TV sports producers are winning two of the toughest games in town-keeping the hearts of viewers and developing new digital content for the Internet age.
Even as other programmers fear losing ground to the any time/any program possibilities of online content, leading television sports executives yesterday said they are full of ideas for keeping regularly scheduled TV the favored avenue for sports junkies.
"Live sports are the true last bastion of appointment television," said Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and the founder of Broadcast.com.
Don Ohlmeyer, producer of Monday Night Football, agreed. "Will networks get a 30 share in prime time ever again? No." he said "But the ratings for the Super Bowl are still enormous." He noted that a rating point in 1965 delivered only 650,000 viewers, whereas today it brings 2 million, greatly dampening the impact of network share erosion due to the plethora of cable channels added in the past 35 years. "Advertisers pay more today than ever."
Still, constant innovation to keep audiences engaged is critical and the digital technology will help TV sports coverage keep its lead.
Enhancements such as the virtual first down marker and online sports updates and video streaming of archived events or action not carried on TV will be critical, they say.
"We ask people in sports what's missing," from TV coverage, said Larry Novenstern, EVP of Sportvision, the company that created the virtual first down line. His company now has a number of on-air enhancements in the works including putting global postioning satellite transmitters in every NASCAR vehicle at the Daytona 500 to allow real time Internet tracking and video.
Donna Orender, SVP of TV production for the PGA Tour, said golf offers a perfect marriage between traditional TV and online content because only 10 hours of a 40-hour tournament are ever covered on TV. In March the PGA and NBC will debut a data engine that allows online viewers to track any play in the event, regardless of whether the player is ever shown on TV.
Novenstern suggested that digital enhancement also provides a great opportunity for TV advertisers to "integrate" themselves into the actual coverage of the event.
Ohlmeyer, on the other hand, warned that advertising add-ons can create "clutter crap" such as "this first down brought to you by . . .There are negative associations when viewers feel that an advertiser is trying to horn in on a moment it has no business being in," he said.
Cuban said the digital "killer app" for TV sports will be high-definition television, a view that would shock most TV station executives. Cuban argued that the pictures are so entrancing that viewers will go the trouble and expense to add over-the-air antennas to get HDTV sports coverage. After installing the 30 contraptions they will never again look at Internet coverage or even cable as a replacement for broadcast coverage. "You're back to a limited distribution environment that is the "core of the big rating events."
Turning from ones and zeroes to X's and O's, Ohlmeyer said he was encouraged by his new announcer lineup for Monday Night Football, which includes love-him or hate-him color guy Dennis Miller.
"The word `fun' is creeping back into the night," he said. "When was the last time anyone was talking about a line from Monday Night Football on Tuesday morning?"
Ohlmeyer said Miller "came a long way" as a commentator, and dismissed TV critics who lambasted the decision to add an announcer with no playing or coaching experience. "Dennis is the voice of the knowledgeable fan," he said. - Bill McConnell