It was a perfect Fox moment. Big names, huge egos, plenty of
hyperbole, a little nonsense and a blockbuster of an
announcement that promised to catch the rival networks
flat-footed. Promoter Don King, who looks like a character
sprung to life out of The Simpsons, announced at a press
conference last Thursday that while flying across the Atlantic
on the Concorde, he had been visited by a little birdie that
whispered, "Rupert." Now, King proclaimed, heavyweight Mike
Tyson, whom King handles, would fight his latest stiff of the
month, Buster Mathis Jr., live on Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV the
night of Nov. 4, just as television's critical November ratings
sweeps period begins. "It was spiritual," said King. "Like a
Fox was certainly treating the Tyson coup as a gift from the
gods. Tracy Dolgin, executive vice president of marketing,
called the fight "manna from heaven," and Chase Carey, chairman
and CEO of Fox TV, actually said, "We really do believe it's as
exciting an event as has been on television in many years."
Right. Mr. Excitement himself, Buster Mathis Jr. Still, some
exaggeration was in order in light of the fact that the
Tyson-Mathis bout will be Fox's first boxing telecast and
Tyson's first live fight on network television since 1986, when
he took all of 30 seconds to dispatch Marvis Frazier on ABC. And
from the reaction of rival television executives, you would have
thought Fox had managed to land the second coming of
Ali-Frazier. "I'm shocked," said Lou DiBella, a senior vice
president of TVKO, a pay-per-view cable network owned by Time
Warner (SI's parent company). DiBella, interviewed by The New
York Times, had good reason to be pained, since TVKO had already
scheduled another marquee heavyweight bout, the rubber match
between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, for Nov. 4. "This is
the ultimate act of war against us," DiBella declared.
Reacting to King's announcement, promoter Bob Arum, his bitter
rival, told the New York Daily News, "If this is true, it's the
end of the pay-per-view business."
Not likely. Murdoch will pay King a reported $8 million to $10
million for the Tyson-Mathis fight, a mere fraction of the $96
million that the recent 89-second Tyson-Peter McNeeley fiasco
raked in over pay-per-view. The clear winner in the deal,
though, is Fox, which has become a major player in sports since
landing the rights to the National Football Conference in 1993.
Not only should the Tyson-Mathis program carry the night of Nov.
4 in the U.S. ratings, but Murdoch, who acts globally while
others just talk it, will also beam the bout to Great Britain
over his Sky Television satellite service. Further, according to
sources, on the back end of the deal Fox will get rights to a
dozen more King-promoted fights.
Just 13 months ago Fox had never so much as televised a live
sporting event. Now the Fox name crops up every time an event
comes up for bid. "We're just the new kid on the block trying to
make our way in the world," says David Hill, the innovative
president of Fox Sports, who, like Murdoch, is a native of
Australia now in L.A. "Underpromise, overdeliver. That's the
sports division's credo."
That must be a brand-new credo. Last November, Fox didn't
exactly underpromise and overdeliver on golfer Greg Norman's
ill-fated $25 million World Tour, which Murdoch had made an
agreement to broadcast. Nor did it overdeliver on its vain
efforts to lure Wimbledon from NBC and HBO, or on its $701
million offer to the IOC for the rights to the 2000 Olympics in
Sydney, which Murdoch eventually lost to NBC and its $715
million preemptive bid.
Still, you have to give the new kid credit for stepping up to
the plate. In addition to acquiring the rights to the NFC, which
Murdoch snatched away from CBS for the staggering sum of $1.58
billion over four years, Fox is entering the second year of a
five-year, $155 million contract with the National Hockey
League. It also struck a deal earlier this year with the
powerful International Skating Union to televise five events in
a new grand prix of figure skating. And it's considered a strong
contender in upcoming bidding to land the rights to Major League
Baseball. Indeed, baseball may need Fox's youthful demographics
as much as it needs Murdoch's cash. That baseball doesn't seem
to turn on younger viewers is viewed by Fox not as an obstacle
but as a challenge. "We think we could bring some excitement to
baseball broadcasts that hasn't been there in the past," says
The jewel in Fox Sports' crown, of course, is the NFC. "It made
us a real network," says Murdoch. "The next sport we take can't
do for us what the NFL did."
Fox will lose money on its 1993 football deal: At the end of
last season, Fox's parent, News Corporation, took a $350
million write-off to cover the anticipated losses. But the
ancillary benefits of having pro football are incalculable to
the young network. In addition to helping to strengthen its
affiliate lineup--Fox can now be seen in 99% of the country--the
network's successful NFC coverage and its top-rated pregame
show, The NFL on Fox, has given its sports division credibility
that couldn't be bought. Says Ed Goren, the executive producer
of Fox Sports and a former senior producer at CBS, "Rupert gave
us a budget that allowed us to do things we couldn't do at CBS."
From the outset Fox beefed up the audio from the sidelines and
employed at least the same number of cameras (12) and replay
machines (eight) in its weekly national games as CBS had used to
cover its final NFC Championship Game. It introduced the
much-ballyhooed Fox Box--a visible-at-all-times scoreboard in the
top left corner of your TV screen--a viewer-friendly innovation
that has been picked up by both ESPN and TNT. Not to be outdone,
NBC, too, increased its cameras and replay machines to 12 and
10, respectively, for its national games, though NBC Sports
president Dick Ebersol says that the Fox Box is one innovation
his network will never copy. "I'm not giving the viewers a road
map to go somewhere else," Ebersol says of fans' tendencies to
use their clickers once they find out the score. "But I'll give
Fox credit: Their entrance into the game has forced all of us to
be on our toes."
Although Fox's top announcing team of Pat Summerall and John
Madden remains the best in the business, it's generally
recognized that Fox lacks NBC's depth in the booth. And analyst
Jerry Glanville is the runaway winner as the most annoying voice
in football. Still, technically, Fox continues to be impressive.
This season Hill, Goren and lead producer Bob Stenner (another
CBS alum) have developed an eye-popping 3-D computer-generated
playbook, which analysts can use to illustrate plays and
In hockey Fox hopes to make the game more viewer-friendly during
its 1996 telecasts through computer enhancement of the televised
image of the puck. The system is in the final stages of
development, but according to NHL sources, electronic
modification of the image would make the puck appear slightly
larger and three-dimensional. The system might also be
programmed to do such things as have the puck leave a
disappearing trail behind it, like a comet's, or to register its
speed in the bottom corner of the screen after a shot.
"Fox has pushed us a little harder on the production side," says
Tommy Roy, executive producer of NBC Sports. "The one thing they
did very well last year was branding their product so the viewer
knew which station he was watching. Fox has the word FOX on
almost everything--the yardage, the clock, the graphics. We've
tried to do the same thing with the peacock."
Now there's an important advancement: branding the product. Fox
Box. Fox Bots (the hockey-telecast robots who represent the
opposing teams and who bash each other unmercifully). Fox
Playbook. First-and-Foxing-10. If this be progress, then bring
back the radio. At the end of its NFC broadcast last Sunday, a
sexy female voice purred, "You've been watching Fox Sports, seen
by most as very, very cool."
Last year's football motto--Same game, new attitude--has given way
to a new one: Same game, more attitude. Glib, irreverent,
leaning toward style over substance, Fox has embraced the
concept of sports as entertainment, not religion. This was,
after all, the network of the Simpsons and the Bundys before
Jerry Rice and Troy Aikman took up residence. "There's a section
of the football community that thinks we're too frivolous," says
Hill. "But aren't there cheerleaders and rock music at football
games? We're trying to mirror that."
"If you want your football information minus the glitz, there
are enough choices," says James (J.B.) Brown, the studio host
and former Harvard basketball star who plays straight man to
ex-NFL stars Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long and former Dallas
Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. "We're not trying to get the
hard-core fan who wants his sports in castor oil without
Kool-Aid to wash it down."
That fellow--the hard-core fan--might have had trouble digesting
Fox's preseason prime-time football special a few weeks ago,
which featured an excruciating opening monologue by Bradshaw and
special guest appearances by actress Tia (Wayne's World) Carrere
and the rock band Hootie & the Blowfish. Somewhere in there they
actually talked about football, but the whole package felt much
more like a Conan O'Brien routine gone sour.
"It seems to me they've set out on a different tack," says
Ebersol. "It's like they decided, ESPN is doing football for
football people. NBC has carved out a niche in news and
information gathering. So they took the entertainment angle."
Guess what, sports fans? The entertainment angle is selling.
Last season in head-to-head competition, Bradshaw and company
beat NBC's pregame show in the ratings, 4.7 to 4.4, and in the
first two weeks of 1995 they maintained that lead, 4.0 to 3.5.
(However, also following last year's pattern, through the first
two weeks of '95, NBC's game ratings led Fox's, 10.5 to 9.6.)
At Fox the studio hosts are treated, promoted and expected to
behave like Hollywood stars. Not like ex-jocks. Certainly not
like journalists. One Fox promo shows a clip of football players
colliding--"Tough guys," the gravelly voice-over intones--followed
by a clip of Bradshaw, Brown, Johnson and Long discussing the
game in the studio. "Cool guys," coos the voice. Can you imagine
NBC trying that with Mike Ditka, Joe Gibbs and Will McDonough?
"It's a very different culture here than in the rest of the
industry," says Goren. "It's a bit of Hollywood, and everyone
here gets a bit of a charge when they drive to work and go
through a movie lot. Our first year we reined ourselves in a
little, because we had to establish our credibility. But now,
watch out, world, it's year two. If you can dream it here, it
And that's just what a lot of folks are afraid of.