In his blow-by-blow of the horrible week that was for ESPN in the wake of Jemele Hill’s Sept. 11 Twitter comments about President Trump, Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand noted that conservative-minded Fox News feasted on the outrage:

Fox News wasted no time highlighting those tweets. Fox News host Tucker Carlson opened his Tuesday show with a discussion of Hill’s tweets, interviewing one of ESPN’s chief antagonists, Clay Travis, who hosts a show on Fox Sports Radio.
The next morning, Fox News’ morning show “Fox and Friends” brought on another ESPN antagonist, FS1 host Jason Whitlock, who has written tough editorials about ESPN on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page. Sure enough, Whitlock blasted both ESPN and Hill. At the end of the segment, the “Fox & Friends” hosts asked Whitlock to plug his FS1 show, with one of the Fox News hosts saying, “We’ll be watching you now.”

They weren’t the only Fox News shows to address the story. Hill and ESPN were the subject of conversation on three consecutive prime-time Fox News programs on that Tuesday night, with “The Story With Martha MacCallum” and “The Five” sandwiching Carlson’s show. Sean Hannity had a segment on it Wednesday night, and both “The Story” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” again devoted time to the story on Friday. Finally, on Sunday Morning, Howard Kurtz wrung one last drop out of the issue on “Media Buzz.”

So that’s eight Fox News discussions of Hill and ESPN between Sept. 12, the day after Hill’s tweets, and the Sunday-morning talk shows on Sept. 17. And that number probably is low: LexisNexis, which I used to compile the above info, doesn’t provide transcripts for most of Fox News’s daytime lineup.

For comparison’s sake, the word “ESPN” was mentioned on Fox News a grand total of zero times in the comparable Tuesday-Sunday stretch from the week before, again according to LexisNexis.

A now-vigilant Fox News gives ESPN a much more potent foil than Fox Sports 1, Bristol’s flailing competitor for sports-TV eyeballs, and not merely because it draws viewers in numbers that its sporty cousin could only dream of. Though that certainly helps: Tucker Carlson’s Tuesday night show drew 2.94 million viewers and was the ninth-most-watched show on cable last week (it was the most-watched Fox News show, as well, with Carlson’s Wednesday episode right behind it). The most-watched FS1 show that Tuesday was a Champions League soccer game between Manchester United and Basel at 2:30 in the afternoon. It drew 188,000 viewers and was the only FS1 program to crack the top 150 in terms of cable-network ratings that day. Notably absent from that list: any of the network’s much-hyped, little-watched daytime shout shows, many of them populated with personalities plucked from ESPN at a high cost.

Those FS1 programs — “Undisputed” with Skip Bayless (formerly of ESPN) and Shannon Sharpe, “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd (ditto), “Speak for Yourself” with Cowherd and Whitlock (ditto) — could spend hours bashing ESPN and few would notice. But when ESPN’s foibles are blasted on the conservative talking-point megaphone wielded by Fox News, it adds staying power. A story that usually would peter out after a day now drags on for two or three or seven, simply because Fox News keeps bringing it up.

According to Ourand, ESPN executives are aware that this is happening and aren’t at all happy about it.

“Some [at ESPN] believe that 21st Century Fox is orchestrating attacks against ESPN to bolster the fortunes of rival sports channel FS1,” he wrote, a charge specifically denied to Ourand by a 21st Century Fox spokesperson and rebutted by several former and current Fox News employees, who say all the ESPN talk simply draws good TV ratings as “catnip” for Fox News viewers.

Whatever the reason, Fox News indeed seems to be “watching” ESPN now, a fact that should worry Bristol executives more than anything Fox Sports 1 can throw at them.

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