I was watching Xavier-Villanova yesterday when an eyebrow was raised by an ad read for CBS Sports HQ, the omni-platform streaming app from CBS: “If you want your sports news without the hot takes, why don’t you stream CBS Sports HQ — the free, 24/7 network for more highlights and analysis?”
Whether or not this is intended as panning of the debate programming on ESPN and FOX Sports, it sure sounded like it to me, especially with the emphasis on the word “hot” in the ad read, and the general negative connotation of the phrase.
When former CBS boss Les Moonves was describing the launch of HQ in 2017, he lamented how long on ESPN it took him to find out if the Dodgers or Yankees won or lost and said, via Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal, “I’m turning on ESPN a lot and seeing people yelling at each other.”
CBS Sports HQ is essentially what the ad read makes it sound like: Highlights of games, segments on stuff like players to look out for at the Combine, power rankings, presentation of news without editorialization, and some fantasy and gambling talk. It’s very middle of the road, inoffensive by design — a manifestation of the broader CBS brand.
In order to check out HQ, I downloaded the CBS Sports app that it airs inside on Sunday. Similarly to the Bleacher Report and ESPN apps, it enables you to pick your favorite teams to curate a stream of news that combines their stories with national content. There were a lot of stories or videos built around quotes of various coaches and athletes, without much if any color added to them. One scroll down, there was analysis from Raja Bell of the Lakers’ comeback win over the Rockets, from three nights earlier. In the scores tab, Spring Training baseball was at the top of the page, above regular season NBA and college hoops.
Is there a market for this? With the audience so fragmented nowadays, CBS is betting that, yes, there is a segment of the population who wants to be informed of the news, watch highlights of the biggest games of the day that are a minute or longer, and hear analysis of the actual games that is rooted in film study. It has a lot of elements of ESPNews circa, like, 2005, with fantasy (which was predominantly responsible for the growth of the CBS Sportsline days) and gambling added in.
For me, personally, this is not an appealing app. I’m not sitting in an office all day responsible for other work. I’m hyper-engaged on Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and sports television and radio. There is a persistent argument — made over five years ago on The Big Lead and this past weekend in the New York Times — social media is eroding the value of highlights. While this is partially true, I think it’s even more attributable to the fact that the biggest fans watch all the games now. They’re all on TV and you plan your life accordingly. If life gets in the way, they’re on your phone. Who amongst us hasn’t streamed a football game at a wedding?
The value-add for content beyond the games to me comes in the form of original reporting — either breaking news, or investigative — or interesting personality and/or humor. Reporting and news-gathering are expensive. CBS was getting beaten in those categories by ESPN and Yahoo, and they got out of that business. With regards to personality-driven content, ESPN, for example, is in a constant ebb and flow between opinion and news. PTI, Around the Horn, and First Take are bigger ratings drivers than any news shows in their slots would be, but there also aren’t enough talented opinionists out there to fill 7am-7pm on ESPN and FS1 such that this is the case wall-to-wall between the games.
Anyways, I can recognize that I might not be a representative consumer of the population, or even if I am perhaps there’s a big enough group of people who will find CBS Sports HQ through their advertising on live games and be appreciative of its existence. On Super Bowl Sunday, it had over a million unique viewers and about 14 million minutes watched. Their ad read wasn’t really meant for me, but maybe it could be an effective business strategy.