It would be an understatement to call weekday mornings “crowded” when it comes to radio and television discussion shows — sports or otherwise.
But, undaunted, Fox will take the plunge Tuesday with “First Things First” on FS1, starring Cris Carter, Nick Wright, Jenna Wolfe and many of the same topics being chewed over elsewhere.
They hope to stand out from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. by offering a compelling mix of personality and experience, especially in the person of Carter, a Hall of Fame wide receiver who was one of ESPN’s most visible NFL analysts before leaving after 2015.
Carter flashed his competitive side on Wednesday during a promotional event in Manhattan, saying this about facing the morning competition, including that at ESPN:
“We’re not going against the ’85 Bears . . . The reason I can say we’re not playing against the ’85 Bears is because I have been a couple of other places. I’ve worked with people who happen to be working in the morning, who happen to be having television shows.
“I like the team I’m on. At the end the day it’s the not Xs and O, it’s the Willies and the Joes. And we have them: Jenna, Cris and Nick. So I like my squad.”
Carter’s boss, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks, said, “We’re not competing just with linear television. We’re competing with the routine in people’s lives when they wake up in the morning. And we love to compete.
“That’s why you [Carter] did what you did for 15 1/2 years. That’s why we all do what we do. We just love to compete and see if people like us. That’s the challenge and reward we get for doing television at every level.”
ESPN’s discussion-based mornings long have centered on Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, whose 18-year-old radio show is simulcast on ESPN2. But that will change soon, with Trey Wingo replacing Greenberg on radio in November and Greenberg starting his own morning television show on ESPN in January.
Fox sees that as a chance to refashion viewers’ routines, and to establish a new beachhead in a daytime slate built around debate, conversation and personality.
“This is really the next piece in the puzzle of the FS1 strategy,” Shanks said. “We knew we had to be live and relevant as many hours of the day as we possibly could . . . We will now be live and relevant 11 hours each and every day.”
Fox’s strategy was fashioned by Jamie Horowitz, who was fired from running FS1 in July. But Fox remains committed to his approach, including prioritizing discussion over news programming such as ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
“First Things First” will be based in New York, while the rest of FS1’s shows emanate from Los Angeles. That would have been an unworkable logistical challenge for hosts who have 3 or 4 a.m. wakeup calls even in the East.
At least Wolfe is used to that after eight years on NBC’s “Today” show. She also is used to sports, having spent the early years of her career in that world, including at MSG and WABC-TV in New York, before moving to news.
She said the time away from sports renewed her passion for it.
“When you’re covering sports you start out as a fan,” she said. “You love it. It’s exciting. You can’t get enough and you want to just inhale everything. But then eventually when you start doing it year after year after year you start rooting for scenarios that make your job a little bit easier, like a blowout so you can get home easier.
“You don’t mean to. It just happens and it turns into your job. So when I left sports I slowly started becoming a fan again. I watched games. I didn’t have to take notes. I liked going to games. I didn’t have to worry about who I was going to grab for a postgame interview. It became fun again.
“And what started happening was I started developing all these opinions and I wanted to talk about it and get angry about it and all I had was my television and my two little babies, so no one was listening to me.”
Now she will have a national audience listening – or at least whatever portion of a fractured morning audience the show can attract.
“There’s no one moment of this show that will feel stale,” Wolfe said. “That’s why these two guys are different from other people. I have watched everything out there; I promise. There is something about these guys that is different.”
Wright, a self-described “nerd,” spent four years as a Houston sports talk radio host before joining Fox last year. He passed on a chance to apply to Harvard – from which both of his parents have degrees – to go to Syracuse, the only school to which he applied.
He decided on Syracuse upon learning it was the alma mater of his childhood broadcasting idol, Bob Costas, and could not be swayed.
Finding an audience of significant size will be a challenge, but Fox believes it has the right casting formula.
“There’s a certain stress point, and Jenna and Nick and I will find the stress point in a certain conversation to make it compelling,” Carter said. “Speaking for the group, we feel this is all in our sweet spot.”