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Original Issue

When Fox Gets The Ball

The upstart network says NFL fans have nothing to be afraid of

The folks at Fox Broadcasting are a trifle defensive these days. Not quite willing to apologize for Al Bundy, they are nonetheless anxious to reassure us when it comes to their football programming plans. "Bart Simpson," says David Hill, the president of the newly created Fox Sports division, "will not be in the broadcast booth."

This kind of calming talk, along with a check for $1.58 billion, was sufficiently soothing to NFL honchos that they took the four-year NFC package from CBS-TV and threw it to the upstart network. And now the public is getting a similar pitch from Fox. Just in case the average viewer is wary of an outfit that owes more to Luke Perry than it does to Edward R. Murrow, there is an odd insistence on maintaining tradition at Fox. "We realize," Hill says, "that this is a sacred trust."

Well, it's just football. But so far Fox, which targets a younger and hipper audience in all its other programming, has promised not to tinker with the game as we know it. "We are not going to reinvent the wheel here," promises Hill, who also says his broadcasting idol is Monday Night Football pioneer Roone Arledge—all of which is meant to comfort us.

In fact, Hill, 47, does have a track record that says more about his intentions than he does. An Australian, Hill last served Fox owner Rupert Murdoch as head of the sports division at British Sky Broadcasting (or Sky, as it's known), a satellite network that began broadcasting soccer in the United Kingdom 18 months ago; it gave Hill a lot of experience as an outsider. If the idea of Fox's becoming custodian of Sunday-afternoon TV is somehow upsetting to us Americans, imagine how it struck the Brits to find all these unruly Australians manhandling their national sport. And making them pay for it too. "Oh," says Hill, almost delighted at their mortification, "you should have seen the angst in the British press."

But fears that Sky would revolutionize soccer coverage were not well founded. "It was a silly criticism, of course," says Vic Wakeling, head of soccer programming at Sky. "The key members of our broadcast team were recruited from the traditional networks, the BBC and ITV." Just as Fox's football people will almost certainly come from CBS and NBC.

Of course, coming after the understated approach of ITV, which showed fewer than 20 first-division soccer matches a year and which included little pregame or postgame programming, Sky was bound to play more like MTV than BBC. Actually, it played more like ABC.

Whereas ITV used about 10 cameras per game, Sky uses 18, including miniature cameras placed in the corner of each net and super-slow-motion replays. In Sky's coverage, microphones encircle the field, statistics are shown on-screen, and telestrators have been implemented. Announcers are displayed on camera, the better to become stars themselves, and they regularly chat up sideline reporters. Does any of this sound familiar?

The NFL TV committee would not have been convinced of Fox's capabilities without seeing some tapes of Sky broadcasts; they were a big part of Fox's presentation. A further reassurance: Sky fans get their money's worth; some two million of them pay up to £20 ($30) a month for the complete entertainment package, which also includes movies and which is said to be one of the fastest-growing subscription channel services in TV history. Sky shows as many as 100 games a year, including its own version of Monday Night Football. It televises soccer in some form every day during the season, including 11 hours a week of analysis, interviews and highlight shows. Most soccer weekends in the U.K. bring "Super Sunday," during which Sky precedes its 4 p.m. game with two hours of filler and then follows it with an hourlong phone-in show.

"We have been criticized for it being too long," admits a Sky staffer. "But the thinking is, we've got the match, we paid a lot of money for this contract, this is our big event. For people who want to switch on five minutes before the game, that's fine. But the show is there for the real fanatics."

"All we did with English football," Hill says, "is give the fan far more information than he'd ever had." Hill, whose football experience goes back to the late 1970s, when he began bringing NFL coverage (including, later, the WLAF) to Australia, doubts Fox will get similarly carried away with its new franchise. "We'll have a one-hour pregame show," he says, envisioning a program that is a combination of NFL Today, 60 Minutes and Entertainment Tonight, "and a halftime show. And that's it."

Although Hill refuses to discuss who will be in the booth, he says he likes the traditional configuration of two: one civilian, one ex-jock. "The only person who can really tell you what it's like, really talk about the pain, really talk about the anguish, really talk about the pride, is someone who's been there. Everything else is secondary experience."

On the subject of what kind of technological gimmickry will be introduced, Hill remains mostly mum. It may be a few seasons before he tries the helmet cam again (he once used it in broadcasts of WLAF games), but he has shown an inclination toward jacking up the on-field sound. He remembers broadcasting cricket, which was an even bigger challenge than his bout with the America's Cup. "A cricket match can go on for five days. And guess what? Then it can end up as a draw." Boring. So Hill put a microphone into the wicket and electrified the coverage with violent audio. "It brought the game to life," he says. "I believe that audio is the forgotten part of outdoor broadcasts."

But if the Fox football experience is going to sound and look truly different, those differences will most likely be evident away from the actual games. The big change from CBS, Fox promises, is what Hill calls a "deeper range of marketing and promotion." His executive vice-president, George Krieger, told a group of TV critics last week that Fox intends to promote the game year-round, "a thorough, comprehensive and terribly aggressive marketing and advertising campaign," throughout all of Fox's programming.

What that means, exactly, is anybody's guess. But just because Bart has been kept out of the broadcast booth doesn't mean he won't, somehow, get into the game.



Fresh from Sky's success with soccer, Hill (below) says you won't see Bart in the booth.



[See caption above.]