News Corp.’s first stab at creating a national sports TV network did not go well. Fox Sports 1 launched in August 2013 with the stated goal of serving as the “fun” alternative to industry-leading ESPN. At a time when the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader of Sports barely acknowledged the existence of viral videos, FS1’s flagship Fox Sports Live highlight show—helmed by a pair of genial, bantering Canadians hired away from TSN’s SportsCentre—regularly broadcast wacky material that originated online. The network also added progressive producers interested in covering social issues like homophobia and racism and showcased the talents of blogger and YouTube personality Katie Nolan, who broke out with a 2014 commentary that linked the NFL’s botched handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case to the second-class status of women in sports.
In Fox Sports 1’s first 21 months on the air, its programming choices went over about as well as a 22-year-old trying to explain dank memes and white privilege to his Republican uncle at Thanksgiving. On April 23, 2015, more than 600,000 people watched the early evening edition of SportsCenter on ESPN while just 19,000 tuned into the highest-rated airing of Fox Sports Live. That same day, 21st Century Fox—News Corp. restructured itself in 2013 after announcing the creation of Fox Sports 1—killed the “fun” version of FS1 and hired Jamie Horowitz.*
Depending on your perspective, the 40-year-old Horowitz is either the guy who ruined sports television, a genius broadcasting executive, or the genius broadcasting executive who ruined sports television. As a higher-up at ESPN, Horowitz was notorious for producing shows such as First Take—tagline: “embrace debate”—on which voluble men aired retrograde opinions on subjects related to race and gender. When he signed on as president of Fox Sports National Networks, Horowitz immediately announced his intention to model Fox Sports 1 after a certain divisive corporate sibling. “There is proof in the pudding of what’s happening at Fox News,” he told an audience at Williams College. “If you put compelling studio programming on, with people saying interesting and informative things, people find it.”
This was not a one-off comparison. Horowitz later played up the Fox News analogy in interviews with the Hollywood Reporter and the Wall Street Journal, telling the former that 21st Century Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch instructed him, “Be wary of the allure of the elite.” Horowitz said he took that as a reminder that “you are serving sports fans. Don’t produce shows because you want a nice article written or you want somebody to say something nice.”
What sports fans wanted to see, in Horowitz’s view, were loudmouthed veterans of those debate-embracing ESPN opinion programs. Horowitz hired Colin Cowherd, whose ESPN tenure ended soon after he argued that baseball couldn’t really be a “thinking man’s game” if graduates of the Dominican Republic’s school system were good at playing it. He also hired Skip Bayless, who was accused of race-baiting by just about every publication that covers sports during his tenure on the Horowitz-produced First Take. (Bayless’ ESPN exit was celebrated publicly by several of his former colleagues.) And he signed Jason Whitlock, a paranoid contrarian from the black-teenagers-should-pull-up-their-pants school of civil rights discourse who also believes, for some reason, that the American media is controlled by Chinese Communists. During the first year of Horowitz’s tenure, FS1 also laid off most of its news and feature reporters. His intention, it seemed, was to engineer a machine that belched out hot takes and nothing else.
I started keeping tabs on FS1 when Cowherd and Whitlock’s daily debate show, Speak for Yourself, began airing in June; Bayless’ Undisputed came on the air three months later. I thought I would be documenting the rise of a right-wing competitor to ESPN, a network that would try to capitalize on the growing belief in conservative circles that the Worldwide Leader is promoting a liberal agenda. This would be the sports equivalent of Fox News’ 1996 debut under the direction of Republican operative Roger Ailes—a venture designed to stoke the most hostile and ungenerous impulses of sports fans in the way that Ailes’ operation played to the fears and suspicions of news junkies.
That’s not quite what happened. Two years into Jamie Horowitz’s tenure, his cable sports network is just as likely to air a bombastically left-wing opinion as a bombastically conservative one. And while it was a relief, on one level, to discover that Horowitz and Ailes are not fellow travelers, I’m not sure that what I did find on FS1 should make anyone feel particularly optimistic about the future of sports TV or human civilization.
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On Horowitz’s FS1, men wearing suits sit at sleek desks and disagree with one another for six-and-a-half hours each day. That’s a lot of daily airtime to fill, and by necessity a great deal of it is occupied by the chewing over of ephemeral sports mundanity. “Watching that game just made me sick,” Bayless said last week on his show, Undisputed. He was discussing a regular-season contest in which the Golden State Warriors beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, and in doing so demonstrated his highly developed ability to have the strongest possible reaction to the mildest of stimuli. Bayless also commented on the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback situation, declaring his belief that owner Jerry Jones will give veteran Tony Romo a chance to win his old job back from young upstart Dak Prescott. For Fox Sports 1, ESPN, and everywhere else sports yakkers congregate, quarterback controversies are the stuff of life. Bayless’ colleague Cowherd has taken at least six different positions since November, for instance, about whether the Patriots should trade Tom Brady’s backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
Former 49ers quarterback and erstwhile national anthem–kneeler Colin Kaepernick was also back in the news after a Bleacher Report article alleged that some teams are afraid of signing Kaepernick because they are worried about Donald Trump whipping up a backlash via Twitter. (Trump subsequently cited the article, proudly, at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky.) On Speak for Yourself, Whitlock responded by mocking Kaepernick in a tirade that involved the movie Get Out and Whitlock-as-Kaepernick saying the words, “Mistah white folks, I won’t take a knee no mo’.” It was weird:
“Far-left ideology,” Whitlock opines, has left Kaepernick—like “most black men”—“unemployed, on a knee, and trying to prove their blackness through stunts.” He asserts that Kaepernick’s interest in civil rights is overcompensation for having been raised by two adoptive white parents (!) before concluding with this advice, directed to the quarterback: “Hire a therapist to make you feel black.” (!!)
As Whitlock’s embarrassing monologue showed, Horowitz’s Fox Sports 1 sometimes serves as a megaphone for the most outlandish possible opinions, with little regard for reason, coherence, or fairness.
Kaepernick and Whitlock are a particularly gruesome combination. Consider the Speak for Yourself host’s Jan. 25 comparison of Kaepernick’s protest and Brady’s pre–Super Bowl refusal to discuss his relationship with Trump. “To me, [Tom Brady] is the anti–Colin Kaepernick,” Whitlock said. “He’s making a statement. In the right way, in my opinion. It ain’t about taking a knee; it ain’t about doing stuff for social media. He’s standing by his friend.”
In addition to being racially and politically provocative, this take is also total garbage, even if you accept the quasi-logic that “standing by [one’s] friend” is the opposite of “doing stuff for social media.” Kaepernick, after his protest became national news, defended his views in conversations with reporters, his teammates (who voted after the season to give him an award), and even a former football player and Green Beret who’d criticized him publicly. Brady, meanwhile, repeatedly ducked questions about his relationship with, and level of support for, Trump. Even setting the relative political merits of Black Lives Matter and the Trump administration completely aside, there is no case to be made that Brady stood by his beliefs more steadfastly, or made a more meaningful “statement,” than Kaepernick did.
But if you watch the entirety of the Brady/Kaepernick segment on that January episode of Speak for Yourself, you’ll also see former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter deliver a compelling—and by TV standards quite subtle—alternative argument, observing that if your friends represent values you find abhorrent, maybe they aren’t really your friends:
Carter also made the intriguing claim, during another FS1 appearance, that he and his teammates on the 1990s Minnesota Vikings made an extra effort to appear organized and even-keeled on and off the field when they played for pioneering black head coach Dennis Green, because they were worried Green might be subject to the racist assumption that a black coach’s team would behave in an undisciplined manner:
On Undisputed, meanwhile, Bayless’ broadcast partner—former NFL star Shannon Sharpe—pointed out a few days ago that the risk that Kaepernick would be blackballed is what made his protest meaningful in the first place. Beliefs that are expressed at great personal cost, Sharpe observed, are the ones that deserve to be taken most seriously.
Even among FS1’s top on-air personalities—i.e., the ones with reputations for retrograde opinions—Whitlock’s contemptuous response to Kaepernick’s protest has been the exception rather than the rule. Cowherd, who seemed agnostic on the substance of the quarterback’s complaints about police brutality, still defended his decision to raise the subject via on-field protest. Bayless, meanwhile, deployed his trademark all-or-nothing bravado to support Kaepernick, calling racial injustice an urgent issue that “needs to get addressed” and praising the 49ers quarterback for having the “guts” to challenge the “plantation mentality” that a football game wasn’t the right place to do so.
Kaepernick was the perfect kindling for a reactionary bonfire, the first huge political sports story to come along in the Horowitz era. If you loathed the quarterback on account of everything he didn’t stand for, you could flip over to Fox Sports 1 and find that Whitlock was even more outraged than you were. But what you wouldn’t find is a right-wing bubble in which conservative voices drown out everyone else. Horowitz’s FS1 is not, like Fox News, a channel on which non–right-wing perspectives exist solely to be caricatured and then blown up with a cannon.
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Here I might mention that Jamie Horowitz has a degree in political science from Amherst. His right-hand man, FS1 executive vice president of content Charlie Dixon, has one in European history from a liberal arts school in upstate New York. In addition to overseeing First Take, Horowitz also produced Olbermann, the late-night ESPN show that saw erstwhile SportsCenter and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann train his neo-Cronkite gravitas laser on Tony Dungy (for homophobic comments about Michael Sam) and the police union spokesman who attacked the St. Louis Rams after several players made a “hands up, don’t shoot” protest gesture.
Horowitz isn’t himself a macho reactionary or a political partisan. Dixon told me that his boss’s greatest talent is drawing out his stars’ own personalities and beliefs. “Some producers like to impart their will on talent and force them into formats that don’t suit their skill sets,” Dixon said. “Jamie works to understand talent and then build shows around their strengths.” Ailes was a literal right-wing operative who used Fox News to influence electoral politics. Horowitz is a TV guru who teaches his acolytes to find the takes that were inside them all along. The fact that Horowitz’s most cavemanlike content got the most attention—that First Take was more successful than Olbermann—has more to do, in other words, with the state of sports media than with Horowitz himself.
The aesthetic of Horowitz’s debate shows owes as much to sports talk radio as it does to SportsCenter. Three decades after the launch of the first 24-hour sports talk radio station, New York’s WFAN, there are more than 600 such outlets in the U.S., channels with names like “The Fan” and “The Ticket” that employ mostly male, mostly white hosts with nicknames like “Boomer,” “Skin,” and “Money” who opine about which wide receivers and shooting guards are overrated and which coaches need to be fired because “losing to [name of rival] is simply unacceptable.” While WFAN’s Mike and the Mad Dog perfected the sports radio form, no one has been more influential than Jim Rome, a goateed bolt of misdirected masculine energy whose motto is “have a take, don’t suck”—a doctrine notable for prioritizing commentary that has amplitude and entertainment value over that which has a basis in objective reality.
In 2001, ESPN began airing Pardon the Interruption, a show in which Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon re-created their amiable newsroom banter on air. First Take, which debuted six years later, was an unmemorable PTI knockoff until Horowitz took over in 2011. By pairing Bayless, who preceded Horowitz’s arrival, with the excitable and controversial Stephen A. Smith, the show’s new producer injected First Take with the hyper-caffeination and resentful tone of The Fan and The Ticket.
Smith and Bayless sat opposite each other on a dramatically lit set, split like two boxers primed to bash each other’s faces with opinions. On First Take, everything was interpretable in the form of an extreme binary. Smith, like almost everyone else, believes LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. Bayless, therefore, insisted (and is still insisting on FS1) that James is overrated, asserting for instance in 2014 that the then-two-time NBA champion lacks “intangibles” and has a tendency to fail “when his team need[s] him the most.” Bayless also once said he wasn’t convinced Andrew Luck would be a better NFL quarterback than Tim Tebow, while Smith has somehow failed to predict which of the two finalists will win the NBA title for six years in a row. But the failure to credibly analyze sports didn’t make Horowitz’s broadcasters any less popular. The Bayless/Smith iteration of First Take was generally the highest-rated studio show on ESPN2, often drawing a quite-respectable-for-daytime-cable 500,000 viewers. Bayless and Smith also made frequent guest appearances on other ESPN properties, influenced the entire network’s editorial agenda, and amassed huge followings on Twitter. They are astoundingly effective at occupying real estate in the minds of both regular sports fans and high-profile personalities: Jalen Rose, Richard Sherman, and Mark Cuban are among the figures who appeared on First Take to tell Bayless he was full of crap.
Given how richly Smith and Bayless were rewarded for their stick-and-ball-based provocations, it’s not surprising that they—and Cowherd, a talk-radio veteran who was one of the co-hosts of Horowitz’s first daily ESPN show, SportsNation—would stoke controversy when it came to sports and social issues. Smith has argued more than once that it shouldn’t be out of bounds to ask what victims of domestic violence incidents did to “provoke” their own beatings. Cowherd, for his part, spent literally years complaining on his radio show that Washington Wizards star John Wall had performed a “yo dawg look at me I’m the man” dance at his first NBA game, suggesting it indicated that Wall had a low IQ and grew up without a strong father figure. (Cowherd’s radio show, The Herd, is now simulcast on FS1.)
At Fox Sports 1, Horowitz is essentially building the entire plane out of the First Take black box. While ESPN fills its schedule with a mix of game broadcasts, opinion, highlights, news, analysis, documentaries, and investigative journalism, FS1 is increasingly all-in on opinion. (Although it does have the rights to major-conference college football and basketball, Major League Baseball games, and NASCAR races, FS1 is still way behind ESPN in the live events department.) The nightly highlight show Fox Sports Live—the network’s main tent pole when Horowitz took over—got canceled in February. And recall that most of FS1’s news and features operation was laid off during Horowitz’s first year, a bloodletting one longtime 21st Century Fox employee told me amounted to the departures of roughly 75 people. (At least some of these layoffs, this source told me, had been in the works before Horowitz came on board.) Other producers left on their own, while many older Fox Sports veterans took buyouts. (Explained another source: “The old-guard producers were more conservative by nature—they’re all about the games, and they’re a little more reverent towards sports than Horowitz’s hires are.”) Another ex–Fox Sports employee put it this way: “Horowitz got rid of almost everyone who was there and replaced them with ESPN people.”
These “ESPN people” included both topline stars snapped up at a significant expense—Bayless’ Fox contract reportedly pays him $26 million over four years, with Cowherd earning a similar amount annually—as well as off-camera producers familiar with the new boss’s ethos. Horowitz also inherited writer and radio host Clay Travis, a political correctness obsessive who complains about “black privilege,” is a defender of such controversial graphic-design items as the Confederate flag and the Washington NFL team’s mascot, and often uses the catchphrase/hashtag #DBAP—Don’t Be a Pussy. Travis anchors a college football site licensed by Fox Sports, hosts a podcast (Horowitz also oversees Fox Sports’ digital operations), and has appeared on Cowherd and Whitlock’s Speak for Yourself. In spring 2016, shortly before Speak for Yourself launched, Travis featured in clips of several test shows that leaked to Deadspin. In one of those segments, Travis actually said the words “I’m not black, and I’m not from ‘the hood.’ ”
But Horowitz also inherited the liberal-leaning Katie Nolan, who’d been hired by the previous regime and hosts a late-night FS1 comedy show called Garbage Time. And he brought in Shannon Sharpe, who last year became—I’m guessing—one of the only sports TV talking heads to cite Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Horowitz is smart enough to understand it’s good business to play both sides. As the Ringer’s Bryan Curtis documented in February, young web-based writers have turned sports writing into a liberal profession. On cable, meanwhile, polemicists such as Rachel Maddow and John Oliver are proving that liberals can be ratings stars. In the last few years, ESPN has given more airtime to the likes of Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre, left-leaning writers and broadcasters who are unapologetic about their lack of interest in sticking to sports. The network’s supposed partisanship has created a backlash, with politicians, athletes, and some in the media itself complaining that ESPN is engaging in dissent-stifling leftist indoctrination when it, for instance, gives Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award. It’s an exaggeration to say right-wing views don’t have a place on ESPN—one of the network’s NFL analysts, Trent Dilfer, said Kaepernick should “be quiet and sit in the shadows”—but given that the fan bases of most U.S. sports skew male and slightly conservative, it is probably fair to say those fans are underserved by an East Coast–based sports media overrun by liberal arts graduates.
While Cowherd and Bayless aren’t conservative ideologues, they know how to reach the right wing’s erogenous zones. Two weeks after the election, Cowherd told Curtis that he recognized Trump’s rhetorical playbook as his own. On the other side, Horowitz has lined up Sharpe and Nolan. It’s not a bad bet—seeking attention by, for example, inviting Richie Incognito (the NFL lineman infamous for calling a black teammate a “half-nigger piece of shit”) to sit alongside Sharpe for a Super Bowl preview. The wider the range of opinions you broadcast, the more chances you have to hit the viral buzzer. Channeling the sensibility of a particular slice of the TV audience makes a lot of sense. Commodifying and encouraging the friction between two opposing sensibilities until the end of time is even better.
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I spoke to Horowitz by phone on a recent weeknight. He was on the 21st Century Fox studio lot in Los Angeles, which also encompasses offices and production facilities for FX and the Fox flagship network. While he stands by his comparison of FS1 to Fox News, he told me he’s also modeled his sports network after FX and Fox, both of which ascended by taking more risks than their more established competitors. “That’s been the philosophy that’s driven the entire Fox portfolio,” he said. “Do you know how fearless it was when they did The Simpsons or when they did Bernie Mac? Or when [FX President John] Landgraf does Atlanta or The People v. O.J. or Louie? The same type of philosophy that leads you to launch Empire is the same one that allows you to bet big on Katie Nolan.” Horowitz didn’t mention that FX also brought in Charlie Sheen, shortly after his crude public meltdown, to make the sitcom Anger Management. But that move also fits his thesis: Fox bets big on personalities who, for better or worse, get you to pay attention.
While Whitlock and Cowherd’s Speak for Yourself has scuttled along with viewership in the tens of thousands, Bayless and Sharpe’s Undisputed consistently draws an audience of between 100,000 and 200,000 for its morning broadcasts. That might sound paltry, but it took enough of a chunk out of First Take’s ratings—the numbers for the post-Bayless version, which pairs Smith with Max Kellerman, were down by about 25 percent—that ESPN felt pressured to juice those numbers by shifting its flagship debate show from ESPN2 to ESPN proper. ESPN also recently launched a 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, featuring anchors Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, that is more focused on discussion of cultural and political topics than on highlights and analysis. (Hill and Smith first partnered up on an ESPN show called Numbers Never Lie, which was created by Horowitz.) Meanwhile, a source told me that the per-subscriber “carriage fee” that FS1 receives from cable companies has risen from 98 cents in 2015, when Horowitz was hired, to $1.30 this year. Given that the network is in 84 million U.S. homes, that’s a nice chunk of change for 21st Century Fox.
The truth, though, is that ratings for sports talk shows are piddling compared to the 9.7 million viewers that FS1 drew, for example, for its broadcast of the Chicago Cubs’ National League Championship Series–clinching win. FS1 will have no chance to compete with ESPN until it outbids the Worldwide Leader—and CBS and NBC—for the rights to broadcast big-time live sporting events. So, what’s the point of spending so much money on middle-aged men who wear suits and sit in a studio? Or, as Deadspin’s Kevin Draper put it, “If there are no stakes in this game, why, exactly, is anyone playing?”
The answer can perhaps be found in a memo that Horowitz sent to the FS1 staff last October. In that note, Horowitz praised Bayless, Sharpe, and Undisputed host Joy Taylor, writing that their “thoughtful takes” are “bringing a younger, more diverse audience to FS1.” (The link to the site Black Sports Online is Horowitz’s.) He also noted that FS1’s baseball studio team had become a “viral phenomenon” (though he elided the fact that this was because Pete Rose looks like a fairy-tale troll and has a habit of leaning into camera shots he’s not supposed to be in) and that UFC impresario Dana White broke the news about Ronda Rousey’s return to the ring/octagon on Cowherd’s The Herd.
Fixating on the ratings battle between FS1 and ESPN—as both networks, and the media outlets that cover them tend to do—probably misses the point. FS1 is going to get whomped by ESPN on a daily basis because ESPN shows better games. Horowitz, though, can make a reasonable argument that he’s losing a battle that’s being waged on an increasingly irrelevant medium—that FS1 is setting itself up for a future in which Twitter and Facebook (or whatever replaces Twitter and Facebook) are more important than TV. (In writing this article, I certainly found that skimming the Undisputed and Speak for Yourself Twitter feeds for interesting clips was a better use of my time than watching hours and hours of sports talk television.)
Horowitz envisions FS1 as a channel that appeals to a young and diverse audience and is a friendly forum for figures, such as Rousey, who are the subjects of intense social media interest. (The Rousey scoop presumably came about because FS1 is a UFC broadcasting partner.) I can imagine how a sports-league executive might be intrigued—particularly in an era of cord-cutting and unstable network ratings—by the idea of selling those all-important live broadcast rights to a broadcaster that understands how to capture the attention of a diverse and ideologically polarized younger generation. Indeed, “the success of FS1 is most assuredly dependent on the combination of live rights and signature personalities,” Horowitz told me. “The studio shows cast a big shadow over the way people view a network.”
Horowitz inadvertently acknowledged that he’s not making any particular effort to appeal to the reasonable center. “To throw a bunch of adjectives at you that I probably have taken from focus groups across the country when we ask people what they’re looking for,” he said, “the words that pop up are independent, original, fearless, thought-provoking, defiant, blunt, rebellious. I’m looking for people who might be odd or quirky but who make the audience listen.”
There are a lot of words in that list, but none of them are trusted, authoritative, reliable, credible, or knows what the hell they’re talking about. (I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to consider the ways in which the prioritization of defiant bluntness over credibility may have parallels to developments elsewhere in our society.) On FS1, little effort is made to litigate which pundit’s viewpoint is the more reasonable one. And with few reporters or topic-specific experts left on the payroll, Fox Sports 1 has no ability to explain why our world is the way it is—it just declares everything that happens in that world good or bad, right or wrong, inspirational or disgraceful. It’s a format that casts an interesting thinker such as Sharpe as the straight man who listens to Bayless argue with impressive vehemence that UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is currently—currently—a better point guard than two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
That’s a waste of everyone’s time, and it speaks to the big difference between FS1 and FX, the network Horowitz praised to me as “fearless.” Atlanta, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and Louie are distinctive shows that embody their creators’ personalities. Horowitz’s oeuvre is all pretty much the same. Bayless’ sports talk show has the same all-takes-matter format as Whitlock and Cowherd’s sports talk show, which has the same rhythm as Cowherd’s simulcast sports radio show. Horowitz’s broadcasters have no bigger-picture project in the way that, say, Bill Simmons’ project is to document the experience of being a diehard fan, or that Deadspin’s is to deflate the sports world’s moralizing and hype, or that ESPN’s Jones aims to change the way we think about sports economics. Bayless, Whitlock, and Cowherd may bounce off each day’s news in random, oft-novel ways, but they haven’t contributed any lasting ideas to our collective understanding of sports and society.
Horowitz’s strategy, in the end, has less in common with FX (a venue for creators with individual visions) or Fox News (a venue for a single ideology) than it does with present-day CNN, which covers the day’s events by assembling enormous panels of ardent and/or insane partisans. The best way to present the news in 2017, Horowitz and CNN’s Jeff Zucker seem to think, is via prefiltered, oppositional takes that inspire people on the internet to express feelings of total validation or extreme rage. If every viewpoint is represented, every viewpoint can be consumed and shared. Since Zucker took over CNN, incidentally, its ratings have been looking great.
One way of looking at Fox News is that, from the perspective of the people who hired Roger Ailes—Rupert Murdoch and his fellow executives—the network’s conservatism was less an end in itself than a means to reach cable-news viewers who skewed old and white. Twenty years after Fox News’ launch, in a different America, Horowitz and 21st Century Fox seem to be betting that hot takes will buy them a different kind of mass audience. Muhammad Ali’s death last year reminded us that there has never been a time when the sports world was cloistered from divisive political questions. Horowitz is gambling that FS1 can make its name by exploiting and amplifying those divisions. Would you bet against him?
Correction, March 27, 2017: This story misidentified 21st Century Fox as News Corp., whose components were restructured and rebranded in 2013. (Return.)