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Fox Sports 1 copes with growing pains since August launch

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:45 p.m.

Unlike the network it hopes to compete against, Fox Sports 1 lacks an official slogan. For the time being, “Give us time,” might suffice.

How much time remains to be seen. The all-sports network has been on the air only since August, making its debut amid considerable hype that included chatter about taking on cable giant ESPN, the self-anointed “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

Catchy and conceited, the label represents something to aim for and a level of achievement for Fox. Reaching it will not happen quickly, if at all. The ratings, improving but still minuscule, confirm it will be a long slog.

“Everything is going to evolve, not one day to the next, but over time,” veteran Fox executive David Nathanson said.

“We see this as a long-term thing,” said Jay Onrait, one of the two anchors of Fox Sports Live, the network's studio show and centerpiece of its original content. “It is a business, and we need the ratings to improve, no question about it. We're lucky to be with a company that allows this to happen.”

College football and basketball, and UFC have been the early staples on Fox Sports 1 so far. NASCAR, MLB playoffs, golf and FIFA are among the popular live events on the way. More are being sought.

“I see us slowly but surely adding more properties,” Onrait said.

“The core of the network is going to be built around live sports,” media consultant Chris Bevilacqua said.

Nathanson recently took direct charge of Fox Sports 1, which is the re-named and converted Speed channel. He also runs Fox Sports 2, formerly Fuel TV, which provides bonus coverage of sports seen on Fox Sports 1. He appreciates the value of live programming but also touts the network's original content. Foremost in that category is the studio show “Fox Sports Live,” which pointedly attempts to be more irreverent, if not outright zanier, than its well-established ESPN counterpart, “SportsCenter.”

That's where Onrait, who once took a stab at stand-up comedy, and his partner, Dan O'Toole, come in. The pair teamed up for 10 years on the Canadian equivalent of “SportsCenter.” Their humor ranges from sly to frat-boy, and anything just about anything goes on the set. But not eating. O'Toole once ate a pie, on camera, during the course of a show, prompting a no-food edict.

“Fox Sports Live” is big on graphics and discussion panels of mostly ex-jocks (Gary Payton, Donovan McNabb, Gabe Kapler) who try to be loud and edgy and certain of their predictions, like Kapler stating forthrightly that “Robinson Cano will play second base for the New York Yankees,” the day before the second baseman signed a monster free-agent contract with Seattle.

Onrait and O'Toole are both funny guys, but their chemistry was the drawing card.

“I hope that's the reason Fox wanted to bring us down,” Onrait said. “In a lot of ways, chemistry is the thing you want to establish right off the bat. If viewers try to watch two people trying to get to know each other well on television, it doesn't bode well for the future of the show.”

Nathanson said the show is “irreverent in a good way,” and that the goal is not to change what the basic format as pioneered by “SportsCenter,” which has been around for almost 35 years.

“Our goal is to take what works and do it with our own Fox attitude and bent,” Nathanson said. “One of the advantages of being a new network is you can pivot quickly.”

With about 90 million subscribers from the outset and an array of live sports, those inside the network and some outsiders are proclaiming early success.

“I must say it's been one of the better launches I've seen in a sports network in the last decade,” Bevliacqua said.

“These things are not easy to do. They've been very thoughtful from the business side in procuring rights. ... It's not often you can launch a multisport, national cable network in 90 million homes in a world where there are a lot of people competing for major sports rights.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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