Spend a few minutes talking to Fox sports executives and you become convinced that, when it comes to hockey, they are fighting a game of reality vs. perception.
In truth, Fox says, hockey is a great game whose ratings and demographic appeal are right on line with regular-season college basketball. In the wake of the New York Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup win, Fox signed a five-year, $155 million contract with the NHL, in part on the theory that with its ability to market hockey, interest in the game would only grow.
But as substandard ratings continue to roll in, the network battles the notion among many that hockey, for all its speed and power, is a doomed sport with little interest beyond the core of devoted fans in each NHL city.
For instance, Sunday's Washington-Boston game, the sixth and, as it turned out, decisive contest in the series, got a 0.7 rating and a 2 share on Channel 45 here. Only one other program, of the 16 sports-related shows that aired on Baltimore broadcast television last weekend, rated lower. That was a taped snowboarding show on Channel 11 that aired because only one NBA game was shown Saturday rather than the scheduled doubleheader.
Sunday's local rating is about on par for what hockey did here this season, and over the past four for that matter. Baltimore is admittedly not a big hockey town, but numbers like those have turned up in other non-NHL cities, leading one to wonder if hockey, which was off the national airwaves for more than 20 years, can make it as a television sport.
With one year to go on the original deal, Fox executive producer Ed Goren said during a conference call with the media that the network believes in hockey's viability, but he stopped short of committing to an extension.
"It's not just a Fox issue. It's a cable issue and a Canadian TV issue," Goren said. "I was at CBS when we walked away from the NBA and there's a hesitancy to turn your back on a sport. We're not giving up on the game. We think this year was an aberration."
In the long term, Goren said Fox is considering cutting back on the number of regional games it telecasts next season and moving its telecast day back to Sunday from this year's Saturday airings.
For the rest of this season, the network will bring back its "Fox Trax" computer-enhanced puck detection system, but with a modification.
Instead of a constant glow, the puck will now be enhanced on shots and passes. Fox also has added five ice-level robotic or hand-held cameras on the blue lines and behind the goals to better bring the action of the game into your living rooms.
"We think [the new angles] will show more checking and more board work," said lead director Sandy Grossman. "If somebody tunes in and we can match the excitement of what's going on on the rink with excitement of what we're doing, I think we'll have something."
The refined technology will be visible on Sunday's St. Louis-Detroit game (Channel 45, 2 p.m.).
Going Hog wild
May, a 10-year NFL veteran who was the cerebral member of the Redskins' "Hogs" front line, was in the studio for TNT for two seasons, before joining Verne Lundquist and Pat Haden last year in the booth.
The hoops scene
Turner's new NBA studio analyst Kenny Smith had a premonition that the Charlotte Hornets would knock off the Bulls on Wednesday night in Chicago in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and darned if he wasn't right.
"I didn't believe it, but I thought it could happen," Smith said, jokingly, yesterday. "Game 2 is usually the game you can come out and make a statement and the Hornets really didn't show up in Game 1. The thing with the Bulls is you're not going to blow them out or even beat them by 10 or 15, but you have to hang around with them and probably take your chances that Michael Jordan will miss down the stretch. It's 60-40 that he will and [Wednesday night] was that 40 percent."
But Smith figures the Bulls have done about all the losing they're going to do for this series. You can find out if he's right tonight. Game 3 begins at 8 on TNT, followed by the third game of the Seattle-Lakers series at 10: 30.
Before we leave the NBA playoffs, which continue with an NBC (Channel 11) doubleheader tomorrow at 1 p.m. and a Sunday tripleheader commencing at 12: 30 p.m., it's time for the yearly plea to commissioner David Stern to do something about series scheduling.
Both the Utah-San Antonio and New York-Indiana series are going to have games on both Saturday and Sunday. While the players are supremely talented and conditioned, the fourth quarters of Sunday's games are likely to look ugly, because the combatants will be forced to play consecutive days to provide television programming. The playoffs are supposed to be the showcase for the best the NBA has to offer, but not if the players look dog tired from playing in so many games bunched so closely together.
Around the dial
There's not much on the menu past the hockey and basketball offerings this weekend, but ABC (Channel 2) will try to get viewers prepped for next week's Preakness with coverage of the Pimlico Special and Illinois Derby tomorrow at 4 p.m. Then, on Sunday, ABC airs the Rio 400 CART auto race from Brazil at 3: 30 p.m.
Pub Date: 5/08/98