Loss on the play

XFL ratings drop as an advertiser passes on games; NBC affils pile on but UPN, TNN remain cheerleaders

The XFL may be a Dick Ebersol send-up of the macho NFL (as a Washington Post columnist suggested last week), rather than the corruption of sport it has been made out to be by its critics. Either way, it will have to beef up its ratings if it doesn't want to become the Ex-FL.

Already, some NBC affiliates are grumbling about the plummeting viewership, while giving NBC points for trying. To be fair, the mood is more upbeat at UPN, where it has boosted Sunday night ratings and, according to one executive, is a "fit" with the network. TNN is also relatively happy. Week-three numbers fell 50% to a 1.2 rating. But that's double what the network had been delivering in that time slot pre-XFL, and delivery of TNN's target 18-49 adult demo tripled.

At NBC, top executives weren't commenting. A spokesman for Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, said: "What he would say is, it's a work in progress. Nobody said it was going to be a cakewalk to start a new league." The spokesman insisted NBC has a "firm two-year commitment" to the XFL. But reading between the hashmarks, network and station executives say, privately, that, if there is no improvement, a second year of telecasts on NBC is highly doubtful.

Last week, carmaker Honda pulled its ads from the league, citing "content" issues as the reason, not just the ratings shortfall. "After seeing what the first game was like, being a conservative company, we pulled our ads," a spokeswoman confirmed. The league said that it has sold 70% of its time and that the Honda withdrawal reduces that number only slightly.

There is clearly a ratings shortfall, however, with the XFL's ratings on NBC dropping precipitously for game three (Saturday, Feb. 17), after having done so the week before. "Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising," quipped Campbell Mithun Esty's John Rash, referring to the aggressive promotion and initial sampling for the league.

The XFL, which is selling all the national TV ad time in the games, acknowledged that it is giving advertisers make-goods. That is, extra ads in the games at no additional charge to compensate for ratings that have dropped below the guaranteed cumulative 10 rating across three weekly games (on NBC, UPN and TNN).

XFL President Basil DeVito told B&C, last week, that no advertiser, besides Honda, had pulled its ad as of last Friday (Feb. 23). "Everybody else is sticking with us," he said. "They understand it's a work in progress and that we're trying to do something new and different. Our core demos have also retained really well," he maintained.

Meanwhile, NBC affiliates are disappointed and concerned about the XFL's performance. Jack Sander, president of Belo Broadcasting and head of the NBC affiliate board of governors, said he did not believe the games were sustainable as an ongoing franchise at the rating level NBC got for game three. That game averaged a 3.8 rating, 16% below the 4.5 guarantee to advertisers for the NBC telecast.

But Sander also said, last week, he expects most NBC affiliates to hang tough for at least the first season.

Of more immediate concern are the NBC stations on the West Coast-Belo has several-that air the game live at 5 p.m. at the expense of their local newscast. "We need to see some improvement over the next two or three weeks, or we'll have to re-evaluate" the commitment to carrying those games live on the West Coast, Sander said. If the numbers don't improve, Belo may delay the game to prime time on the West Coast and air Saturday Night Live in its regular time period.

One West Coast station doing well with the game is KCRA-TV Sacramento, although the news pre-emption remains an issue for KCRA and other West Coast Hearst-Argyle stations, according to Tony Vincequerra, executive vice president of the station group.

Other NBC affiliates expressed concern last week.

"We'll ride it a little bit longer, but clearly we're not pleased with what we see," said Alan Frank, president, Post-Newsweek Stations. "It doesn't fit the way it's working. They can't seem to decide if it's a show or sport. It seems like a cable show."

The XFL is also hanging tough. DeVito said the league will continue to refine both the games and the telecasts in an effort to boost ratings. "We've amended the way we present the games in the first three weeks, and we'll continue to do it. Hopefully, we'll continue to do it in year two, three and four because that's what's it all about."

As for UPN, "where goes NBC, so goes UPN," remarked one executive involved. But many UPN stations are happy with the XFL's performance because it's delivered higher ratings and revenue in the Sunday night time period.

"We like it a lot," said Clear Channel Television President William Moll. "It's certainly been better than anything else we've been able to put in the time period. It's salable, marketable and very much on the target demo of a UPN station."

"We're sold out in the XFL for the first quarter, and we've found ourselves with more advertisers trying to get in than get out," said Gerald Walsh, vice president and general manager, WUPV(TV) , the UPN affiliate in the Richmond-Petersburg, Va., market. And Walsh added that he's getting record revenue for the time period.

But in other cases, the UPN affiliates are frustrated because local NBC stations are slashing their rates and offering the games for a third less than what the UPN station is trying to get, one executive familiar with the situation pointed out.