Bloom way off XFL’s rose

Mar 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It was supposed to be a return to football’s he-man glory days. Instead, the XFL-in five short weeks-has become a favorite punch-lining bag for late-night comedians.
On one night last week, David Letterman joked that George W. Bush’s first presidential address to Congress was so boring that “C-SPAN switched to an XFL game.” Less than an hour later, Craig Kilborn jibed that “viewership for the XFL doubled last weekend. I watched.”
That the XFL and its escalating problems can be reduced to comedy haiku neatly illustrates the good-news/bad-news crunch in which the league, launched Feb. 3 by World Wrestling Federation Entertainment and NBC, is caught midway through its 10-week regular season.
The good news is that WWFE founder and master marketer Vince McMahon so expertly beat the drums for a year that XFL had become a certified brand by opening night, when his promise of good, old-fashioned “smash-mouth” football in an all-new, all-access TV package earned a whopping 9.7 rating nationally.
The bad news is that more than 10 million folks caught the football and TV fumbles on the XFL’s first Saturday night.
If Mr. McMahon overperformed, the XFL-as football and TV-was widely judged as having underperformed.
“Nothing will kill a show better than great PR,” said Stacy Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research for TN Media. “You’ll get a lot of people to sample it, but in the end, the show has to stand up and keep people coming back.”
By last week, the parade out the door included some 8 million viewers (from NBC’s Saturday coverage alone), one advertiser (Honda), one XFL ad sales vice president (Bob Riordan, who jumped to CTN Media Group’s College Television Network) and one B-team announcer. (Jerry “The King” Lawler stalked out after the WWF fired his wrestler wife, Stacy “The Kat” Carter.)
And the statements by network executives that NBC is in for the long haul with the XFL-to which it pledged two years and some $50 million in startup contributions to its 50-50 partners at WWFE-had an increasingly hollow echo elsewhere in the TV world.
Outside the XFL’s parent companies, no one can make the falling viewership and male demos-plus increasing disenchantment with the new league and increasing competition from old spring sports traditions-add up to second season in prime time on NBC for the XFL.
It’s easier to take a wait-and-see attitude at TNN, which is still getting a significant boost from its Sunday afternoon XFL telecasts, but not so UPN, which had never had a presence on Sundays until its stations gave up local time to accommodate the XFL’s third game of each weekend.
“There’s no law against throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Dave Hanna, president of the UPN Affiliates Association Board of Governors and president and general manager of the Lockwood Broadcast Group, which has an NBC affiliate in the Sherman, Texas/Ada, Okla., market and a UPN affiliate in Richmond, Va.
“If you look at [pre-XFL] Saturday night for NBC stations, it’s been a wasteland. NBC had gone to actually paying viewers to watch,” said Mr. Hanna, referring to the interstitial segments that had invited viewers to go to NBC’s Web site to compete for prizes.
Over the season, NBC’s Saturday-night movies had averaged a 2.1 rating/7 share in men 18 to 34, a 2.8/9 in men 18 to 49 and a 3.3/9 in men 25 to 54.
By Feb. 24, NBC’s XFL broadcast was down to a 1.5 rating in men 18 to 34, a 2.1 rating in men 18 to 49 and a 2.2 rating in men 25 to 54 and finished fourth for the night in every male demo except teens, where the XFL’s 2.2 rating moved it ahead of CBS’s increasingly femme-focused Saturday night lineup, which did a 0.4 rating in male teens.
For stations in unmetered markets like Lockwood’s KTEN-TV or UPN affiliate KAME-TV in Reno, Nev., the February ratings story will not be known until Nielsen ratings diaries come in next month.
Marty Ozer, vice president and general manager of KAME, which is leased and managed by Cox Broadcasting, said his station sold out the local advertising inventory, tripling revenues for the time period.
Mr. Ozer is confident that the XFL “brings a different viewer to our station that we may not have had before.”
On the other hand, he said, “The NBC affiliates have got to be up in arms.”
The head of NBC’s affiliates advisory board, Jack Sander, sounded an alarm two weeks ago when he said, “I think everyone is disappointed” by the XFL’s continuing Saturday night drop-off.
“Nobody could say we could live with that,” said Mr. Sander, the executive vice president/media relations for Belo.
Neither can anyone see a graceful out for NBC, whose commitments to the PGA and NBA make it more than unlikely that the game could be moved off Saturday night next year, when the network will be focused on making a success of the Winter Olympics.
In a sweeps conference call last week, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa, told reporters, “We have to put it in prime time.”
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said, “We’re honest about the numbers, and it needs to improve.”
NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol “is fully aware of the numbers,” said Mr. Zucker, who added, “Dick is conscious of things that need to be fixed.”
“It is a failing league,” said one advertising analyst.