For all the drubbing he took from critics, in person Jamie Horowitz cut a buoyant figure. He wore pocket squares; he had a fratty, cheerfully conspiratorial air; and he was always, always brimming with self-confidence about FS1. As recently as a few weeks ago, his halo glowed so brightly that one powerful sports media person wondered to me if 21st Century Fox would lure Horowitz away from sports TV and hand him the really big cleanup job — Fox News.
Now, Horowitz is out at FS1. The Los Angeles Times reports that his ouster came "amid a probe of sexual harassment" — the same type of investigation, as it happens, that led to the ouster of several stars at Fox News.
"Jamie was hired by Fox to do a job that until today he was performing in exemplary fashion …," Horowitz’s attorney, Patricia Glaser, told the Times. "Any slanderous accusations to the contrary will be vigorously defended."
It’s too early to understand the exact nature and scope of the probe (Richard Deitsch has some details), or whether Horowitz deserves condemnation. Perhaps it’s worth explaining how Horowitz’s vision of sports TV came to be, and why that vision was so controversial.
Horowitz’s break came when he took over the ESPN show First Take in August 2011. He noted that the "1st and 10" debate segments with Skip Bayless were way more popular with viewers than the morning variety fare orchestrated by Jay Crawford and Dana Jacobson. So Horowitz sliced out the news and interviews and doubled down on debate — a form of surgery he would perform again and again, in progressively bigger venues.
ESPN never seemed entirely comfortable with Horowitz’s formula, even though First Take remained a key part of the schedule after Horowitz left for a short-lived stint on Today in 2014. Last spring, when Bayless became the subject of a bidding war between ESPN and Fox, one ESPN executive described the network’s thinking on whether to keep Bayless like this: Do we want to try to please sports media critics or Trump voters? As it turned out, ESPN made a big offer to keep Bayless.
At FS1, Horowitz was free to mold a network in his own image. Debate shows, he argued, required minimal costs. Horowitz acted as the shows’ shadow producer and trained the talent. He would spend his money only on innings-eating hosts — something the talent agents who work in sports TV naturally loved. Bayless signed a contract worth a reported $25 million over four years.
Just as the producers of Jerry Springer can isolate the microscopic particles that make up a talk show, Horowitz studied debate TV with a professorial bent. He could tell you that Colin Cowherd, who likes to spin out arguments at length, is a "theorist," and therefore could never be paired on TV with another theorist. Otherwise, you’d get dueling monologues — like pushing Mike Daisey onto a stage with Spalding Gray.
Two things made Horowitz controversial. One, he hired hosts who nakedly trafficked in stereotypes. To the accusation that his hosts could be radioactive, Horowitz said he wanted "incisive" programming. As Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out in Slate, Horowitz also frequently mentioned a koan suggested to him by none other than Rupert Murdoch: "Be wary of the allure of the elite." Do you want to please media critics or Trump voters?
Second, Horowitz tweaked his old comrades at ESPN. "Strictly, analytically," he said at various times, "the traditional news and highlights show is in a record free fall." This was an arrow aimed directly at the heart of SportsCenter, ESPN’s most noble brand. Horowitz managed the miraculous: He aggravated even the mild-mannered Scott Van Pelt. "At some point, if you’re going to talk [junk] about our ratings," Van Pelt told the Washington Post last year, "you should be held accountable for yours. They’re not close."
Horowitz wasn’t wrong that highlights could no longer float SportsCenter by themselves. Nor was he wrong — as it turned out — that ESPN was a wounded animal. But Horowitz was also unable to show, at least in a short period, that an ESPN competitor consisting only of "1st and 10" segments could draw big ratings. Noting that an episode of an FS1 show had 28,000 viewers, Van Pelt snorted, "That’s the attendance of a Cincinnati Reds game."
Among the hosts he hired and promoted, Horowitz could inspire enormous loyalty. I’ve been observing Skip Bayless my whole life, and I’ve never heard him talk about a boss like he has Horowitz. But even among the Friends of Jamie, you would hear mutterings. Why does it all have to be so lowbrow? And though Horowitz has promoted Skip, Shannon, Colin, et al., why was a woman never given the same keys to the kingdom?
Fox Sports — the network team — and FS1 took radically different approaches to sports TV. Once seen as an interloper, Fox Sports has since become a respectful, sometimes even reverent place — as trusty a custodian of the NFL and MLB as the Big Three networks. As a producer once told me, "We went from being brash outsiders to the establishment stalwarts of the game."
Fox Sports employees tended to look at Horowitz’s pirate crew with curiosity bordering on alarm. They’re so different than us. So … controversial. This critique didn’t just come from Troy Aikman, either. One longtime Fox announcer asked me: What are they trying to accomplish over there? How much rope does Jamie have?
Last week, Horowitz made what turned out to be his final aggressive move: laying off FoxSports.com’s staff of writers and editors. I didn’t get it. If anything, the Fox Sports website seemed like a place where inexpensively produced takes could float up from cyberspace to the TV network. Where better to groom the next Nick Wright? But for Horowitz, it always came back to his TV lineup, his surrogate children. He thought the network would succeed or fail based on them.
Now, Horowitz has hired Glaser, a big-time attorney, and will likely settle in for a long war. The memo Fox Sports president Eric Shanks sent to employees today — supplied by Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand — carried these freighted words:
We’ve reached a stage that has nothing to do with the nature of sports TV, with "embracing debate," with whether LeBron James is the greatest basketball player ever or a giant choker. Now, we figure out whether Jamie Horowitz’s TV legacy is the one worth arguing about at all.