Fox Updates the Formula

Sep 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

A decade ago, Fox shocked the sports world when it snatched away the NFL from the football institution that was CBS.

In 1996, when the network announced it had secured the rights for postseason Major League Baseball (including the World Series) and was reinstituting a regular-season Saturday afternoon broadcast, the ground didn’t shake quite as much. Still, baseball purists wondered how the forward-thinking Fox might shake up coverage of the grand old game.

In a way, traditionalists’ fears were well founded. Eight years later, Fox’s baseball coverage is criticized by some for being too loud, too frenetic and too filled with gimmicks such as sound effects and, in an effort to appeal to kids, an animated baseball named Scooter. In the process, though, the company’s network and cable entities have helped re-establish baseball as a TV game, and one that potentially draws big ratings.

Ed Goren, president and executive producer of Fox Sports, said the network always goes with a fresh approach when deciding how to package a sport. “We take a look at it from top to bottom,” he said. “David Hill [chairman and CEO, Fox Sports Television Group] and I take a look at it and say, `How can we enhance the broadcast? What preceded was solid, but how do we try to make it more entertaining, make it more intimate?”‘

Starting with its first MLB contract, which expired in 2001, through its latest $2.5 billion deal, which runs through the end of the 2005-06 season, Fox employed new technology to help update the decidedly older-skewing game. In came catcher-cams, player mikes and in-game interviews. Out went stodgy camera work and monotonous, old-school announcers.

The challenge of instituting innovative production techniques was difficult. Fox took years to integrate all the bells and whistles-first in the postseason and then on Saturdays. Getting the human element to adjust to the cameras and microphones in a new way was probably the hardest part of the transition. “That doesn’t happen without cooperation from all parties involved, whether it’s the players, the players’ association or the commissioner’s office,” Mr. Goren said.

The Fox attitude can also be heard in the voices of its Emmy-winning on-air team, including color commentator Tim McCarver and play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, who called the network’s first World Series in 1996 at the age of 27. Mr. Buck said adding the right amount of edge to his commentary is a balancing act. “You can’t turn it into the comedy hour. You can’t push it so far that it gets in the way of just enjoying a baseball game. But if you lay back and let the action just come to you, you’ll be left holding the bag, so to speak,” he said.

“My opinion is by putting a mike in the outfield wall, by putting mikes in bases … we are just trying to take viewers where they haven’t been before.”

That new journey for viewers has extended to Fox’s 16 cable sports nets. Mr. Buck also does play-by-play on Fox Sports Midwest for the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom his father, the late Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, toiled the bulk of his career. He said the changes that first appeared in broadcast games have trickled down to the regional cable stations. “To do an interview with a starting pitcher when he comes out of the game, that is something we never did on the cable side that we’re doing now,” Mr. Buck said.

But he said he isn’t concerned that cable’s growth will overshadow what made the weekly broadcast unique. “I still think what sets us apart is the people we have doing these games,” he said of “The Fox Saturday Baseball Game of the Week.” “And the combination of people we bring together on a Saturday and in the postseason is kind of like an all-star team of the guys doing the local games in the course of the week.”

The “MLB on Fox” economic model isn’t for faint-hearted executives, since everything is loaded toward postseason and greater rewards come with deep series.

A playoff mismatch, might cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Fox Sports’ New York headquarters, but when things click, it can be sweet.

“I’ll take a repeat of last October,” Mr. Goren said, referring to dramatic appearances in the two League Championship Series by the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, two teams with large national followings and long histories of playoff frustration, and the Florida Marlins’ eventual World Series upset of the New York Yankees. “It was a phenomenal month, where for the first time in the history of this network, Fox was the No. 1-rated network for the month of October for households and all key demos.

“I think that last October was a demonstration of the strength of the baseball package,” he said.