Fox Sports Exec Likens His Network to Fox News (Seriously, He Does)

Newsletter Horowitz - H - 2016

"It's supposed to be a loose-fitting analogy … FS1 has an opportunity to make a big bet on opinion-based programming," says Jamie Horowitz, as he dishes on poaching Skip Bayless, what he learned from his 'Today' firing and Rupert Murdoch's warning to him: "Be wary of the allure of the elite."

Since arriving at Fox Sports in May 2015, Jamie Horowitz has upended the programming philosophy, rejecting the news and highlights genre epitomized by ESPN's iconic SportsCenter in favor of host-driven opinion and debate programming — a kind of Fox News for sports compared with CNN's more traditional news product. "Sometimes I get positioned as anti-SportsCenter," he admits. But his repudiation of the ESPN strategy is purely analytical, given how ubiquitous highlights are online. "SportsCenter's ratings are as low as they've been since Facebook was exclusive to Harvard students," he says. "The producers are great, the talent is great. It's a genre problem." And Horowitz, 40, wasted no time hiring key ESPN personalities with whom he worked during eight years at the network, including Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock and Skip Bayless, who co-hosted the popular First Take, a show Horowitz oversaw. (Beginning Sept. 6, Bayless will host a new Fox Sports 1 program with Shannon Sharpe that will go head-to-head with First Take.)

FS1, launched in 2013, is far behind ESPN in ratings, and live sports (including NASCAR, UFC and baseball) still makes up an enormous chunk of the schedule. But for the first half of the year, FS1 is beating ESPN2 in primetime. "No one knows that," he says. "That's an amazing accomplishment." Horowitz, who hails from Boston and played basketball at Amherst College, relocated to Los Angeles for the Fox job after an infamously short (78 days, to be exact) stint last year at NBC News, where he proposed drastic changes at Today that the talent resisted. He now oversees about 165 employees in a division that includes two cable networks, FS1 and FS2. Horowitz lives in Pacific Palisades now, but for several months, he, his wife, Kara, and their three sons rented a house in Santa Monica that belonged to Noah Oppenheim, who now, ironically, has the job Horowitz briefly occupied at NBC.

He has plenty of friends at ESPN and considers president John Skipper a mentor. But he says his biggest influence was his maternal grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany and went on to enlist in the Army to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. "He wanted to help the country that saved him," says Horowitz. "He was an amazing guy."

Horowitz invited THR to his office on the Fox lot to discuss the high-stakes battle in sports programming, his own career and what it's like to work for the Murdochs.

You've said you are trying to create at FS1 what Fox News is to cable news. But obviously Fox News was going after a conservative audience that felt under-served. Who is underserved in sports?

It's supposed to be a loose-fitting analogy. There has been this incredible, precipitous decline in linear TV ratings for traditional news and highlights programming. ESPN has made a big bet on SportsCenter. More than 50 percent of ESPN's programming is SportsCenter. FS1 has an opportunity to make a big bet on opinion-based programming. And that's where I think the opportunity lies in the day part. Skip Bayless' final year at First Take was the highest-rated single year in the history of First Take. For 15 consecutive months he beat SportsCenter. Opinion-based sports programming is setting record highs.

Where is the bottom for SportsCenter?

I'm bearish on the future of news and highlights shows. If there is a particular highlight you want to see, do you wait for a linear show to get to the highlight or do you just type it into your phone? When a story breaks are you more often finding that you're hearing about it through TV or through your phone? I'm not providing any particular insight here; I'm just elucidating what everyone already knows in their hearts.

"Embrace debate" was your tagline for a philosophy, but some say it doubled as permission to be outlandish.

The "embrace debate" moniker has taken on a life of its own, and people have decided to use that to describe a whole vertical of programming. It was a tagline for First Take. We wanted to connote to the viewer that we are embracing both passionate debate but also each other. Though it gets fiery, it comes from a place of love and respect. We are brothers fighting, not enemies.

The cost of sports rights keeps going up. Have they hit a ceiling?

I feel like we're 10 years into this sports-rights-have-hit-a-ceiling conversation. Certainly, as someone who is on the buy side of sports properties, I would like to say I hope we've hit a ceiling. But live sports remain incredibly valuable. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to get people to consume linear television live the one place that you can always rely on, live sports. It's amazing.

You guys wanted Premier League, which NBC locked up last year in a six-year, $1 billion deal, yes? 

I want every single major sports property. Listen, it's very rare that one company will get a sports property and nobody else wanted it. It's just not the way it goes. I think it's OK to admit when our competitors get something we wanted. ESPN doesn't pretend they didn't want the World Cup.

Speaking of live sports, how do you counterprogram the Olympics?

You sit on the couch with your three young boys and root for America.

You outbid ESPN for Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd. How much leeway do you have in terms of spending on talent?

My boss, [Fox Sports president and COO] Eric Shanks, said to me [last] week he is more optimistic about FS1 today than he has ever been before. And I share those sentiments. I think we have made strategic decisions that position FS1 to succeed. And I think the bet on opinion-based programming requires finding fearless, incisive talent to drive those shows.

Bayless said he felt "handcuffed" at ESPN. Why should talent feel they have more freedom at Fox?

There's a culture at Fox that tends to work well. Just look outside of sports. What kind of movies does Fox make? Deadpool. What kind of cartoons does Fox do? The Simpsons. What do they do on basic cable? The Americans. There is a risk-taking atmosphere here, and I think Skip was saying he feels like he's coming home.

Would you ever hire Keith Olbermann?

Keith Olbermann and I had a very good relationship working on Olbermann [at ESPN2]. And I have maintained a relationship with Keith and would love to see Keith somewhere back in media. Certainly, his passion right now seems to be politics. Simply put, Keith Olbermann is an immense talent.

Did you try to land Bill Simmons?

Bill is a dear friend and I'm rooting really hard for Bill. And I think he ended up in the place [HBO] he wanted to end up. I had a very positive working relationship with him at ESPN. He’s great. And I hope to work with him again — one day.

You seem to be a very deft manager of talent. So what's your secret? 

Rami Malek [the star of Mr. Robot] was asked [in THR] how he wants to be coached by directors. And he said, "I want to be empowered; I don't want to be broken down." And I remember thinking, "Oh that's a much simpler version of the nine paragraphs I usually give to discuss our talent strategy."

Suspensions occur with some regularity among opinionated hosts. What message does it send to fans?

Sometimes for simplicity, people try to make really clear, black-and-white judgments. When we work with talent, we try to take a larger viewpoint. Before you go around suspending, understand who was offended. That's probably a better way to approach it than just suspending people because you're unhappy about a certain statement.

Have your league partners expressed anger with what your opinion hosts have said?

Not a single time. Primarily what sports fans are most interested in is criticism about the games — play selections, play calls, decisions players made. The things that you're introducing, more league issue-type things, tend not to be the things sports fans actually care about.

Really? Fans didn't care about the way Roger Goodell handled the NFL's Deflategate?

People talked a lot about Deflategate, and it had huge names attached. By a few months in, the backlash started. It was like, "I'm kind of tired of hearing about a legal case." That's not why I turn to sports. Sport is the great escape.

So, they didn't care about the NFL's domestic violence problem?

They definitely care about domestic violence. What I'm offering up is that the focus of a daily sports show generally is the games themselves. That's not to say issues outside of games don't come up. Primarily, people tune in and they want an angle on the Cowboys or LeBron.

Has there been a shift in Fox strategy since James and Lachlan Murdoch took over?

Not that I've seen. One thing Rupert Murdoch said when I first got here: "Be wary of the allure of the elite." What I took that to mean was remember you are serving sports fans. Don't produce shows because you want a nice article written or you want somebody to say something nice. That passion and directive to continue in that mission is totally consistent with what Lachlan and James have said.

The biggest lesson learned after being fired from NBC's Today after a 78-day stint?

When you join a company in a senior position, it's very important to understand how much change the company wants and how fast they want it. There was probably a disconnect in that regard.

What did you like/dislike about morning TV?

This may sound surprising: I had a largely positive experience. I enjoyed the people I worked with. And it's OK to say that in life and certainly in business, you can have positive experiences that end badly, and that doesn't make the positive experience all of a sudden negative.

Do you still talk to ESPN president John Skipper?

John Skipper has been incredibly kind to me. You learn people's true colors when they don't need you and when you're in a bad spot. After my time at NBC ended, John took me out for breakfast and said, "So you want to know about the time I was fired?" I said, "Yes. Yes, I do. That's exactly what I want." It was so beautiful. He was just like, "Hey man, I'm here to help. I have no agenda, but if it would cheer you up, I'll tell you I was fired once, too, and things turned out OK."

Any thoughts on how Skipper's break with Simmons went down?

(Laughs.) I don't know if I was [at ESPN] for that.

No, you weren't but it was very public.

It's OK to be friends with Bill Simmons and have John Skipper as a mentor. I am capable of having two different thoughts in my brain. Connor Schell [senior vp and ep at ESPN] is one of my closest friends in the entire world and was at my wedding. I can still compete against him but also root for him.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.