In 1994, Fox Sports joined the TV sports landscape with lots of bells and whistles and hockey pucks that glowed. Unusual graphics, specially designed animation and even the Fox Box-which allowed viewers to know a game's score from the opening bell-were the Fox Sports signatures.
Now, Fox Sports is trying to make waves again: Coming to a digital set-top box near you in 2001 are Fox Sports Extra and Fox Sports Active, interactive services designed for the couch-potato quarterback to customize his viewing experience, or instantly get the scores and data he wants. Fox will be meeting informally with MSOs at the Western Show in Los Angeles this week to spell out more details.
With the two digital TV enhancements, viewers will be able to use their remote control to A) personalize their on-screen sports ticker; B) watch replays at will; and C) choose from which camera angle they want to watch a live game.
The interactive services also will allow viewers to order a pizza or buy movie tickets or a team's jersey, without even changing the channel. Fox will deal with cable and DBS operators to split revenues or cede commercial time in exchange for carriage.
If Fox Sports' interactive plans work, other Fox cable properties are waiting in the on-deck circle and will likely get interactive bells and whistles by the end of 2001, starting with Fox News and expanding to soon-to-be-launched National Geographic Channel and other co-owned cable networks like Health Net/Web MD, FX and Fox Family Channel.
Fox Sports Extra and Fox Sports Active are designed to accompany the 22 regional Fox Sports Net cable channels and select sporting events on Fox Broadcasting Co., like the Super Bowl or World Series. They are not separate networks or channels; rather they are digital attachments that take up a fraction of the bandwidth that cable operators use to beam Fox Sports Net to subscribers.
Two interactive services could be coming into digital households within the next several months. Logically, because DBS systems-already all digital-could act on Fox's interactive plans almost immediately and also need a competitive edge over cable, it is likely some of Fox's first deals could come there.
Fox Sports' coverage of the Daytona 500 in February will likely be the network's first interactive event. Digital viewers will be given the option to watch the race from cameras mounted in each car and from various vantage points around the track.
With its new contract with Major League Baseball, it's also safe to assume the World Series will be an interactive showcase over the next several years.
"I think people really do want this," says Fox Sports Net President Tracy Dolgin. "The most important thing that interactive TV is is a stickiness device for both the TV experience itself and a stickiness device for the programming that's on the TV as well. Everything that we are doing to make the TV interactive, just makes the use of the TV more."
SKY HAS BEEN THERE
Fox Sports programmers in the U.S. are not the first News Corp. entity to get going on the interactive front: Co-owned British Sky Broadcasting in London has been offering 4 million digital customers in the UK similar services for over a year and a half. Already up and running are Sky Sports Active and Sky News Extra, which allow viewers to choose camera angles and replays on popular soccer games and also receive added news coverage, including weather, entertainment and health segments.
"Fox has invested significant money and time and working on this first generation of interactive television services," says Steven Kuo, Fox TV's senior vice president of business development. "That's why we think we have a competitive advantage versus the other guys, not only because of the types of genres that we are talking about-sports and news-where we are already strong, but also because of all this expertise that we have within the News Corp. family, especially with Sky's experience in the field."
Kuo and Eric Shanks, Fox TV's vice president of enhanced programming, have made numerous trips from their Los Angeles offices to London to learn from their colleagues at Sky.
Along with a quickly expanding staff in Los Angeles, the executives have put together business plans for the domestic interactive enhancements.
Fox Sports Extra, which will be the first service made available to U.S. digital viewers, is a combination of data and limited video. With Extra, viewers will tune to their Fox Sports Net channel and then click on the enhancement-pushing the incoming Fox Sports Net feed into the upper-right corner and filling the rest of the screen with what basically amounts to an Internet page of information.
Viewers can customize their own sports ticker and choose what scores and information they want to appear on their screen. During games, Fox Sports Extra viewers will be able to choose from different replay choices and even call up entire first-quarter or selected periods for replays. There are also trivia games and fantasy-league columns filled with statistics on individual players.
"Fox Sports Extra will always be available to viewers. It'll always be there for a quick fix of sports and news services," says Shanks.
"Fox Sports Active is when you are watching a baseball game or a football game and you are interacting directly with that game. In a football game, for example, if the announcers are talking about one particular player, you can select with your remote which camera angle you want to look at that player with. You control your viewing experience."
Highlights from the game the viewer is watching, as well as video highlights from other games and different sports, will be available with the touch of a button, Fox executives say.
Because a separate control room will need to be established to handle the video feeds from the game site, Fox Sports Active will not be offered on every game.
Both Fox Sports Extra and Active will be run out of Fox Sports' Los Angeles headquarters. When Fox News Extra gets running late in 2001, Fox's New York City offices will be ground zero for the interactive services.
Getting the interactive services up to speed is one thing. Getting the cable operators and DBS providers to carry them is another. Fox sales executives are hearing plenty of questions from MSOs and DBS providers.
Will it be a special pay service or regular feature for digital subscribers?
What kind of advertising possibilities are there?
How much bandwidth does it take up?
Those questions will all be answered, but the first real stumbling block is just getting the two enhancements up and running on all of the different cable and DBS services. Unlike British Sky Broadcasting, which is a DBS service and a content supplier all in one, Fox executives will only be supplying the content-making interactive distribution a tedious chore.
"It's really a mess right now here in the United States, in that there are no standards," says Shanks. "It's good that there is competition, and, hopefully, the best solution will win. But right now, it's almost like we produce the NFL on Fox and it only plays on Sony TVs. What if we had to produce five different feeds, one for a Samsung TV, one for a JVC TV? That's exactly the way it is right now interactively with the different MSOs and DBS operators." Still, Shanks says, he can have the interactive services up and running within two months of an operators' order-he just needs a green light.
Fox executives say that, at least initially, subscribers won't pay. "I don't think so. We will defer to the judgments of the distributors," says Lindsay Gardner, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Fox Cable Networks Group. "We will create a business model that works for each distributor, and, from our discussions so far, the vast majority of distributors do not intend, at least for the first few years, to make this an added pay service."
Fox executives say advertising opportunities will be ample and British Sky Broadcasting has been successful with pizza delivery and other impulse buys. With each cable deal, Gardner says, there will be different types of advertising and e-commerce deals, some shared between Fox and the operators.
Fox Sports Extra will take up a minimum 5% of what an analog channel consumes; Fox Sports Active, a minimum of 10% of an analog channel's bandwidth.
"When we walk into the operators' offices, we say something that pretty much floors them," says Gardner. "We acknowledge that they are going to be contributing scarce bandwidth, which is precious to them, we know that. And what we basically tell them is, you provide us with the bandwidth, we'll provide the service. And we offer some opportunities for operators to take some of our content and brand it themselves."
WILL THEY COME?
Fox executives are clearly bullish on their new interactive ventures but also very cautious. As one top News Corp. executive likes to say, "We don't want to kill the golden goose" by rushing the product. Fox executives from Sky say viewers only can take so much at a time.
"The stuff that is going to work here is only the stuff that people want, not 8 million things getting pushed at them," says Jeff Shell, president and CEO, Fox Cable Networks Group. "If you clutter it up too much, make it too difficult or complicated, the consumers are not going to want it. But one thing is for sure, I know sports fans like myself want more information, quicker information and eventually more choice in video. So I'm pretty sure this will be successful."