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 formations.
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?