One must be careful when reviewing a nightly television show after just one episode. Kinks get worked out, formats get tweaked, and on-air personalities tend to grow more comfortable with their new shows as time goes on. To cite a non-sports example, the same Jimmy Fallon who flop-sweated his way through an interview with Robert De Niro on show No. 1 will be taking over the “Tonight Show” next year.
But Fox Sports Live — like any show, including ones that debuted with far less hype — will only get one chance to make a first impression. So how’d the first show go? And what might we be able to learn about the “SportsCenter” competitor at this early stage? Here are eight initial observations.
1. Let the record show that the first story teased in the intro to the first episode of “Fox Sports Live” was whether Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez would “sink or swim” this season. For all the talk of how Fox Sports 1’s highlight show is an alternative to “SportsCenter,” this was the first sign that much of the show would actually be pretty familiar to “SportsCenter viewers.” “Fox Sports Live” isn’t so much blowing up the format as it is adding a layer to it by having the same panel on the show every night and throwing to it regularly. But debates like that aren’t new ground; they’ve become the bread and butter of much of ESPN’s programming.
2. Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole are as good as advertised. They arrive at Fox Sports 1 with on-air chemistry — a welcome thing for a young network that’s trying to launch a slew of new shows, each of which aims to match that on-screen comfort level. And they’re as funny and irreverent as all the YouTube compilations suggested. (If the first episode is any indication, expect lots more jokes and references about their being Canadian.)
3. Fox Sports 1 tried hard to position the show as a “fun” alternative to “SportsCenter,” but for better or worse, the panelists don’t really come across as wacky, towel-snapping jocks. There was a tiny bit of ball-busting in episode 1, but for the most part, they aimed either for straightforward analysis or taking a side in a mostly-civil debate.
4. One of the panelists, Gary Payton, gave a glimpse into what I feared could be the show’s biggest issue heading into its premiere. During a discussion of whether sprinter Usain Bolt was the best athlete in the world, Payton declared that we’d need to define what the term “athlete” meant, and he argued that LeBron James was the best athlete. “He can do baseball, football, basketball, he can do all that,” said Payton. “We don’t know what Bolt can do.” He presented the LeBron bit as fact, and no one challenged Payton on whether James can “do baseball, football, basketball,” even though there’s some evidence that being the best basketball player on the planet doesn’t necessarily translate to success in other sports. Comments like that might be the norm — not just from Payton but from other panelists, who are asked to offer analysis on a sport outside their area of expertise.
5. By contrast, the non-highlight parts of the show worked best when panelists were allowed to talk about their own sport. Donovan McNabb and Ephraim Salaam broke down some video in a way that went beyond mere surface analysis, and McNabb’s contributions during, say, the Mark Sanchez conversation were legitimately insightful.
6. There are a few different types of panel segments, though they all looked more or less the same on night No. 1. In one of them, Gabe Kapler joined the panel to discuss baseball topics. At one point, he referenced Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report. This bodes well for any future appearances by Kapler. Kapler also had the perfect response to a throwaway Salaam comment, during a conversation about the Dodgers. Salaam said something about how the Tigers chances weren’t as good as L.A.’s because they don’t have Magic Johnson behind them. It didn’t really add anything to the conversation, and again, it’s the kind of meaningless (if harmless) comment you’d expect from an ex-football player during a conversation about baseball. Responded Kapler: “They don’t have Magic, but they have the numbers, and that’s what’s important.”
7. The Premier League soccer highlights were all grouped together deep into the show, and we suspect that’s how “Fox Sports Live” might present its hockey highlights come fall, particularly in light of this from a Q&A with Onrait and O’Toole on Puck the Media earlier this month:
Steve Lepore: “Are you guys aware of the lack of hockey coverage on other networks in the U.S.?”
Dan O’Toole: “Our bosses know, they want to be different than ESPN, and show hockey. I think people, in small doses, should love the sport. If it’s a nine-game schedule, show a goal from each game. Just do a 90-second hockey wheel. Hopefully we can bring over ‘Bobrovsky!’ and we’re hoping we can use ‘Simpsons’ clips for Jeff Skinner.”
8. “Fox Sports Live” took one other page from the ESPN playbook, hyping the UFC, whose Saturday-night fight card preceded the show’s debut. That included not just highlights, but an on-site interview with UFC president Dana White and Chael Sonnen, who’d won the night’s final match — and will also be doing analysis work for Fox Sports 1. Fox Sports 1 has UFC rights, and the coverage reflected that on “Fox Sports Live.” This sort of thing makes fans nervous: Will, for instance, the NBA get less coverage on the show because the network isn’t a partner of the league? “Fox Sports Live” is the network’s flagship show — and it’s possible they’ll use it to promote the channel’s other offerings, at the expense of other sports.