Bayless is still unleashing unpopular yet irresistible commentary daily. Horowitz’s career — several job changes later — might have collapsed this week when he was abruptly fired amid an investigation into sexual harassment.
“Everyone at Fox Sports, no matter what role we play, or what business, function or show we contribute to — should act with respect and adhere to professional conduct at all times,” Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports, wrote in an email to employees announcing Horowitz’s firing.
The company did not explicitly say why Mr. Horowitz had been fired, or what details the investigation had yielded.
Through his lawyer, Horowitz vehemently asserted his innocence.
The situation presents yet another sexual harassment scandal for 21st Century Fox, which owns Fox Sports, Fox News and a number of other broadcast and film properties. Roger Ailes, the former chairman of Fox News, and the TV host Bill O’Reilly were forced out within the past year because of sexual harassment cases.
In Horowitz, the company had an executive unafraid to disrupt the status quo in an effort to expand audience. If he did not invent shout shows for sports, he was among the first to cash in on them aggressively. Fox Sports had given him great latitude to carry out his vision — one that unapologetically veered from traditional broadcast fare and instead embraced combustible, and often contrived, argumentation.
Now, a week after Horowitz announced a radical restructuring of the Fox Sports digital arm, he is out of work.
Horowitz’s career began at NBC, where he spent eight years, rising from an Olympics researcher to creating and producing the National Heads-Up Poker Championship. In 2006 ESPN hired him to run its World Series of Poker coverage.
Early on, when Horowitz was based in an ESPN content development group in New York City, his colleagues included Connor Schell, Kevin Wildes and David Jacoby, all of whom went on to create shows for ESPN.
His big break came in 2009, when he created “SportsNation,” alongside Wildes and Jacoby. Colin Cowherd, an ESPN radio star, was paired with the relative newcomer Michelle Beadle, who was hired after nearly 80 candidates were interviewed and a dozen were tested. “SportsNation” was never a ratings juggernaut, but it became a staple of ESPN2’s afternoon programming. More important, it persuaded Horowitz’s bosses to give him a shot at reinventing the moribund “First Take.”
“First Take” has had a transformative impact on sports media, and wider sports culture, often in service (so its detractors say) of dumbing everything down. With “Embrace Debate” as the tagline, the arguments between Bayless and his partner, Stephen A. Smith, were the purest distillation of a trend toward sports shout shows.
“Some viewers genuinely hate Skip and Stephen A.,” Horowitz told The Los Angeles Times. “But they also watch them.” The only currency that mattered at “First Take” was attention. It didn’t matter why you watched or what you thought of the program, as long as “First Take” was on your TV.
“‘First Take’ started out as a really fringe show, and now it is probably the key news-ish property ESPN has,” said Travis Vogan, a professor of media studies at the University of Iowa who has written a book on ESPN. First Take “amplified this impulse of exaggerated debate, and I think that has been a successful model that others have attached to.”
The show addressed Bayless’s hobbyhorses — Tim Tebow, LeBron James and the Dallas Cowboys — ad nauseam. Horowitz and Bayless insisted that the show was truly authentic, that nobody was arguing for the sake of arguing but rather because they truly felt passionate about the topics.
“First Take” frequently drew criticism. Bayless was accused of “race-baiting,” while Smith was suspended by ESPN for arguing that women needed to avoid the “elements of provocation” that lead to domestic violence.
In an infamous guest segment, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told Bayless, “I’m better at life than you.” Bill Simmons, a friend of Horowitz’s, was later suspended by ESPN from social media for saying on Twitter that the segment was “awful and embarrassing to everyone involved.”
Horowitz was promoted based on the success of “First Take,” but nothing else he created came close to matching its success. Though “SportsNation” is still on TV, it fizzled after Beadle and then Cowherd left it (Beadle returned to the show in 2014), and his creations “Numbers Never Lie” and “Colin’s New Football Show” never found significant audiences.
The final show he helped create at ESPN was “Olbermann,” starring the former “SportsCenter” anchor Keith Olbermann. Though it was nominated for a Sports Emmy, after two years ESPN declined to renew Olbermann’s contract. Still, Olbermann has only praise for Horowitz.
“In my experience, he was an exceptional producer and an exceptional executive,” Olbermann said. “There was never any sense that it was conflict,” he said of his relationship with Horowitz, “and that is a tremendously rare thing in this business.”
When asked if he had ever witnessed any untoward behavior from Horowitz or knew anything about his firing, Olbermann said, “No, nothing.”
Horowitz’s next stop was a disaster. He left ESPN in May 2014 to take over “Today,” NBC’s marquee morning show. Compared with the more placid waters of Bristol, Conn., where ESPN is based, the morning show world proved less receptive to Horowitz’s attempts at radical disruption.
Just 10 weeks into the job and while he was still on a “listening tour” before taking the reins of the daily broadcast, Horowitz was fired. “He and I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right fit,” Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, wrote in a memo.
But his ability to command sports fans’ attention was not forgotten. He was soon hired to reinvent Fox Sports, and its FS1 and FS2 channels, as the company tried to build a viable rival to ESPN, the dominant sports broadcaster.
FS1 was nowhere close to relevance when Horowitz took charge in April 2015. It aggressively bid on live sports rights contracts, winning some and forcing ESPN to pay more for others, but its daytime programming was abysmal.
To help him reinvent Fox Sports, Horowitz brought on several people he had worked with at ESPN: Charlie Dixon, then working for MSNBC, as his top lieutenant; Whit Albohm, who ran the day-to-day operation of “SportsNation” when Horowitz was promoted; Gabe Goodwin, who oversaw social media for several Horowitz-helmed shows; and Mike Bucklin, a producer.
By this point, Horowitz’s playbook was hardly a secret. They decided that Fox Sports needed to get out of the news and highlight business, and go all-in on earsplitting opinion programming to accompany its live rights. Large numbers of sports fans, Horowitz remained convinced, loved to watch people argue about sports.
Reporters were laid off or allowed to leave when their contracts expired, and “Fox Sports Live,” FS1’s answer to ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” was canceled.
Horowitz’s first big hire was an old friend, Cowherd. “It’s hard to put into words how much fun it is for me, as a broadcaster, to build something with really smart, talented people,” Cowherd said upon his hiring.
“What Colin and I have is years of a working relationship and a friendship and a trust,” Horowitz told SportsBusiness Journal.
The bigger coup came last year, when ESPN announced that Bayless was leaving the network. After his contract expired in the summer, he quickly joined Fox Sports. Horowitz “changed my life and my career at ESPN,” Bayless told The Oklahoman.
Along with a fellow ESPN defector, Jason Whitlock, Horowitz executed a more concentrated version of the strategy he had pioneered at ESPN.
Bayless, teamed up with the former N.F.L. player Shannon Sharpe, is featured on “Undisputed,” a “First Take” clone that runs in the same time slot. “Undisputed” is followed by a simulcast of Cowherd’s radio show. Cowherd later appears on the hourlong debate show “Speak for Yourself,” alongside Whitlock, which runs opposite ESPN’s “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.”
It is difficult to ascertain whether this strategy has been successful. Before Horowitz arrived, FS1’s viewership was almost nonexistent. The bar was so low that even a modest audience might be interpreted as huge growth.
“Undisputed” regularly draws 100,000 viewers and has siphoned off some from “First Take,” which regularly draws 400,000 to 500,000 viewers and was moved from ESPN2 to ESPN in January to shore up its ratings. “Speak for Yourself” regularly draws 40,000 to 60,000 viewers — more when it is preceded by live sports — while ESPN’s opinion programming at the same time gets 10 times as many.
For those relatively small ratings gains, FS1 has paid a princely sum: Bayless is reportedly being paid $26 million over four years, and Cowherd reportedly earns at least $6 million annually.
Fox Sports was started in 1994, eight months after Fox surprisingly won a bid to broadcast the N.F.L. Under its longtime president, David Hill, Fox Sports became known for its on-air innovations, like a glowing hockey puck and constant score graphics.
Horowitz tried to seize this legacy. In an interview this year in Slate, he said he was modeling FS1 on other 21st Century Fox properties like the Fox network, Fox News and FX, known for their bold and risky decisions. “Do you know how fearless it was when they did ‘The Simpsons’ or when they did ‘Bernie Mac’?” he said.
Horowitz’s FS1 was rarely innovative. The strategy replicated what he had done years earlier at ESPN: Find two hosts who tested well and run the cameras while they yell at each other.
Before Horowitz was fired on Monday, his next big play was going to be a new morning TV show featuring a provocateur (Nick Wright) and a former N.F.L. player (Cris Carter). “Nick Wright, for people who don’t know him – this is what Skip Bayless sounded like 30 years ago, this is what Colin Cowherd sounded like 20 years ago,” Carter said in a news release.
Horowitz, the prince of “Embrace Debate” who caught lightning in a bottle with Bayless and Smith, will not be around to see if the formula still works.
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