SBJ/June 15 - 21, 1998/No Topic Name

ESPN hopes to recapture ratings magic with NFL

ESPN executives hope to turn the corner this summer on a much-publicized ratings slide with the one-two punch of World Cup soccer and NFL coverage.

ESPN's 24-hour rating the second quarter of 1998 was 0.62, or 459,000 households, down from 0.66, or 486,000 homes, in the year's first quarter. The decline is more marked when compared with the second quarter a year ago, when ESPN posted a 0.72 rating, representing 516,000 homes.

The cable network's fall from viewer favor has not gone unnoticed by the media.

Financial cable network CNBC reported earlier this month that there is "a heightened sense that the days of ESPN being the only team in the major leagues are over." It's generally conceded that ESPN revolutionized sports broadcasting with its debut in 1979.

The Hollywood Reporter noted that in the first quarter of 1998, ESPN's flagship "SportsCenter" lost about 100,000 viewers at the same time that "Fox Sports News" was gaining about 100,000. ("SportsCenter" still ranks far above the Fox news show with about 800,000 viewers, compared to about 300,000 for Fox.)

ESPN executives are encouraged that the late-night broadcast of "SportsCenter" (11 p.m. in most markets) has gained about 67,000 viewers so far in the second quarter over first quarter, said Artie Burgrin, ESPN vice president of ratings and sales. Meanwhile, ratings for the comparable segment of "Fox Sports News" have been flat or down slightly.

"While we are coming out of a tough period for us, the future looks brighter," Burgrin said. ESPN expects to reap big ratings rewards out of its deal to be the exclusive cable broadcaster of NFL games this year. Last year ESPN shared NFL cable coverage with Turner Broadcasting.

"The NFL is going to bring in many more viewers and create a strong lead-in for 'SportsCenter,'" he said.

Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, said, "I do think football will have a positive impact on ratings [at ESPN], and I think soccer will help them somewhat."

But he is "not surprised" that Fox is making an impact on ESPN. "Fox is a real supplier of sports highlights and news and information, which used to be the sole purview of ESPN," Pilson said.

Tracy Dolgin, chief operating officer of Fox Sports, noted that "Fox Sports News" has only been on the air for a few months, while "SportsCenter" has been around for almost two decades. "We are very pleased with the speed of our growth," he said.

While Dolgin praised "SportsCenter" as a "great" show, he also asserted, "We're not in this business to be No. 2."

Burgrin conceded that Fox Sports has had an impact on ESPN ratings but said he did not know to what extent, since Fox ratings were reported on a regional basis and not nationally. Fox's national ratings are proprietary, and "We are a little bit concerned that they going to the press with these numbers," he said.

Burgrin noted, too, that Fox may not be doing as well as has been reported. He said that ratings for "Fox Sports News" in Los Angeles, for example, were down substantially this May compared with May 1997.

Vince Wladika, Fox Sports senior vice president of communications, said, "I don't know why they are so preoccupied with us. They're the leader, and all were trying to do is put on a good show."

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