In a move network boss Jamie Horowitz characterizes as "another big swing," Fox's upstart cable sports network FS1 is gearing up for the introduction of its first-ever morning show. The New York-based "First Things First with Cris Carter and Nick Wright" will begin Tuesday, Sept. 5, two days before the 2017 NFL season kicks off.
While FS1 has already begun pitching the show to media buyers and advertisers, the name was finalized only last week. Set to air weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. ET, "First Things First" will serve as the lead-in to "Undisputed," the two-and-a-half-hour "embrace debate" forum hosted by Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe.
If the success of "First Things First" will depend on the chemistry between its hosts -- NFL Hall of Famer Carter previously served as an analyst on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and Wright is a former radio jock and a frequent fill-in mic on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" -- the early signs are encouraging. Horowitz had the pair sit in for Cowherd during the post-Christmas week of broadcasts, but perhaps the most crucial test of their abilities to play off one another came during the network's recent barnstorming tour of New York's top media agencies.
Carter and Wright were particularly animated during FS1's April 12 presentation to GroupM. After screening a sizzle reel that included a snippet of Wright attempting to pull off Carter's old ESPN catch phrase ("C'mon, man!"), Horowitz asked Carter to show his new partner how to deliver it with a little more flavor.
"Nick put too much of that Anglo on it," Carter cracked. "You gotta put a little more urban on it. 'C'mon, man!'"
Wright got his own digs in while discussing FS1's wealth of on-air talent. "Say you're staffing a sports debate show. If you could pick anyone in the world, you'd pick Skip Bayless," Wright told the huddle of GroupM execs. "If you want a guy who can be captivating just talking to you for three hours? That's Colin Cowherd. Now you're looking for a Hall of Fame athlete who can be a talk show host. Who's my No. 1 pick? It's Charles Barkley … but my No. 2 pick is Cris Carter."
After an interval of good-natured jousting over the Barkley dis, Carter switched gears and his voice dropped into a more earnest register. "All kidding aside, I believe that Nick Wright will be the face of FS1 for the next 10 years," Carter said. "I'm looking forward to doing a show with him because I believe in his talent, and I believe the best is yet to come."
A few days after the GroupM pitch, Horowitz talked to Advertising Age about the near-term strategy for the daypart, noting that the introduction of "Undisputed" last fall has had a discernible impact on Cowherd's show, which leads out of it at noon. "Skip and Shannon obviously have had an incredible first year, but what is not noted is the effect the show has had on 'The Herd.'" Horowitz said. "Colin's ratings are up 83% since 'Undisputed' launched. So the idea is, we give Skip and Shannon their first steady lead-in and watch their numbers grow. Every show that we add to the lineup makes for more habit-forming TV."
In absolute terms, FS1's daytime ratings aren't exactly staggering. During the week of April 24-April 28, which coincided with the 2017 NFL Draft and the opening round of the NBA Playoffs, Cowherd's show averaged 109,200 viewers. By comparison, ESPN in that same five-day stretch averaged 391,750 viewers during Cowherd's noon-3 p.m. slot. But it is Horowitz's contention that the more appropriate stat is the 61,750 viewers that Cowherd averaged in his four year-ago broadcasts -- meaning he's up 77%.
FS1 in the first quarter of 2017 averaged 148,000 live-plus-same-day viewers in total day and 300,000 viewers in primetime. ESPN in the first quarter averaged 930,000 viewers in total day and 2.24 million in prime.
Horowitz believes that those who underestimate FS1 are guilty of lazy thinking. "People are set up to believe that how things have been are the way they always will be, and that's never how the story unfolds," he said. "There were always three broadcast networks, and everyone thought that was just the way things were going to be. And then Fox came along. And since then we've seen the same pattern in cable with FX and Fox News."
Howie Long, the veteran analyst on the flagship's pregame show "Fox NFL Sunday," told the GroupM buyers that he can sense the same dynamic at work at FS1 that he experienced when Fox Sports first began blocking out its football coverage.
"We started with a blank canvas. I mean, literally, there was a blank notepad and then they hired John Madden and Pat Summerall and Terry [Bradshaw] and Jimmy [Johnson], and fortunately they took a chance on me," Long said. "And now Fox has become a dominant force. … And to see what Jamie's doing now at FS1 and the roster of talent they've brought in, you know, seven or eight years ago, people would say 'you're going to take on ESPN? Are you kidding me? It's David and Goliath.' And I have to tell you, they've been taking people's lunch money for a long time, but I don't think that's going to be happening for too much longer."
Long added that Fox's acquisition of 50% of the Big Ten football rights will only accelerate FS1's growth. "I think, you know, ESPN is painfully aware of the direction that FS1 is going in," he said. "It's an exciting time … like 23 years ago."
Along with the introduction to Carter and Wright's morning show, Horowitz also devoted a portion of his GroupM pitch to providing an overview of FS1's digital strategy. Doing much of the heavy lifting was the irrepressible FS1 late-night personality Katie Nolan, who chimed in via a pre-recorded segment designed to approximate a FaceTime exchange.
"The internet is finally growing up," Nolan said. "It's no longer meant for the stuff that's not good enough to air on TV, it's the stuff that's just as awesome -- sometimes actually too awesome -- to air on TV." She followed this observation with a few examples of snackable content she and her team created during a recent trip to SXSW, a creative effort that gave rise to a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes Instagram posts, web videos and real-time Twitter fodder. (In a nod to corporate synergy, one of the images she shared with her virtual GroupM audience was a photo of her chowing down on tacos with Jake Johnson from Fox's "New Girl.")
"We deliver the best content to our audience wherever they are on whatever screen they're closest to -- before, during and after it airs on TV," Nolan said. "The bottom line is it's not about just reading headlines or showing plays or going viral anymore, it's about connecting with our audience across all platforms every single day. That's just much, much more valuable."
That Nolan played such a pivotal role in the Fox Sports upfront presentation suggests that reports she's about to jump ship are more noise than signal. While Horowitz declined to comment on FS1's plans for Nolan, whose on-hiatus weekly show "Garbage Time" will not return in its current format, it's expected that she'll be moving into a nightly primetime slot.
Horowitz wrapped his pitch with a preview of the documentary "Push Forward," a film about the November 2016 plane crash that killed all but three members of the Chapecoense (Brazil) soccer team. As the club rebuilds itself from the ashes of the catastrophe, the players learn that they will have to fly back to Medellín for an important match -- the very same destination the doomed airliner was headed last fall. At present, the plan is to premiere "Push Forward" at the Toronto Film Festival in September, after which it will air on FS1.
"Phenoms," a docu-series chronicling some 60 soccer players as they try to earn a spot on their respective national teams, is also in the works. The project will serve as a precursor of sorts to Fox Sports' inaugural presentation of the FIFA Men's World Cup in the summer of 2018.