Words: They’re so pesky. You might be reading this right now while thinking, Why should I have to move my eyes to understand the stuff on the screen? It’s truly unfair. Can’t there be a better way? Good news: Jamie Horowitz, the media executive who brought you ESPN’s Embrace Debate era and assembled Fox Sports’ brigade of failed shouters, is getting rid of the words and will increase the videos.
On Monday, Fox Sports announced its new pursuit, laying off around 20 employees responsible for tasks such as writing and editing. Horowitz, who’s in in charge of cable and online programming at Fox Sports, said in a memo that he would be spending money on brightly-colored moving pictures with sound. From Bloomberg:
“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.”
How Horowitz got to this point was brought to light Tuesday by Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo, who published a long article about the executive’s effect on the network. There’s a lot to sift through, such as an ex-ESPNer going from essentially managing a show’s Twitter account to a vice-president role, but the main points are that Horowitz is as cloddish as the programming with which he’s associated would make you think, and that Fox Sports was horny for video and especially horny for manufacturing news out of their own personalities’ takes.
Think of this as the Jaworski/Kaepernick model. In 2013, former ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski grunted out a take asserting that Colin Kaepernick could be one of the best NFL QBs ever, and his employers squeezed every last drop out of it for their own purposes, treating the nonsensical claim, which Jaworski couldn’t even pretend he actually meant, as news worthy of further analysis and grunted-out takes. (Oh, if this were still the only take to be had about Colin Kaepernick today. 2013 was a simpler time.) In a January meeting detailed by AA, Horowitz told an assembled group of writers that he wanted to use Fox Sports personalities to create Fox Sports news. He wanted less coverage of videos or news you could find anywhere—video of a deer hitting a cross country runner as an example—and more exclusives. On its face, this makes sense; while certainly not everything Deadspin runs is exclusive, its basic purpose is to provide sports news that other outlets won’t or can’t cover. Horowitz, though, wasn’t urging staffers to do more original reporting or break any actual news, just to offer up more inane yet proprietary takes. An excerpt:
“The written word is still relevant, but the advertising value of written content, what we call display, is not growing. Our plan is to refresh our editorial strategy to be more in line with our video strategy. So let’s talk about this. What that means is doing less of this: ‘The 15 most unthinkable QB divorces in NFL history ranked.’ There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just like the deer video. This is good. I might read it. But it’s not core to Fox. It has no brand identity to Fox. Anyone could publish this. So it’s always going to be hard to monetize things like this.
“What really does work is when you take things are good like ‘11 Coaches Oregon Might Hire’, that might be something someone is interested in the day Helfrich gets fired, and we change to ‘Colin Cowherd’s 11 Coaches.’ We’ve seen this be very successful. You look at Fox News right now, O’Reilly and his take. That’s all it is. And there are many different ways. “Colin, some of our guys and girls want to write stuff.” Sometimes you might ghost-write it for them. Sometimes you might just hear them say things on shows and that can lead you to write a story about stuff they have said. And here’s a good example of something like that. Bradshaw says something interesting about Greg Hardy on a pre-game show, and immediately writing a story about what TB said. Taking our existing content and making that into news.”
The various personalities on Fox Sports only have their time slots to produce programming, which is, among other reasons, why it’s difficult to imagine, say, Skip Bayless offering 11 reasons why Auburn won’t win the title this year. (Not every personality appears to be part of this strategy. As AA notes, “to increase the website’s attractiveness to advertisers,” Clay Travis’s website was moved off the company’s URL, and Jason Whitlock was forced to stop writing and pitch to The Wall Street Journal.) Only Horowitz was bold enough to ask the real questions, though. What if the most interesting things Fox Sports’ noxious personalities had to say were transmuted into writing? What if, instead of them actually writing down their opinions, someone else did so? And what if they got to slap their name on it as if they had done the work?
As Koo wrote, this task was issued to writers Sam Gardner and Dieter Kurtenbach, who have since been laid off, at Super Bowl LI. Instead of actual Super Bowl coverage, Gardner and Kurtenbach were responsible for tailing Fox Sports’s personalities and turning out articles from the sessions. Imagine working for The Players’ Tribune, but instead of the small possibility of hanging out with an interesting athlete, you meet Skip Bayless, who is presumably talking between bites of his chicken and broccoli, take his thoughts, and turn them into content. This is incredibly bleak, and somehow not the worst of it. No one should be forced to watch All Takes Matter and find the best part to aggregate.
Somehow, this hasn’t yet been successful. According to Koo’s sources, “traffic was down an amazing 50% from the previous year despite the [Super Bowl] being on Fox.” The staffers sourced in the report seemed to despise it, and some took it as a sign that they’d soon be out of a job. They were right. Now a video-heavy Fox Sports will attempt to convince its audience that they don’t want writing, but instead transcribed Colin Cowherd takes and more subtitled clips of ESPN’s dregs yelling at them.
Horowitz not wanting to run coverage that can be found anywhere makes sense in the abstract, but it’s hard to see how this new approach can possibly work for news sports fans would care about, and not just because video of dullards screaming about sports is already even more readily available than video of cute animals. Just think of it logistically: If something like the Knicks firing Phil Jackson happens in the early morning, does Fox Sports wait until its personalities cover it on their shows hours later, then work from there? Is Shannon Sharpe so big a draw that a loyal audience numbering in the millions would prefer to wait for a video featuring his takes to be shot, edited, and published before learning about news? And if these people exist, why wouldn’t they just turn on their bigger screen where they can see Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock, larger than life and twice as bright?