Does Sports Explain Why Fox Wanted to Buy Time Warner?

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the launch of Fox Sports 1, and despite what the people in charge have said publicly, it has to be considered a big disappointment. The most-watched programming on the channel tends to be NASCAR-related… most of which the channel already had when it was Speed, and even if it doesn’t tends to appeal mostly to people who already knew where Speed was. Except for NASCAR programming, the gap between Fox Sports 1 and ESPN has been cavernous, with FS1 even unable to catch ESPN2 and struggling to pull away from NBCSN, and despite public appeals for patience the fact that FS1 has cancelled most of its launch lineup suggests the internal attitude is something else (especially with Fox offering make-goods to FS1 advertisers on the World Series). Other than NASCAR, the channel’s brightest spots so far are probably UFC and college football, and a) UFC programming has tanked relative to the same shows on FX and ratings for college football and basketball games are generally way behind games with similar appeal on ESPN or ESPN2 and b) they haven’t had very good retention for Fox Sports Live (something NASCAR has oddly been better at). Fox’s hopes are now pinned on the baseball playoffs to further bump up FS1 ratings, and after that Fox will be hoping the World Cup and US Open golf help FS1 more than FS1 hurts them (and the World Cup is the sort of short-run event programming that is likely to bump it up in the short term but have little long-term effect, as the Olympics has for NBCSN). If Fox were to pick up Big Ten rights it would be a big help, but they’re also making a long-shot run at NBA rights – possibly in addition to ESPN and Turner rather than replacing one of them. Fox’s biggest short-term sustainable boost they have to look forward to is probably NASCAR rights – which, besides attracting an audience already familiar with the channel when it was Speed, are uniquely unlikely to check out and are sometimes openly hostile to the rest of FS1’s “stick-and-ball” lineup.

Could this help explain why Rupert Murdoch made a run at buying Time Warner in June?

Let me be upfront that I personally would dread a merger of Fox and Time Warner that would create an absolute behemoth, place CNN under the Fox umbrella, and further degrade broadcast television by removing quite possibly the only company with the means and motivation to launch a true fifth network (but that’s another story) and, by inheriting Time Warner’s partnership in the CW, leave Fox with little motivation to keep running MyNetworkTV. (Though if that leaves Tribune to go without the CW, it might actually turn out to be the best possible outcome.) But strictly from a sports perspective, even though some people have naively wondered whether CBS and Time Warner would merge based on their partnerships on March Madness and the CW and their complementary sports assets and lack of direct competition outside premium cable channels, a Fox-Time Warner merger makes a lot more sense.

From the dawn of cable television, Turner has been a leader in sports programming, not being passed by ESPN until the 90s, and for all the talk of efforts by Fox, NBC, and others to make a run at ESPN, Turner has remained the company with the strongest assets to challenge ESPN of anyone, and TBS and TNT have remained the biggest non-ESPN sports destinations on cable, even with the impending loss of NASCAR programming and cutting back on MLB. Suppose Fox were to acquire Time Warner and move all the sports programming currently on TBS and TNT to FS1. Suddenly FS1 would have:

  • Turner’s high-profile critically-acclaimed NBA coverage, including Marv Albert and Charles Barkley, with games running all the way to the conference finals plus the NBA All-Star Game, control of NBATV as well, and a pretty good case to steal the broadcast component of the package away from ABC during the next negotiations (a potential nightmare scenario for the NHL)
  • Control over the ENTIRE MLB postseason aside from one measly wild-card game on ESPN
  • Control of much of March Madness and possibly the ability to muscle CBS out of the Tournament, keeping March Madness to itself on Fox, FS1, and some other channels (FX and/or Fox News or CNN could replace TBS or TNT; if the NCAA wasn’t willing to accept CBS Sports Network they’re unlikely to accept FS2 as is) and maybe bringing Gus Johnson back to the event that made him famous
  • The first two rounds of the PGA Championship and some auxillary coverage of the later two rounds, adding some meat to Fox’s golf-coverage bones
  • Fox would also take over HBO and its sports coverage, possibly meaning higher-profile boxing cards on FS1 and/or UFC cards on HBO

Again, I would hope this merger doesn’t happen – the general consensus is that just because Murdoch was told “no” now doesn’t mean he’s going to take that for an answer – but it wouldn’t be the first time sports was a big impetus for a larger media deal (see Comcast’s hostile takeover attempt of Disney and later actual acquisition of NBC) and would give ESPN some legitimate reason to worry about a potential challenger to their throne, something FS1 has largely failed at so far.

(The potential irony? If all proposed media deals go through, Time Warner’s former cable division could end up owned by a direct competitor.)

2 thoughts on “Does Sports Explain Why Fox Wanted to Buy Time Warner?

  1. Bloomberg wrote yesterday about the CNN conundrum in such a deal, and I agree — there’s no way regulators will let Fox keep CNN. I could see a scenario where Murdoch offers the entire CNN operation to CBS along with one or two other channels, but demands CBS’ rights to the NCAA Tournament and keeps the other sports for itself. Not sure that Sumner Redstone would make that trade, unless it looked like the NCAA was going to collapse under the weight of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit.

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