Can we agree? FS1 shifts from 'Embrace Debate' mantra – Sports Business Journal

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Careful viewers may have noticed a significant shift in tone with FS1’s daily studio show lineup over the past year.
Gone are the days of “Embrace Debate” — the programming philosophy that’s been around for at least two decades that pits two hosts on opposite sides of every issue.
In its place, FS1’s daily studio shows have started featuring more in-depth discussions involving as many as three or four panelists. There’s still plenty of debate and hot takes — that’s like catnip for daily sports television. But viewers are as likely to see the panelists agree with each other as they are to see heated disagreements. 

FS1’s programming philosophy will extend to “Undisputed” and host Skip Bayless.Fox Sports

That’s a significant change for a network that built its daytime schedule around the “Embrace Debate” format the better part of a decade ago.
“It’s not like the debate part of sports television is going away because debate is intrinsic in sports conversations,” said Charlie Dixon, executive vice president of content for FS1. “I just feel like with the audience, and where America is as a consumer right now, there’s enough strife going on in everybody’s day-to-day that doesn’t have to just be debate.”
FS1’s new programming philosophy will extend to “Undisputed,” when it starts back up Aug. 28 after a two-month hiatus.
That’s a significant move because “Undisputed” stars Skip Bayless, who is one of the pioneers of the “Embrace Debate” format. For the past seven years, Bayless sat opposite Shannon Sharpe, and the two debated everything from LeBron James’ legacy to the Cowboys’ Super Bowl odds. 
Sharpe left the show in June and Dixon has spent the past three months finding a new cast to appear with Bayless.
Dixon started integrating that new programming strategy into “Undisputed” in the months before Sharpe left, adding a third panelist on occasion to inch the show’s style beyond just a one-on-one debate.
As Dixon interviewed panelists to replace Sharpe, he started to lean further into the idea of having a larger panel discuss sports. Rather than having one former player sit opposite Bayless, FS1 now will have three or four people on set at the same time.
Nothing is official yet, and Dixon would not confirm the new panelists that start next week. But sources say former NFL stars Richard Sherman, Keyshawn Johnson and Michael Irvin will be regulars during the NFL season.
As the NBA season hits its stride, Dixon expects to have more basketball-focused panelists on the show.

“We focus more on the chemistry and the availability of agreeing with people versus trying to find inflection points where people have a variance of opinions,” Dixon said. “It gives us more opportunity to have bigger conversations and go deeper into conversations, versus coming in with an in-the-moment take that is either going to be right or wrong.”
Dixon launched this programming shift around a year ago, close to Labor Day. That’s when Dixon made subtle shifts to FS1’s morning show “First Things First,” which launched in 2017 with a typical “Embrace Debate” format — that is a moderator setting up two panelists to debate sports.
Now, the show has three or four panelists on the set at the same time. They sometimes agree and sometimes disagree.
“What we realized is once we widened that show and added more gears to it, you saw the results immediately,” Dixon said. “People really have a longer appetite to consume content when there’s more variant to it.”
Viewership figures bear that out. The show’s viewership is up 76% from this point last year (132,000 viewers vs. 75,000), and the show’s nine most-viewed months have come in the last nine months.
Part of that viewership increase certainly is due to a new time slot; FS1 moved the show from weekday mornings to weekday afternoons last September. But Dixon is convinced that the new programming strategy also plays a big part in the viewership gains.
That’s because he enlisted focus groups to make sure he was reading the ratings reports the right way. Those groups came to the same conclusion. 
“The only way to really get a true sense of what works is to watch one format versus the other and then watch people as they watch television,” Dixon said.
The strategy change carries some risk, especially with someone like Bayless who is so identified with the “Embrace Debate” genre. The new show still will have debatable topics with Bayless defending an opinion against former NFL players.
“That’s not going to change,” Dixon said. “Now you could have someone who agrees with him on a topic. It could be three people on the same side. … The old format did not allow any of that to come out.
“We’re not running from the thing that worked for all these years. The best executives let the talent tell you who they are, and you listen. Over time you start figuring out the best way to support them.”
In addition to the cast of regular panelists Sherman, Irvin and Johnson, Dixon has a roster of more than a dozen analysts who will fill in regularly, sources said. That list includes newcomers like Rachel Nichols and Lil Wayne. It also includes other FS1 talent including Nick Wright and Emmanuel Acho, sources said.
John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his weekly newsletter and listen to his weekly podcast
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