In case you didn’t hear, there’s about to be a TV sports Cold War. Fox is launching its new 24-hour sports network called Fox Sports 1 this fall, aimed at taking on the dominant player in cable sports, ESPN, as well as newer competitors from NBC and CBS.
According to every bit of analysis that appeared earlier this week, that’s why ESPN brought back former enemy Keith Olbermann, to host a new talk show that will begin airing around the time of the Fox network’s launch. Ironically, the last time Fox tried to go national against ESPN in the late ’90s, its first big hire was… Keith Olbermann.
Fox has an interesting counteroffensive up its sleeve. According to a Bloomberg News column by Jonathan Mahler which reran on Deadspin Friday, Fox recently produced a test show for Red, White and Truth, a new talk show to be hosted by Jason Whitlock.
The show will feature both interviews and panels, according to a Mahler’s column; what it won’t be is a split screen shoutfest, in the vein of First Take, Around the Horn and ESPN’s other current talk shows.
A former ESPN figure and a columnist for Fox Sports’ website for the last several years, Whitlock is much better known for writing than for TV work, although he has posted a podcast for a couple of years.
Indeed, Whitlock doesn’t fit the sports pundit mold in a lot of ways. He’s an ex-athlete- he played football at Ball State- but spent years as a newspaper reporter and columnist, eschewing the direct field-to-the-studio route taken by the likes of Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp. He’s outspoken about political and racial matters, but isn’t quite a down-the-line liberal or conservative. He’s provocative, but he’s not a pure troll, along the lines of current ESPN golden boy Skip Bayless. You get the sense he always means what he says and writes.
The essential truth of Whitlock is that he comes up with stuff that literally no other sports columnist would say. For one thing he’s much more fond of stripper analogies than, say, your average newspaper sports page guy. He once wrote a column lamenting his ineligibility for the Pulitzer Prize. And sometimes his takes are even more nutty than that.
Take a look at Whitlock’s column following the recent arrest of Anna Benson, the Penthouse-posing, reality star wife of former baseball pitcher Kris Benson. After Anna was arrested for breaking into the home of her estranged husband, Whitlock wrote a wistful column looking back on and celebrating the end of Benson’s career of gold-digging and fame-mongering, in the tone most writers would reserve for the retirement of a superstar ballplayer.
Will Whitlock’s show work? Will Fox Sports 1 succeed? I have no idea on either count. But I give them credit for taking a chance on a show that probably won’t look or sound like anything else on TV.