On Saturday night, Fox Sports 1 debuted a show featuring two anchors who had honed their craft at another network together for 10 years. It also debuted a show featuring a panel of former athletes transitioning into broadcasting, who would hopefully gel under the hosting duties of an experienced broadcaster.
The problem is, of course, that these were not two shows, but two concepts placed into one.
Obviously, I'm talking about Fox Sports Live. The SportsCenter competitor in terms of timeslot and content premiered on Saturday night to mixed reviews. This is one of them. The problem, of course, is that these reviews don't really matter.
I mean, look at the now legendary review Tom Shales wrote of Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 1993. In it, he demands O'Brien follow Chevy Chase off a cliff, and suggests he returns to being "Conan O'Blivion." That was just months after the show had premiered. Twenty years and multiple shows later, O'Brien remains a beloved late-night cult figure. I'm of the mind that sports highlight shows should be treated much like talk shows. The reviews now may not necessarily be relevant in 10 years, or even 10 days.
It's better to start with what works immediately. Like the chemistry of Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole. They have a vibe that feels lived-in and ready-to-air. Obviously, there's a reason for that: The two Canadian gents have been hosting essentially this show on TSN in Canada for nearly a decade.
I'm sure fewer people were tuned in to Sunday night's show (which featured no panel) versus Saturday night's premiere, but goodness, was it fun to watch. Here in America, Onrait and O'Toole are as good as the best pairings of SportsCenter anchors (any combo of Steve Levy, John Buccigross, Scott Van Pelt, Neil Everett and Jay Harris). They're funny without snark, and the meshing of their natural enthusiasm with an ability to be self-deprecating really goes a long way. Sunday nights post-NFL will be fun with these guys.
Another thing I enjoyed about the show: The highlights seem legitimately spread out, and at times quirky. I feel that we overrate 1990s SportsCenter a bit out of nostalgia, but one thing that was great about those broadcasts was the certainty that you could and probably would, more or less, see anything that was related to sports. Amateur golf championships, Barclays Premier League and NASCAR all got their run of the roost over the weekend. While the latter two are certainly welcome on SportsCenter, it was refreshing to watch a sports highlight show where you didn't immediately assume 20 minutes of football would dominate the show.
Fox Sports Live also did something I wanted to see in my preview of the show: It broke news. Ken Rosenthal appeared on Sunday night's show. He reported that Alex Rodriguez had turned down the offer of a shorter suspension. Simple, effective and promoted as the lead segment of the show, it showed that Fox has the talent and ability to show off some journalistic chops.
Now, let's get to the panel. Again, first, what I liked: After an hour or so, Gabe Kapler showed up for his first appearance as Fox Sports 1's MLB analyst. He was as good as advertised, bringing a knowledge and passion for his subject that was, frankly, missing from the other panel segments. He even worked the rest of the group in pretty well. FS1 would do well to bring us more of Kapler.
The rest of the panel, hosted by the excellent Charissa Thompson, was more iffy. Andy Roddick was fine when called upon, but the rest of the panel seemed to be in a bit of a jokey mess. It felt disorganized when Thompson wasn't directly running it and the guys were left to discuss amongst themselves. Fox, I'm sure, will give them time to mesh. That could definitely happen, but within the context of this show, I wonder if it might not be better to let Thompson and the guys have their own hour or half-hour to give things a little more order. Can "controlled jocularity" be a thing?
Also, the screen is definitely a bit cluttered compared to ESPN. Considering ESPN keeps things in the same general font and FS1 was all over the place with its own colors mixed with various teams and league colors, this was very distracting. It was not only bigger, but brighter, and not in a good way. The Big Board -- the show's other innovation -- is a fine little use of technology. The question is, if you have that, why not just make the other on-screen graphics a basic show rundown?
Other than that ... I don't know. It's a sports highlight show, and mostly (on Sunday, at least) it showed me sports highlights. Do I love the panel? No, but I'll give it some time to develop. I'll keep giving it a shot (of course, it's my job to). A lot of that is thanks to Onrait and O'Toole (I can't tell you how pleased I was that my first time seeing them in non-YouTube form was just as good), who are legitimately stars waiting to happen here in the States. They'll buy the show a lot of goodwill in the time being. But, you know, the important word is "time" here.