- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

Not long ago, Fox Sports was planning an elaborate float in New Orleans for its coverage of today's Super Bowl XXXVI. The popular pregame quartet of James Brown, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Cris Collinsworth were to ride slowly from the Mississippi River to the Louisiana Superdome, partying Cajun-style during the endless hours leading up to the game.
Soon after September 11, the idea was scrapped, along with many of the network's other plans. Gone are two of the seven planned hours of pregame programming. Gone are the expansive pregame set and spiraling, unchecked costs rolled up by Fox staffers. Fewer camera and production gimmicks will be used. And most striking, largely gone will be Fox's usual irreverent tone.
Instead, viewers will see a lengthy and emotional tribute to America, including a performance by the Boston Pops and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by NFL greats. Military serving overseas will receive a hearty thank you beamed out to more than 180 countries, similar to Super Bowl XXV during the Gulf War. And play-by-play man Pat Summerall, calling his final game with 21-year partner John Madden, will receive a tribute of his own from the network.
In short, expect plenty more tearjerking moments than jokes, and far less emphasis on the game itself than Super Bowls past.
"We're definitely going to have less of New Orleans and more of the patriotism of the day," said Ed Goren, Fox Sports president. "The tone will be different."
The terrorist attacks certainly played the largest role in setting the mood of the day. The St. Louis-New England game is being played under unprecedented security. And much like the World Series, the players on the field are seeking to assume a proper and respectful place in the broader society and their role as diversions for a weary nation.
Fox's programming changes, however, also owe to the still-morphing and tenuous economics of the sports TV industry. Fox Sports has enjoyed a banner ratings year, posting strong marks for nearly all its 2001 events from the Daytona 500 to last week's NFC Championship game. Another strong rating today is widely predicted.
But the network, along with Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC and ESPN, is losing millions on the NFL, and near-term profitability is nowhere in sight. To be sure, football is a critical lure for young and middle-aged males and a powerful promotion vehicle for other programming. Network executives and shareholders, however, are casting an increasingly critical eye toward the astronomical fees now required to buy broadcast rights for major sports.
The belt-tightening and skepticism became most clear last month when incumbent NBC, CBS and Fox all passed on the NBA's TV package. Except for a handful of games on ABC, the league will air exclusively on cable, with ESPN and a new network co-owned by the NBA and AOL Time Warner Inc taking the lead.
"All in all, I should be feeling great, and I don't," Goren said of Fox's year. "TV sports is extremely healthy in terms of viewership, especially relative to other types of programming. But at some point, a bean counter is going to say, 'At what cost?'"
The situation is so grim and cable's dual revenue stream of advertising and subscriber fees so potent that Goren says broadcast television's days as a force in sports may be numbered.
"When essentially four networks pass on the NBA, that's a red flag to me," he says. "There are still troubled seas ahead."
Fox will not be all dour today. Bradshaw's country hickster/savant schtick is impossible to reign in entirely. The NFL has booked a long A-list of pre- and in-game entertainment led by Irish rock superstars U2. And there still is a football game to be played featuring one of the most high-powered offenses in NFL history.
"It won't be a somber tone. It will be a more respectful, proud tone," said Scott Ackerson, Fox Sports studio producer. "We're still going to be who we are. We're not going to be boring out America for three hours [during the pre-game show]."
But even Bradshaw acknowledged the difference, and suggested it may become permanent.
"There's no way our show will be the same this year. It can't be," he said. "The world is completely changed, and I don't know when we'll go back to doing things the way we did before."


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