XFL's ideas may percolate to other games

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NEW YORK — The XFL may be off to an abysmal start in the primetime ratings on NBC, but David Hill, chairman-CEO of the Fox Sports Group, said Tuesday that XFL innovations such as on-field cameras and microphones could have “major ramifications” for TV coverage of all other sports.

Speaking at a Front Row panel, Hill said, “Being able to hear what the players are saying in the huddle will be a major plus for TV viewers, who have no patience for inner sanctuaries on the field — they want to know everything about everything.”

The other panelist, CBS prexy-CEO Leslie Moonves, agreed with Hill, saying CBS already has started talking about “using some techniques of the XFL coverage” for National Football League games, starting as early as next season.

Hill said it’s not just the NFL but all professional sports that could draw on the in-your-face visuals and soundbites of the XFL, referring to the new model as a blending of reality shows such as “Survivor II” with traditional television sports.

NBC Sports broadcaster Bob Costas, moderator of the session “Sports and Entertainment: Justifying the Boardroom Bets,” brought up the issue of declining ratings for TV sports across the board.

The panelists acknowledged the Nielsen problems, but Hill predicted many sports events on TV could get a booster shot from what he called “digital interactivity.”

This technology would allow “peripheral fans to select a different camera angle, call up statistics, log in to personality profiles of the players or order up a … pizza” during the course of the game.

Hill is gung-ho about interactivity because “42% of the subscribers to Sky TV in Europe take advantage of interactivity,” a figure Hill said took him by surprise. The U.S. will love this technology, Hill said, because “Americans are stats-crazy.”

“Interactivity could change the whole TV business,” said Moonves, adding that CBS soon will add that feature to its hit Thursday-night drama “CSI,” allowing viewers with digital boxes to “play along at home” with the fictional investigators as they solve the crime of the week.

As for the spiraling license fees for sports, Moonves said CBS’ three key attractions — the NFL on Sunday afternoon, the NCAA college basketball championships and various golf events –all will turn a profit for the network.

The NCAA and golf get solid enough ratings to make money “in and of themselves,” he said. The NFL goes into the black through the $50 million a year that CBS affiliates agreed to pay the network for their share of the NFL contract, as well as the lucrative ad revenues from local spots in football that flow into CBS’ coffers from its owned TV stations.

Although Fox has lost money on Major League Baseball, particularly from the disappointing five-game World Series of 2000, which plunged to near-record-low ratings, Hill said the Fox Network’s ratings for the three NASCAR races so far this season are up dramatically over last year.

Fox signed a six-year deal with Major League Baseball last year, and Hill said the network plans to try to jazz up the games by steering clear of wide-angle shots and dissolves “because they’re soft and passive, and make it seem like nothing is happening on the field.” Instead, look for lots of high-drama closeups.

Both Hill and Moonves agreed that it would be “a tragedy,” in Moonves’ words, if an event such as the Super Bowl ended up on pay-per-view instead of broadcast TV.

“These events are for the people,” Moonves said.

The NFL would make a “windfall” profit if it funneled the Super Bowl to pay-per-view, “but that would ultimately kill the sport.”

For the “short-term gain” of PPV, Hill said, “Boxing destroyed itself.”

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