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Fox Sports 1 targets ESPN weakness, blending entertainment content with sports coverage

Major news about sports media doesn’t usually break on ABC’s daytime chatfest “The View.” But then again, Regis Philbin isn’t your typical sports TV talent.

 “Fox is starting a sports channel…Regis is going to have a show on that,” admitted Philbin, visiting “The View” Monday to welcome back host Barbara Walters, who immediately pressed him to announce his new venture there.

Turns out, Philbin will be hosting a daily talk show, “Rush Hour,” that will anchor the 5 pm hour of Fox Sports 1, a national network planned to reach 90 million homes as of Aug. 17 in what organizers are calling the biggest sports cable network launch ever.

Fox didn’t announce the channel until today (Tuesday) at its “upfront” event for cable TV advertisers in New York. It must have thrilled Philbin’s bosses to see rival network ABC get the first video of their new host talking about his Fox Sports show on “The View” the day before,

Still it’s obvious that Fox Sports 1’s biggest rival is the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN. And to match their 24/7 broadcast power, Fox is converting its Speed channel to Fox Sports 1 and Fuel channel to a sister outlet, Fox Sports 2.

“Our ‘secret,’ admittedly a very poorly kept one, is now revealed,” said Fox Sorts Media Group co-President and co-Chief Operating Officer Eric Shanks, in the announcement Tuesday.  “Fans are ready for an alternative to the establishment, and our goal for FS1 is to provide the best in-game experience possible, complemented by informative news, entertaining studio shows and provocative original programming.”

The press release on Fox Sports 1 touts lots of names sports fans will recognize – including Terry Bradshaw, Erin Andrews and Howie Long, expected to join a rotating squad of hosts for “Fox Football Daily,” a 6 pm extension of Fox NFL Sunday.

The channel also promises Fox Sports Live, a news franchise shaping up as their version of ESPN’s SportsCenter with an 11 pm nightly program scheduled with the channel launch and a morning show coming in Jan. 2014 coinciding with Fox’s telecast of the Super Bowl.

There’s a mobile app, Fox Sports Go, and plans to move ahead with a unique “double box” commercial format. The double box, which debuted on Fox Sports broadcasting in January, runs a commercial message on most of the screen during a sporting event, relegating images of the action to a smaller corner.

Another version of the “double box,” which the release for Fox Sports 1 claimed could boost a 62 percent increase in brand recall for advertisers, would have advertising displayed during game play in a box, perhaps like a ticker.

But even with all these bells and whistles announced today, I’m most interested in the guy who opened his mouth the day before: Regis Philbin.

At age 81, Philbin hasn’t been in the target demographic for sports broadcasters for close to a half-century. And the program he will host, featuring sports fans, celebrity guests and sports professionals in a live show broadcast from New York City, sounds a bit like “First Take”-meets-“Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.”

But it may also show Fox’s willingness to play in a different sandbox than ESPN – offering a product with a little more showbiz juice and entertainment value than the Worldwide Leader, to win the war by offering something different.

That hasn’t been the case so far with the other big-name entrants into the cable sports channel game, NBC Sports Network and the CBS Sports Network.

Both of those channels debuted with big sports media names – NBC has Bob Costas and CBS has Jim Rome – along with lots of corporate synergy and a focus on snapping up sports rights to game ESPN couldn’t grab.

But in the same way that conservative-oriented Fox News Channel beat CNN by going after its weakness – that conservative news viewers, who dominate news viewing in cable TV, saw CNN as too liberal – perhaps Philbin’s presence signals an attempt to beat ESPN where they are weakest: in entertainment.

In a November article for Sports Business Journal which predicted an August 2013 start date for Fox Sports 1, writer John Ourand cited a “sizzle reel” video making the rounds among sports media insiders showing male focus group members dinging ESPN for its East Coast bias and awards show, the ESPYs.

With 22 regional sports networks also in the fold and a stake in the New York Yankees’ YES Network, Fox seems uniquely positioned to try and do to ESPN and the sports world what Fox News Channel has done to CNN and news reporting.

The only question left, is whether that will wind up being a good things for the sports world or for fans.

According to the network’s press release, here’s some of the material Fox Sports 1 will offer:

 “COLLEGE BASKETBALL – Dozens of exclusive prime time games on Monday and Thursday nights, plus Saturday and Sunday coverage of the Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL – Led by Notre Dame at Stanford, the Big Ten Championship Game and Pac-12 Championship Game (2014) on FOX, dozens of exclusive, live games from the Pac-12, Big 12 and Conference USA on Thursday nights and Saturdays.

MLB – Beginning in 2014, select League Championship Series and Division Series games; regular-season games over 26 Saturdays; live game-in-progress look-in show.

NASCAR – Select NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races as soon as 2015; all Speedweeks events leading up to the Daytona 500; NASCAR Sprint Cup; NASCAR Victory Lane, a weekly wrap-up show; and Race Hub, a daily mid-day studio show with the latest from drivers, owners and garages.

SOCCER – Afternoon coverage of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, and CONCACAF Champions League featuring many of the world’s greatest and most successful clubs; FIFA Women’s World Cup coverage in 2015 and 2019; FIFA Men’s World Cup coverage in 2018 and 2022; delayed matches in prime time; weekly magazine and highlights shows.

UFC – Featured on Wednesday nights; live FIGHT NIGHTS through 2014, the first is scheduled for launch night, Saturday, Aug. 17; UFC Tonight, the weekly authority for UFC news and information; 14 Saturday pay-per-view preliminary cards; hundreds of hours of library programs and events.”

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

Check out Deggans’ latest book, Race-Baiter, How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, and you can also visit his website for more information.

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