A la carte digital content could've been a powerful weapon in FOX Sports 1's battle with ESPN

For as long as the recently-announced FOX Sports 1 has even been rumored to exist, it's been widely assumed its ultimate success would be determined by one thing: can it topple ESPN? Ad spending, subscriber count and ratings are all mile-markers along the road to the eventual goal of providing a viable alternative to ESPN and, in an ideal world, supplanting it.

In the press release accompanying the extravagant event announcing the channel—which joins CBS and NBC in the competition to challenge ESPN—Fox Sorts Media Group co-President and co-Chief Operating Officer Eric Shanks was as clear as as one could be in a medium as manufactured as this one. Emphasis is my own.

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.”

Though what I'm most interested in here isn't the channel as a whole, but a particular product that's launching along with it—one that could've been much more and sent The WorldWide Leader a message it couldn't ignore. I'm referring to FOX Sports Go, mentioned way down in the very last paragraph of the press release. Again, emphasis added:

 

 Launching together with FOX Sports 1 will be FOX Sports GO, a groundbreaking mobile sports experience for iPhone, iPad, Android devices, and web. FOX Sports Go will offer more than 1,000 live games and events from across FOX Sports, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports’ 22 regional sports networks, as well as scores, highlights, news, stats, and analysis. The live games and events will be available to subscribers of participating cable, satellite and telco providers at no additional cost.

As expected, FOX Sports 1 will be playing the same game on the same field as everyone else. Though they launch with a wide subscription base, great licensing deals and a very respectable crop of on-air talent, there's ultimately nothing remarkable or potentially-revolutionary about their product.

So what could have changed that? What would've advanced the entire sports television industry and potentially scared the hell out of ESPN? A la carte programming: making it available to non-cable subscribers—live events and everything—through a reasonably-priced subscription that'd give subscribers access not only through the mediums mentioned above, but also their Apple TV, Roku, gaming console or smart TV. Break free from the model and get the channel to people as soon as possible.

FOX Sports Go sounds almost exactly the same as the widely-popular HBO GO, which, like the former, is only available to HBO cable subscribers. But that may not always be the case, and according to media/technology veteran Chris Dorr, there's a regularly-prepared memo circulated deep inside HBO's New York offices discussing the service's model. In the memo, support for the notion that HBO is leaving money on the table grows stronger.

Every year the corporate strategy folks lay out these numbers to their bosses at HBO and to their bosses at Time Warner. And every year the debate rages within HBO. They ask themselves: Do we cut HBO Go loose from the requirement that one has to buy a linear HBO subscription from Comcast? Do we grab that larger profit per customer that is waiting for us if we eliminate the middleman?

This is but one instance of the general dilemma that all mass media companies face today. In our larger media world we are moving from distribution networks that are centrally controlled, ie, cable systems and broadcast networks to a distribution network that is based on a distributed architecture–i.e. the Internet.

As this shift to the Internet occurs, mass media companies have the opportunity to deal directly with their customers as they never have. Large creators and publishers of content, like HBO, can now interact with their customers and understand their wants and desires in a completely new manner. And they can do so at a much lower cost than going over legacy mass media networks. This cost will only continue to go down as the price of all things digital continues to fall.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire article. I normally don't pull excerpts as long as that one, but the entire piece is fascinating. 

Back to FOX Sports 1. Though the items mentioned above certainly apply—who doesn't want more money and a better relationship with consumers?—but there are several reasons specific to FS1 for why this could work and makes sense:

  • Get everyone you can familiar with FOX Sports 1's programming, as soon as you can. At its debut, planned for August, FS1 will reach an impressive 90 million homes. That's great, but why not go further? Their lineup of non-live-event programming seems strong, but it's hard to get people used to it. FOX should want as many people tuning in as they possibly can; if NBC's early results are any indication, this isn't going to be easy and FOX should do what they can to change the gameplan. 
  • Reach a younger demographic. Don't get me wrong, my mom loves Terry Bradshaw. I'm pretty sure every mom does. The channel will also have a show from Regis Philbin—who is 81. FS1 will launch with a decidedly older set of talent, and that may specifically draw an older audience. To balance the viewership, FOX could target the generation in which cord-cutting is increasingly more prevalent. If the channel's highlight show and live programming were good enough, FOX could quickly move to supplant ESPN as the default background-noise sports channel for this group.
  • FOX Sports 1's programming can't be turned down—so do it because you can. Apple didn't get to where it is today on creativity and innovation alone; no, it took some bullying in the deal-making process. The concern with a la carte programming is that it's going to upset cable providers, leading to difficulty negotiating future deals. I understand that, and it may, but ultimately FOX Sports 1's programming partnerships cannot be turned down—they have college football, college basketball, MLB, NASCAR and MMA. Executives there wouldn't rule out the possibility the channel would eventually show NFL games and future NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was even on-hand for the FS1 announcement. 

    There's a reason this is the third national sports channel to launch in a little more than a year. Cable providers need sports. It pays the bills, and it's about the only thing viewers need to watch live, with advertisements. 

FOX Sports 1 has certainly already earned ESPN's attention. With their sports licensing deals and celebrity talent—some of which was even poached from The Worldwide Leader—they're far ahead of fellow ESPN competitors CBS and NBC. But if FOX wants to put a scare into ESPN from day one, and show them this is real, they must change the way this game is played. They should push sports broadcasting and all of the television industry forward, right now.