21st Century Fox Inc.'s sports department is overhauling its online operations, eliminating the writing staff to invest in more-lucrative video production.
Fox Sports will eliminate about 20 writing and editing positions in Los Angeles and replace them with a similar number of jobs in video production, editing and promotion. Executives told staff in meetings Monday after outlining the new strategy in a memo obtained by Bloomberg. Affected employees will be encouraged to apply for the new posts.
The owner of Fox News and the Fox broadcast network has decided that paying writers to cover sporting events, pen columns or grade teams' NBA draft moves is best left to ESPN and other news-focused sports sites. Fox is opting to divert those resources into producing online video that complements on-air shows, can be packaged into advertising sales across the web and TV, and has the potential to go viral on social media.
News outlets of all shapes and sizes are making a transition from the written word to video. Vice Media and BuzzFeed have raised millions from investors at valuations surpassing $1 billion because of their potential in video -- not written news. Newspapers like The New York Times and magazine publishers like Conde Nast are pouring more resources into video as well.
They are chasing eyeballs and advertising dollars. U.S. adults watched 67 minutes of online video a day in 2016, according to data from eMarketer. They watched just three minutes of online video a day in 2009. Ad sales for digital video have been growing 39% a year over that span.
"Creating compelling sports video content is what we do best at Fox Sports," Jamie Horowitz, who oversees the Fox Sports cable networks and online operations, wrote in the memo. "We will be shifting our resources and business model away from written content and instead focus on our fans' growing appetite for premium video across all platforms."
Horowitz, who joined Fox in 2015 after stints at ESPN and NBC, has already pushed Fox Sports to abandon newsgathering on-air in favor of personalities who offer their take on headlines reported elsewhere.
Arguing in a studio
Fox Sports canceled its nightly news show, similar to ESPN's "SportsCenter," in February and recruited TV hosts whose specialty is arguing in a studio, like former ESPN stars Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless.
Opinion shows are cheaper to produce than sending reporters into the field, a bonus for large media conglomerates looking to trim costs. News and highlights shows have also struggled to retain viewers who can get the latest scores and trade rumors on their phones or via social media. Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, which is suffering from subscriber declines, has replaced many of its traditional "SportsCenter" hours with shows hosted by personalities like Scott Van Pelt.
Fox's strategic transition to opinion has worked thus far. While viewership of ESPN and ESPN2 declined last year, Fox Sports 1 has added audience in primetime and throughout the day. "Skip and Shannon: Undisputed" has nearly tripled Fox Sports 1's ratings in its time slot since debuting last fall, and the audience for Cowherd's "The Herd" has grown 71% year-over-year.
ESPN still far outranks Fox Sports in total viewers and in the demographic favored by advertisers, but the gap is narrowing. ESPN also draws a far larger audience online, thanks in part to videos featuring the network's top on-air talent.
Horowitz, who took over responsibility for the online division late last year, would like to do the same. He plans to eventually put the TV and digital operations in a single office so that executives specializing in social media and online distribution will be in meetings with TV producers and hosts, who will play a more active role in Fox's online output.
A 6 1/2-minute video of former baseball stars Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas and Pete Rose talking about their approaches to hitting is a template for future efforts. The clip of Fox's on-air baseball correspondents garnered more than 20 million views on Facebook.
But it was an accident. Fox was filming a 15-second spot for its coverage of the National League Championship Series, and Rodriguez kept asking Rose questions after the clip was done. Fortunately, Fox records everything its baseball analysts do on set.
Fox can re-create these types of videos every day, asking morning show co-host Joy Taylor to film videos for Facebook, or its analysts to tape an extra piece for Fox's website.
"Gone are the days of uploading content to a hub and hoping an audience seeks it out," Horowitz wrote. "We will be taking a proactive approach to distributing our content to sports fans on their preferred platforms."
-- Bloomberg News