.

This was Part 3 in MediaMan’s 5-part series “Here Come’s Fox Sports 1.” Keep coming back to MediaMan everyday this week for a new installment. In Part 4 of the series, Uzo takes a look at how sports is keeping the television ecosystem alive.  

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