Mark Cuban once said “work like there is someone working twenty four hours a day to take it all away from you.” In the media industry, nothing could be more true.
When a brand and its personalities enjoy success, they seek to hold on to it for as long as humanly possible. As soon as a competitor rears its ugly head and announces their intentions of disrupting one’s place atop the mountain, people say and do desperate things to protect their positions.
But while competition is supposed to bring out the best in us, it can also bring out the worst. Just ask the executive team and employees of FOX News.
When a brand has a strong leader at the helm, and the most powerful on-air lineup in its format, the rest of the field recognizes they’re playing for second place. I’m sure the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies entered the 2016-2017 NBA season talking publicly about chasing a championship, but behind closed doors they knew the Golden State Warriors were in a much different class.
During the span of the past two decades, FOX News has controlled the narrative on news television. They’ve been the king of the castle, and no matter how many times competitors have tried, their attempts to replace them atop the ratings have gone unsuccessful.
But as exhilarating as the ride to the top can be, the fall to the bottom can be ten times more painful.
During the past eighteen months, the undisputed leader in news/talk television programming has lost tons of revenue and key people, while earning a permanent black eye on its image. The brand’s insides have been ripped out due to poor leadership, a vile culture and an abuse of professional power, which has resulted in numerous lawsuits against the company.
Gone are FOX News’ top boss Roger Ailes, the network’s biggest two stars Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, and other valuable on-air talent such as Greta Van Susteren, Gretchen Carlson and Andrea Tantaros. These were some of the most recognized and successful people in news television, and their departures have made FOX News vulnerable for the first time in decades.
To draw a comparison to the world of sports, O’Reilly, Kelly and Ailes’ exits from FOX, would be equal to the New England Patriots losing Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Rob Gronkowski. If you add Carlson, Van Susteren and Tantaros to the conversation, that’d be like the Patriots also losing Malcolm Butler, Stephen Gostkowski, and Dont’a Hightower.
We may consider the Patriots the most successful NFL franchise of the past two decades, and have faith in Robert Kraft’s abilities as an owner to right the ship, but when an organization loses that many difference makers on the field and at the top of the organization, in a short period of time, a crash is inevitable.
Just ask the San Francisco 49ers how quickly the tide can turn. During the span of their 2015 off-season, the team lost Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman, Vic Fangio, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Chris Borland, Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Justin Smith and Chris Culliver. They’d spend the next two seasons going 7-25, replacing their General Manager, and they’re now onto their fourth head coach in four years.
I raise this point because in the media business, we often think that those at the top can’t be toppled. If a brand and its talent are superior for a long stretch of time, we assume that their next decade of success is guaranteed too.
Well, it isn’t.
Just because Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young wore 49ers uniforms and made the franchise the model of success throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s didn’t mean a similar novel would be written in the 2000’s and 2010’s. The Bulls, Yankees, Lakers and Cowboys can attest to this as well.
The number one disruptor to a brand’s success is itself. When great talent leaves, valuable assets such as play by play rights fall into a competitor’s hands, and poor leadership, culture and complacency harm a brand’s performance and profile, momentum shifts quickly. You can tout your track record all you want, but the audience lives in a Janet Jackson world of “what have you done for me lately.”
Most fans who consume sports media form a deep relationship with their local teams and the professional sports leagues in which they play. They become immersed in a brand’s programming due to the conversations that are built around those specific subjects. If the station delivers a local team’s games, and features on-air hosts who are funny, smart, opinionated and relatable, they’ll attract an audience. It isn’t exactly rocket science.
But just like a relationship, connections fade if you don’t continue making an effort and adapting to unforeseen changes.
It’s very hard to disrupt the pattern of most sports media consumers. In most cases it takes a long time. But it can be done.
When Howard Stern left terrestrial radio, millions followed him to SiriusXM, which helped grow the satellite radio company’s profile and business. Morning radio on the FM dial hasn’t been the same since. While Sirius was wise to pursue the opportunity to land Stern, if CBS/Infinity hadn’t left the door open, the story for both companies would be entirely different.
In New York, WFAN will face a similar challenge when Mike Francesa departs his afternoon show later this year. The radio station responded superbly to the loss of Imus in the Morning by inserting Boomer and Carton into morning drive, but the brand’s success can evaporate if the station misfires on Francesa’s replacement. Although WFAN’s history in the format and role in the lives of New York sports fans is respected and appreciated, that won’t mean much to local listeners in 2018 or 2019 if the station doesn’t feature the same exceptional talent that it’s provided during the past three decades.
For each person who tells me that the best can’t be unseated, I remind them of how sports radio has changed in multiple major markets. There are many examples of heritage sports brand’s being pushed off their pedestal’s due to their own undoing.
For instance, in Philadelphia, Mike Missanelli and Anthony Gargano got away from WIP and joined 97.5 The Fanatic. They were two of the top personalities in the market. Since their arrival, The Fanatic has enjoyed a lot of success including plucking away the radio rights to the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers. Had each of those talents remained at WIP, maybe the ratings don’t soar, and those teams don’t eventually switch sides.
It’s a similar strategy which Jamie Horowitz has implemented at FOX Sports 1. He’s targeted high profile talent who are well known by ESPN’s fan base, and introduced a style of programming which has been successful on the four letter network. The one difference is that FS1 has aggressively called out the worldwide leader in sports, including plastering billboards of Skip Bayless’ arrival in the company’s backyard of Bristol, CT.
That approach has drawn the ire of ESPN, leading network executives to bite back whenever Horowitz has taken verbal shots at their programming. That’s a diversion from the company’s previous way of responding to attacks from competitors.
In year’s past ESPN spent little time worrying about threats to its empire. But it’s clear they recognize FS1 as a formidable foe. They’ve since moved First Take from ESPN 2 to ESPN, adjusted the style and presentation of SportsCenter, and invested significant resources in retaining important stars like Stephen A. Smith, Michael Smith, Jemele Hill and Mike Greenberg.
One thing FS1 lacks that ESPN has is an established brand identity. Fortunately for them, people don’t tune in to watch a company’s logo. They turn on their television to watch quality programming presented by top notch talent.
Which is why Horowitz and his team haven’t stopped adding top talent to the roster. Their belief is that it’s a very long race, and although they may be far off in the distance right now, their speed, stamina and persistence will serve them well in passing ESPN to the finish line.
As sports fans, we may support a team and wear their jersey, but the amount of tickets we buy and games we watch on television are determined by who’s on the field and the results they deliver. Our loyalty may be sound, but if inferior talent (see the New York Knicks) are featured, and failure begins to seep in, eventually our passion and commitment to that team decreases.
When that occurs, the organization’s undoing is due to their own inabilities to perform, no one else’s. The same holds true with media brands. If the radio station or television channel you enjoy fails to retain its best talent and assets, then its their own mistakes which have opened the door for a competitor to rise to prominence.
In the case of FOX News, they’ve added another layer to the conversation. Enabling powerful people to operate above the law, while ignoring the signs of a morally inept culture.
They may continue to outperform CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, because although their home is in flames, they still employ a lot of great talent and present a unique point of view. Their competitor’s have also failed to introduce new talent or programs which would cause FOX’s audience to adjust their routine.
But when moral decency is void inside the work place, it never ends well for a brand and its top people. Money and fame are great, but they’re not worth the cost of self-respect. It becomes only a matter of time until the whistle gets blown, heads start to roll, and a brand’s reputation and position atop the ratings ladder come under attack.
Proving once again, that the journey from the penthouse to the outhouse starts on the inside. When wounds are opened and salt is poured onto them, there’s no way to prevent the stinging.