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Fox Sports Net is going "all in" when it comes to the No Limit Texas Hold 'Em poker craze, airing six straight hours of the new Showdown at the Sands tournament on Thanksgiving Day. The production will be unique in that it will go to air less than 24 hours after the completion of the tournament.
Poker events such as ESPN's World Series of Poker and The Travel Channel's World Poker Tour — both surprise ratings hits this year — didn't make it to television until months after they were completed, and aired in weekly episodic form. That's partly because televising poker tournaments requires taping dozens of hours of play, and then going back to pick out key hands and players and adding an audio track from an announcer as if it were being called in real time.
Fox will do the same thing but with much less turnaround time. It also intends to distinguish itself by starting coverage with preliminary rounds, or "satellite games," in which amateur players come to the table with only a few dollars and have the chance to advance to the final rounds and win the grand prize of $1 million.
"We're presenting not just the final but everything leading up to that," said George Greenberg, Fox Sports Net's executive vice president of programming and production. "To me, telling the story of how these guys got there is just as important as the finals."
Fox will not have to pay a rights fee to cover the tournament — which is hosted and bankrolled by Carl Icahn, owner of the Sands hotel casino in Atlantic City, N.J. — but will spend more than $250,000 on production expenses, Greenberg said. He added that the venture is extremely cost-effective because Fox will be able to repeat the telecasts throughout the year.
ESPN and the World Poker Tour have been credited with revolutionizing poker on television by adding such elements as miniature cameras that can show every player's hand, and instant odds based on what cards a player has. Fox will try to up the ante with a camera that will show viewers the "flop" card, the next card in the deck, adding to the drama.
The marathon will be broken into six one-hour episodes, and the final two will re-air at 8 p.m. ET. All six will be shown repeatedly on Fox Sports Net over the next year as programming filler. ESPN also will be airing a poker marathon on Thanksgiving Day, rerunning the World Series of Poker from 1 to 8 p.m. ET.
"DREAM JOB" SPONSORS: Wendy's, Labatt Blue, Mazda and Visa are sponsoring "Dream Job," the ESPN reality show in which ordinary citizens compete for a one-year contract to become an anchor on "SportsCenter."
Wendy's will stage a "Wendy's Wild Card" promotion through soft drink cups and espn.com, offering a chance to win one of 50 video cameras to make an audition tape. ESPN will pick one person from that group to become one of the 10 contestants on the show.
Labatt Blue already is activating the sponsorship through a "Labatt Blooper" area on espn.com, where users can view some of the more comical moments from the first round of auditions, which have been staged nationwide. When the show begins airing on Sunday nights this winter (the first of six episodes is Feb. 22), Labatt will run a promotion on its own Web site that allows people to compete in contests similar to ones on the show.FSN West’s L.A. Kings coverage regularly includes coach’s pregame speech to team.
FSN WEST SHOWS PREGAME SPEECH: Fox Sports Net West and the Los Angeles Kings are making coach Andy Murray's pregame speech a regular part of game broadcasts. Murray wears a wireless microphone while a small digital handheld camera records his pep talk 90 minutes before most home games.
Fox and team officials then review the speech and pull out two or three segments to use during the telecast, with the key message of his speech featured at the opening. Announcers refer to moments of the speech when they apply to what is taking place on the ice, as the director switches between clips of the speech and replays of the announcers going to a telestrator.
Fox also has wired players, referees and Murray during games this season.
Another element of the telecasts is two live talk-back interviews from the bench with the team's assistant coaches. Announcers can get immediate answers from the coaches as they help direct the action.
Andy Bernstein can be reached at email@example.com.
Click here for a listing of CART rating trends.
The new ESPN2 morning show "Cold Pizza," which debuted Oct. 20, is averaging the same 0.1 rating that ESPN2 previously attained in the time slot with workout shows and various other programming. The gender breakdown is also about the same, with the audience being 24 percent female.
The live "Cold Pizza" broadcasts from 7 to 9 a.m. ET (it re-airs from 9 to 11 a.m.) have averaged 62,000 households, less than one-tenth of a percent of ESPN2's total reach.
While it does not appear to be getting traction with viewers, no alarm bells are sounding. There have not been any major changes made to the show, and an ESPN spokesman said the network will be patient.
"We kind of had modest expectations at launch," said Josh Krulewitz, ESPN's director of owned events and college public relations. "People aren't accustomed to seeing an active live series in the morning. It takes time, and we're committed to 'Cold Pizza' and we expect the audience to build."
The show represents an important and expensive initiative for ESPN as a company, as it tries to give ESPN2 its own face and anchor.
2003 rating 2002 rating Change Week 1 2.2 2 10.0% Week 2 2.2 2.1 4.8% Week 3 2.1 2.1 0.0% Week 4 2.4 1.9 26.3% Week 5 2.3 1.9 21.1% Week 6 2.4 1.9 26.3% Week 7 2.1 1.9 10.5% Week 8 2.7 2.1 28.6% Week 9 2.6 2.2 18.2% Note: Ratings listed are for ESPN’s coverage area. Commentator Rush Limbaugh resigned following this season’s Week 4 show.
Source: Nielsen Media Research
The following are regular-season Nielsen ratings trends for Major League Soccer’s national broadcast partners for the past six years. In 2002, MLS signed a deal with ABC and ESPN for exclusive broadcast rights through 2006. ESPN2 aired 26 regular-season games in 2002 and 25 regular-season games in 2003.
Manchester United is negotiating with Fox Sports to air at least one of its U.S. games next summer on the network rather than on Fox Sports World. Man U announced last week that it would return to the United States for a second consecutive summer exhibition tour.
This past summer, Manchester United's four U.S. exhibitions were all on Fox Sports World, which is carried mainly on digital cable tiers. The global soccer giant's games drew record crowds in Seattle, New York and Philadelphia, and appeared to have caught even Manchester's merchandise partner, Nike, off guard with the huge swell of support. Fans had a difficult time finding Nike's Man U gear to buy.
"We will certainly order more stuff for next year," promised Charlie Stillitano, president of ChampionsWorld, which will promote the tour and is working with Nike on next year's games.
Nike said merchandise sales would be just one of its areas of focus.
"We'd be very excited to build upon the momentum of last year's U.S. visit in three keys areas: Increase participation in our Man United youth camps and clinics; continue to broaden the success of our Man United Coaches Symposiums; and maximize our opportunity at retail for supporters and fans of Manchester United," said Joe Elsmore, Nike's head of soccer marketing.
Peter Draper, the club's marketing director, said he expected most of the first tour's sponsors, including Pepsi and Budweiser, to be back.
The money is also about the same for Man U. Last year, sources said, ChampionsWorld paid the team up to $3 million for the four games, and the club will receive a proportionate amount for three games next summer.
The main difference between the two tours, Draper said, would be a focus next year on recruiting members to Manchester United subscription fan programs. The team, strong in Asia and Europe, has made a concerted drive to increase its brand in this country.
Ironically, it may have been a lack of awareness of the brand that specifically propelled the team to come back so soon, after having waited 20 years between its last two visits. The club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said he and the players were pleased to be able to walk the streets in America without being recognized.
Alas, in 2005 the team expects to make a summer swing through Asia, where the club is commonly greeted like a rock band.
BACK ON TRACK: After a monthlong absence, NBC returned to the top 10 with a 4.7 rating of its Nov. 2 Winston Cup Series race, the Phoenix 500. The rating was 6.8 percent higher than last year’s race. This marked the second straight year that a NASCAR race failed to make the top 10 during October. Large TV audiences for Major League Baseball’s playoffs may have hurt the circuit’s numbers, as ratings for all four of last month’s races were down sharply from comparable weekends last year.
Click here for the full Nielsen Weekly Sports Ranking.
The fate of the ESPN drama "Playmakers" could involve a second season with fewer controversial plotlines, according to a network official.
The show, which depicts a fictional pro football team, scored a 1.9 average cable rating, nearly quadrupling what the Tuesday 9 p.m. ET time slot averaged before. A DVD release of the first season is already planned for next fall, and the show succeeded in bringing new viewers and casual sports fans to the network, said Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment.
But "Playmakers" drew the ire of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the NFLPA and club owners because of plotlines they said portrayed NFL players in a negative light. All expressed some variation of the point that it made no sense for a network paying the league an average of $600 million a year in rights fees to turn around and produce a show that trashed professional football.A DVD release of the first season of "Playmakers" is due out next fall.
"We find it really offensive," said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the NFL owners' meetings earlier this month. "I am surprised they would put it on. They are devaluing the sports fee by putting on a show creating an image that is not accurate. I am surprised a partner would do that."
That sentiment has left ESPN with a choice of dropping the highest-rated series ever launched through its Original Entertainment division, or continuing to anger the league that provides its most valuable programming.
Semiao said ESPN won't decide whether to renew "Playmakers" any time soon, and he conceded that the NFL's displeasure will be a major consideration.
But one possibility he discussed is that the show could return next year in similar form, save some of the characters' outlandish behavior.
"We're talking about it," he said. "Do I think the show could have attracted viewers without some of the more edgy elements? The answer I think is yes. That really comes down to the quality of the writing and the storylines."
Although "Playmakers" was generally well received by critics and was often compared to award-winning HBO dramas, almost every episode depicted some sort of boorish or criminal acts by the characters. They ranged from a wide receiver buying cocaine in the stadium parking lot during halftime — in full pads — to the team owner ordering a running back to lie to prosecutors to cover up domestic violence.
Semiao noted, however, that it stopped showing drug use among players and started revealing more redeeming qualities in them about midway through the 11-episode season. And ratings held steady. The final episode last Tuesday actually attracted the second-most viewers of any, with a 2.2 household rating, or 1.65 million viewers.
Regardless of whether the show returns, ESPN can claim to have developed a bona fide cable hit in a genre where it never ventured before. It averaged a 2.2 rating in the all-important men 18 to 34 demographic. Although only 29 percent the show's viewers were women — just slightly above ESPN's breakdown for all programming — the show did well among women age 18 to 34 and was the third-highest-rated show on cable during its time slot for that group.
ESPN has another scripted drama in the works, one being developed by filmmaker Spike Lee and set at Brooklyn, N.Y., basketball powerhouse Lincoln High School. Lee is currently writing scripts for the show, loosely based on the Lee film "He Got Game" that was also set at the school, but no time frame has been established for when it will air.
Semiao said Lee's show will not affect whether "Playmakers" is renewed, but the ESPN schedule cannot accommodate more than one scripted show at a time. ESPN's 25th anniversary programming, to run from May through September next year, also limits the openings for a scripted drama.
Staff writer Daniel Kaplan contributed to this report.
Sports programming has not been immune from the much-publicized drop in ratings among men 18 to 34, but the sense of alarm coming from network entertainment divisions has not quite made its way to the sports world.
While there is disagreement on what's behind the trend — networks say there's something wrong with Nielsen Media Research's sample, while Nielsen and some ad agencies say it's just a case of young men simply not being inspired by current programming — a quick look at ratings shows that this key demographic group is also trending behind the overall population in sports viewing.
NFL ratings this year among men 18 to 34 are down 13 percent on average to a 7.1 across the broadcast networks and ESPN, according to the Initiative buying agency. Household ratings for the NFL, meanwhile, are flat.
Even sports programming that's gotten an overall lift in household numbers has seen ratings for young men not score the same gains.
ESPN, for example, got a 20 percent lift in household ratings during September and October, compared with the same period last year. It felt that jump on both a total-day basis and in prime time. Ratings for men 18 to 34 were also up, but only 8 percent for total day and 10 percent for prime time.
Ratings for college football and NASCAR also have dipped for men 18 to 34.
The only sports programming to clearly buck the trend was the MLB playoffs and the NBA. The baseball postseason on Fox bounced up 36 percent for those elusive young men, compared with a 29 percent lift in households.
The NBA also has held its own during the early going, with ratings on ESPN and TNT up 37 percent overall and 38 percent among the group in question.
While the major networks are putting strong pressure on Nielsen to explain the numbers and examine its sample, the network sports divisions, ESPN and advertisers all seem unfazed.
"One thing we know is that sports viewing among this group is fluky to begin with," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president and director of global research for Initiative. She noted that NFL ratings for men 18 to 34 were up 17 percent last year.
The fickle nature of this group is something the sports television world has grown to expect. As Fox Sports Chairman David Hill once said after a huge drop in sports viewing in the six months that followed Sept. 11, "They're like a school of fish. They come and go." He quickly proved prophetic, as ratings for that cohort rebounded nicely over the next year.
Glenn Enochs, vice president of audience research at ESPN, said the network is doing well with most key demographics, especially older men. The ratings for men 18 to 34 may not have grown as much, but they're still high for the network, so there are no complaints, he said.
"Part of the problem with debate over men 18 to 34 is it's so restricted in time," Enochs said. "Broadcast networks found their numbers were down [during the new television season] and started to cry. But when we looked at 18 to 34 men for the first nine months of the year, [viewing] was down but only in prime time. They're viewing more in other day parts."
Overall, according to ESPN research, sports ratings across all networks are flat for 2003 among men 18 to 34, and up 1 percent for the last 12 months.