It's a late-September Friday afternoon in Hartford, Conn. WFSB anchors Joe Zone and John Holt are planning the day's newscasts.
The Yankees and Red Sox -- Hartford is precisely where Yankee Country hits Red Sox Nation -- are locked in their annual slugfest toward the American League East title. The National Football League's New England Patriots are riding out a spying scandal and focusing on staying undefeated.
Closer to home, UConn faces Pittsburgh in their Big East football opener Saturday.
Closest of all, Connecticut's No. 6 high school football team, Southington, is playing 10th-ranked Bloomfield Friday night. Xavier is butting heads with Hillhouse, North Branford is playing Tolland and beloved Maloney coach Rob Szymaszek has just passed away.
High school football rules the sports segments on Meredith's CBS affiliate. WFSB will have photographers at one-dozen high school games on any given Friday, their reportage providing the bulk of the footage for the weekly Friday Night Football program at 11:15.
“It's what's important to people in the community,” said news director Dana Neves. “When I was in school, everyone went to the high school game. TV has finally caught up to reality.”
Once a bastion of the Texas plains and the Rust Belt, station executives agreed that there's been a nationwide flurry of interest in Friday-night schoolboy football like never before, with stations increasingly giving the kids the kind of attention typically reserved for professional athletes. That includes WNYW New York showing game-of-the-week highlights on its 10 p.m. news, WMC Memphis' new Internet Game of the Week and KUTV Salt Lake City's High School Touchdown Report.
Station groups are in on the game, too, as well-funded new Web initiatives from Hearst-Argyle Television, Fox, Raycom and Belo are live. As much as any content, the gridiron glory nails critical industry values like “hyper-local,” “user-generated” and “interactive,” while also giving advertisers a means for reaching the $179 billion spent yearly by U.S. teens, according to youth research firm TRU. While most of those behind the new football programming say it's too early to gauge its success, many believe the end zone is most certainly within sight.
“When I was growing up, it was important for [the families] who were directly involved,” said WLWT Cincinnati president and general manager Richard Dyer, who recently rebranded WLWT's Friday night Blitz 5 program with Hearst-Argyle's multimarket High School Playbook banner. “Now it's a communitywide rallying point.”
Perhaps it's the popularity of NBC series Friday Night Lights, station executives posit, or even the frothy melodrama High School Musical. Others say the heightened interest reflects a growing dissatisfaction with pro sports' steroids scandals and skyrocketing salaries. Either way, many are calling high school football a newfound media darling. “Our coverage [of high schools] is absolutely off the charts,” said Ron Stitt, VP of digital media for the Fox Television Stations. “We're broadcasters, but we're also niche-casters. We're all out there identifying niches that need to be served.”
Southington vs. Bloomfield
The WFSB truck wends its way through the byways of Southington, past apple orchards and McMansions. Cameraman Mark D'Anzi is at the wheel, and Joe Zone is riding shotgun. Zone has been in the broadcast game for three decades, including stints at KNBC Los Angeles and WCBS New York. He's covered Super Bowls and World Series, World Cups and America's Cups. He also worked at WNEP Scranton, Pa., where he saw how big schoolboy football could be -- turning up for games in the station chopper, hearing threats when a team dropped in the station's rankings.
Zone knows full well that the sports segments and staffs on broadcast TV are shrinking, thanks in large part to those ESPN folks based 22 miles from WFSB headquarters. “There are 20 different places viewers can get Yankees/Red Sox info,” he says. “What we're trying to do is give them content they won't get anywhere else.”
The truck's GPS sings out lefts and rights, until Southington High comes into view. 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. kickoff, the Fontana Field bleachers start to fill; some 3,000 are expected. A soft-spoken Vietnam vet, D'Anzi parks near the end zone and starts setting up. A pair of girls in Bloomfield jerseys walk by. “You should do something on team managers,” one says. Zone smiles. Maybe he will.
The Southington coaches put the Blue Knights through their paces. “That was soft, Carmine!” one bellows. “We don't play soft! Do it again.”
Zone grabs a gray Friday Night Football T-shirt and sets out to find Bloomfield quarterback Keenan Orie, who is the WFSB Athlete of the Week after winning an online poll. Wearing cornrows and his game face, Orie poses with Zone as D'Anzi shoots the hand-off.
A significant part of stations' interest in high school football is their mandate to out-local the competition, and nothing is more local than the high school down the street. Toward that end, WTVO Rockford (Ill.) expanded the weekly Friday Football Blitz by several minutes this season, and KLRT Little Rock, Ark., debuted Friday Night Tailgate. Cable is in on it, too, as Comcast announced that its High School Game of the Week will be available on-demand in select markets. “In these mom-and-pop communities, if they're not at the game, they're wondering what the score is,” said KLRT VP/GM Chuck Spohn. “Either you're an alum or you have a relative or friend playing.”
Viewers seem to appreciate the stations' local efforts. KPTV Portland (Ore.) introduced the school football-focused 17-minute Friday Night Lights program last September, and saw a 28% ratings increase year over year. “We're getting a 5 household rating in that quarter-hour,” said VP/GM Kieran Clarke.
Eat and Run
Zone goes live at 5:30, setting the stage for the big matchup. (As if penned by a screenwriter, Bloomfield's players are African-American; Southington's are white.) With another standup in an hour, he wanders over to the snack bar. Tom DiPinto mans the table. His son Sean is playing for Southington. He's asked if he watches Friday Night Football. “I watch it with my kids every week,” he says. “We don't miss it.”
Zone mentions being on the radio a few weeks back, the host asking if he was heading to the big game that night. Zone said he was. The host meant Yanks-Sox. Zone was talking about West Catholic-New London.
He's midway through a relish-smothered hot dog when it's time for his standup. He works the dog into his routine. “Grab some grub now, because there's a big matchup in Southington!” he says to the camera.
Just before kickoff, he and D'Anzi are in the van again. D'Anzi punches in the coordinates for Xavier High School into the GPS. Photos of his children line the sun visor.
“We'll be back,” Zone tells the guards at the gate.
Raised on YouTube
Vital to high school football's rise in popularity is the fact that technology has finally reached a point where the typical teen, raised on YouTube, can easily upload video and share highlights from that night's game. Station managers say the interactive nature of new media -- whether it's user-generated video, scores or trash-talking -- is a critical component of their school content.
Hearst-Argyle has taken the interactive concept a step further, training students in seven markets to be “sideline reporters” for its social-networking platform High School Playbook. A total of 60 students shoot high-def cameras, edit and post their work on the Web site. KDFW Dallas has done the same with “minicamps” for area students, trained by station staff to produce video for the new FoxHiLitesDallas.com. “The kids love it,” said VP/GM Kathy Saunders. “We want them to be an extension of our sports department.”
Stations are also playing up interactivity by encouraging students to vote for a game, player, marching band or cheerleading crew of the week. WFSB staff suspected there was some viral ballot-stuffing going on to vote Orie the Athlete of the Week, and applauded the students' enthusiasm. At WJBK Detroit, students are invited to select one football matchup to be covered by the station.
Xavier vs. Hillhouse
The WFSB truck ambles through quaint downtown Southington as the sun sets. “This is what I love about Friday night football,” Zone says. “Seeing the different villages and towns.”
About 20 minutes later, the lights of Palmer Field cut through the dark. The Xavier band is doing a raucous rendition of Gary Glitter's stadium staple “Rock and Roll Part 2” as 1,000 fans cheer. The Xavier cheerleaders whoop it up for D'Anzi's camera.
Zone and D'Anzi are hoping for early action in the Xavier-Hillhouse game so they can beeline back to Southington with something in the can. Xavier responds, as William Allen turns the corner on the defense and hauls it in from 20 yards out. “That's what I'm talking about!” yells the hyper Xavier coach.
Once they've secured some footage, Zone and D'Anzi head back to the truck. They fuel up at Dunkin' Donuts and make for Southington. Again.
'Cooler Than We Thought'
Competing with the likes of Facebook and Grand Theft Auto for young hearts and minds, station managers say offering high school sports content makes the station relevant to teens—and perhaps even creates long-term station viewers down the road. Chuck Steinmetz, VP/GM at WITI Milwaukee, says he didn't think the station registered much with young people—at least until it launched FoxHiLitesMilwaukee.com and debuted High School Blitz. “We didn't think we were very 'cool' with high school kids,” he says. “But I recently heard from a principal that we were the talk of the school when they found out we were coming to visit. We got 25,000 votes from kids telling us to come to their school; maybe we're cooler than we thought.”
Over at WGRZ Buffalo, N.Y., president/GM Jim Toellner also sees his month-old Web feature “Western N.Y. High School Sports,” offering user-posted scores, video and commentary, as a way to pull young folks into the station fold. “We're looking to grow 'viewsers,'” he says, “and make them customers for years to come.”
Girls in Eye-Black
It's halftime back at Southington High, and the marching band -- some 100 strong -- struts its stuff. Southington holds a healthy lead; Zone pokes around to get the scoop. He nods to the cameramen from the NBC and Fox affiliates. “They'll do three games tonight,” he says. “We'll do 11.” (NBC affiliate WVIT says they'll hit five or six games on a Friday.)
Thousands fill the bleachers: parents, young girls in fake eye-black and oversized T-shirts with their favorite players' names and numbers written in marker, boys in maroon Bristol Central jerseys, scouting Southington.
Midway through the third quarter, Southington running back Savino Melluzzo shreds the defense and puts the game out of reach. As much as they'd like to see the game go down to the wire, Zone and D'Anzi are happy to head out and get a head start on the 11:15 show. “That's when we start running around like crazy,” says Zone. “Like our heads are cut off.”
While station managers are eager to sign up students as long-term viewers, they're equally interested in gearing advertising to them while they're still teens. One broadcast veteran calls high school sports the last “virgin territory,” compared to pro and college; another laments the difficulties of marketing within the actual schools.
WNYW VP/GM Lew Leone says the school content on the station's new MyFoxLocker.com reaches a broader pool of advertisers than those WNYW normally does business with. “We're offering an opportunity for something like a soft drink company,” he says, “that doesn't typically spend money on broadcast TV.”
Advertisers such as Toyota jumped on Hearst-Argyle's High School Playbook early, and executive VP Terry Mackin says sponsor interest remains high. “The reception we've gotten has been fabulous,” he says. “I've had the best and highest-level meetings of my career.”
McDonald's and Pontiac have sponsored WLWT's Friday football program. Toyota is the title sponsor of WFSB's, while local outfits such as hospitals and grocery stores have jumped in, too. “We've had zero problem selling this,” says Neves. “Advertisers recognize it's an up and coming market.”
To be sure, stations may never get rich from airing local football content. User-generated video is often grainy and poorly produced, and giving the public access to a station Web page means staff has to be on the alert for erroneous information or racy material.
Still, many station managers seek to follow the lead of MyFoxHiLites and High School Playbook, and expand their high school coverage beyond football. Toellner says the only negative he's heard about WGRZ's Web platform is that it only covers football.
D'Anzi eases the truck into the new WFSB headquarters just off I-91 around 10 p.m. It's been a long day; Zone steels himself for the next few hours. There are scores to announce, touchdowns to show, marching bands to spotlight.
Zone gives the Yankees and Red Sox games a quick scan, and contemplates Friday Night Football, which goes live in a little over an hour. “As long as there are mothers and fathers out there saying, 'There's my son, there's my daughter on TV,' ” he says, “we'll be out there covering them.”
To see highlights from WFSB's Friday Night Football program, check out the B&C Video Player.