Sunday, December 14, 2003

It’s hard to think of TV sports today without a permanent score box in a corner of the screen, without a constant blitz of digital sound and high-end graphics or without cameras and microphones in previously unheard of spots like inside a base or a catcher’s mask.

All that started with Fox Sports, which this week marks the 10th anniversary of its creation via the acquisition of the NFC television rights from a CBS stranglehold that lasted more than three decades.

Though a relatively short time ago, even within the confines of TV history, the birth of Fox Sports feels like a much more distant event. Now an established and highly decorated operation, Fox Sports began as perhaps the most ridiculed and scrutinized sports TV entity ever.

In those days, Fox’s primary TV properties were “The Simpsons,” “Married… With Children,” and “Beverly Hills, 90210,” shows that drew neither the ratings nor respect of its competition on the big three networks. Fox, however, quickly proved itself up to the challenge through two primary attributes: a willingness to spend money and a mantra to be different by all means possible.

Fox paid a then-record $395million a year for the NFC broadcast package, beating what CBS had previously paid by nearly 50 percent. Actively encouraged by network chairman Rupert Murdoch, Fox then doubled down its bet by successfully luring away most of the key CBS sports talent, including executive producer Ed Goren, lead announcers John Madden and Pat Summerall, and studio host Terry Bradshaw, plus a large collection of secondary announcers, producers, and front office personnel.

Three dozen affiliate stations quickly transferred to the upstart Fox network. Jimmy Johnson, freed from the Dallas Cowboys via his fractious professional divorce from Jerry Jones, was another crucial early hire who almost went to ESPN. Johnson left to coach the Miami Dolphins in 1996 but later came back to Fox with his frank, outspoken nature still firmly in place.

David Hill, Fox Sports chairman, then went to work on developing the look and feel of the broadcasts, encouraging his studio hosts to engage in angry, bar-style debates, extending the pregame show to a full hour and even putting a miniature football field on the set to map out plays.

Hill, a TV producer and executive in Australia and England with no real grounding in U.S. sports, knew he wanted to inject a more energetic, noisy and theatrical feel to the game productions. “It couldn’t just be ‘same old, same old,’” Hill said. “I looked around at what had been done for years [regarding NFL coverage], and it was all very serious. My belief has always been that sports is the greatest entertainment there is. With sports, you could have the world’s worst job, but you can be taken away to another place for two or three hours when you’re watching a game. What we had to do was sugarcoat the information pill, and we kind of did that.”

Said George Krieger, former Fox Sports executive vice president: “It almost seemed like everybody else treated the NFL like an old, comfortable marriage. We saw this beautiful woman and wanted to show her off in any way possible. Certainly the money was a factor, but we were able to convey that message and help the NFL reach a group of younger fans.”

Even after landing its cadre of talent and benefiting right away from the height of the ‘90s rivalry between Dallas and San Francisco, the early Fox games were still jarring. After years of reading promo copy for upcoming episodes of “60 Minutes” and “Murder, She Wrote,” play-by-play man Summerall suddenly was hyping “House of Buggin’” and “Melrose Place.”

Soon enough, however, the ratings and the comfort level from viewers emerged. But the network’s adventurous spirit continued. Fox landed the broadcast rights to the NHL in 1994, losing tens of millions in the process. But years later, few sports fans have forgotten the glowing puck. More recently, NASCAR received an entirely more modern and graphic-heavy treatment through Fox, one that quickly rippled through all of televised auto racing.

Major League Baseball came to Fox in 1996, and the network’s high-energy coverage of the sport contrasted sharply with the more cerebral, pastoral presentation seen for years with Bob Costas and NBC.

“We had a real advantage in starting from scratch. We had the luxury of trying just about anything,” said Vince Wladika, former Fox Sports vice president of media relations. “David let his people do their thing and try new ideas. There wasn’t an established culture in place we had to fight, and that made it such a fun place to work.”

The last few years have not been nearly as kind to Fox, even as the ratings for its Sunday NFC games now routinely top those for “Monday Night Football” and NASCAR continues to thrive. The network in 2001 wrote down nearly $1billion in fiscal losses from big-time sports. Within the last five years, the World Series has posted its three worst ratings ever. Fox Sports Net, the network’s cable entry, never has found a formula to compete fully with dominant ESPN.

Network executives are now openly clamoring for an end to the massive run-up of rights fees for sports, a spike Fox began in earnest back in 1993. Several new series relentlessly hyped during Fox sports telecasts, such as the recent calamity “Skin,” died quick, ignoble deaths. But even with a much more developed prime-time lineup that features “24,” the “American Idol” franchise, and still “The Simpsons,” Fox Sports, and its NFL pregame crew in particular, remains the clear face of the entire network.

“I think one of the true dynasties in sports is ‘Fox NFL Sunday,’” Goren said. “This has become the personality of the network. Anytime we have an affiliates meeting or some kind of function like that, it’s always ‘can you get Jimmy [to appear],’ or ‘can you get Terry,’ or J.B. or Howie, or John. This is very different than the other networks.”

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