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Fox finds itself out of the zone in final season of NHL coverage


If you've ever devoted a supreme effort to a project, taking an approach maybe a little off the beaten path, only to have your work criticized afterward, you'll understand the frustration Fox officials are feeling as they approach their final season of hockey coverage.

For four years, the network attempted to take a game that was and still is largely on the fringe of the American sports consciousness and bring it into the 20th century, only to have virtually every move met with criticism from the hockey community.

"If I believed everything I read, the only problem with the NHL was Fox's coverage," said executive producer Ed Goren during a conference call yesterday.

The most controversial of Fox's innovations, a computer-enhanced puck that glowed, was savaged by the so-called hockey intelligensia as little more than a gimmick.

"The point is that some people used it [the glowing puck] to learn the game. It really bugged me when I saw some of the comments and criticisms from various people. It's like they forgot about the coverage we tried to do," said Fox analyst John Davidson.

Then, to add insult to injury, the NHL took their television rights to Disney for distribution through ABC and ESPN for a whopping $600 million over four years with a year to go in the current deal, leaving Fox as a lame duck.

There was speculation that Fox would sell this year's rights back to either the NHL or to Disney, but the network elected to finish what it started, albeit on a scaled- back level.

For instance, for Sunday's All-Star Game telecast (Channel 45, 4 p.m.), there will be no glowing puck, and the network will stick to a pared-down regionalized schedule just like last season. There is, after all, no sense knocking your brains out for people who don't appreciate the effort.

"We all wanted another shot, and we got the shot this year," said Davidson, who will team with Mike Emrick on Sunday from Tampa. "We want to do a great job, we're going to do a great job. We would have been left with a bad taste if we had not gone out strong."

ESPN, meanwhile, will televise the skills competition and old-timers game tomorrow beginning at 7 p.m.

Setting the slate

Here's how you know that things have changed in the NBA: The New Jersey Nets will make more appearances (2) on NBC this season than the Chicago Bulls (1). In fact, the Bulls' Feb. 21 game against the New York Knicks will be their only appearance on either NBC or Turner.

The Los Angeles Lakers, on the other hand, will make 11 national and regional appearances on NBC and 12 more on TNT and TBS, including games against Houston on Feb. 5 and Utah on Feb. 7, the NBA's new opening weekend.

The Knicks draw nine NBC games and eight Turner appearances, with Indiana next at nine and six broadcast and cable airings. The Washington Wizards get shut out of NBC, but will play on TNT on April 6 against the Nets and on TBS on March 8 against Detroit.

By the way, NBC (Channel 11) will air a one-hour special "Time To Play" Sunday at 5 p.m., with lead play-by-play announcer Bob Costas interviewing commissioner David Stern and players union chieftain Billy Hunter.

In the can

Some of the most noteworthy sports programming of the weekend is of the taped variety, as HBO and ESPN present exceptionally strong efforts.

ESPN formally launches its yearlong observation of the end of the century with a pair of marvelous documentaries tonight. At 8, the channel begins a weekly countdown of what it considers the 50 greatest North American athletes of the past 100 years with a 30-minute look at tennis star Chris Evert, followed at 8: 30 by the first of six "SportsCenter of the Decade" shows in which the events and trends of an entire decade are examined. Tonight, the period from 1900-1949 goes under the microscope in a program that's well worth taping.

Under the premise that 40 percent of the NFL's television audience is female, Lifetime, the cable channel devoted to women's issues, presents an NFL Films-produced hour, "A Woman's Touch in the NFL: Tackling Pro Football," at 7 p.m. The show, with CBS' Michele Tafoya as host, looks at three women -- Donna George, mother of Tennessee running back Eddie; attorney Sally Gardocki, the wife of Indianapolis punter Chris; and ESPN correspondent Andrea Kremer, as well as the league-sponsored "Football 101" course for women.

Though well-meaning, "A Woman's Touch," with the soft-filter lenses and swirling music fills, has the feel of NFL propaganda, targeted and released just in time to encourage viewers who might have only a marginal interest in piling in front of the set for next week's Super Bowl.

Of much greater value is this month's "Real Sports," premiering Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO. The new edition, possibly the best in the series' history, introduces two of four new correspondents, who jump into the fray with strong pieces.

Former National Public Radio talk host turned Washington-area news anchor Derek McGinty anchors a piece on NFL assistant coaches and the sacrifices they undertake to do their jobs. McGinty reveals during the story that while NFL players are able to take their health benefits from team to team, assistant coaches don't.

Bernard Goldberg, who like "Real Sports" anchor Bryant Gumbel is on loan to HBO from CBS News, contributes a strong piece based on a recent book which outlines some of the criminal doings of NFL players. The best segment is Jim Lampley's thorough treatise on offshore and Internet sports gambling, in which Lampley and his team bounce from Antigua to Aruba and to Bethlehem, Pa. to track down a fascinating story.

Around the dial

NBC (Channel 11) dusts off the month-old World Pro figure skating championship for prime-time coverage tonight and tomorrow at 9 each evening. Included in each show will be long features on the participants, with a particularly weepy segment on the weird coupling and de-coupling of two Russian ice dancing pairs. Bring the hankies.

The college football season comes to a none-too-swift end this weekend. TBS airs the Senior Bowl tomorrow, with former Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer playing analyst on the pre-game show at 2: 05 p.m. Then, on Sunday, ESPN passes the poi around for the Hula Bowl at 4 p.m.

On the men's college basketball front, Monday night's Fresno State-Utah game (ESPN, midnight) is likely to send the fashion mavens screaming, given the wardrobes of coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Majerus. The Clemson-Iowa State women's dust-up matches two underrated Top 25 teams and should have interest, Sunday at noon on ESPN2.

Finally, ABC (Channel 2) has coverage of the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament this weekend, and promises to show all the pictures of Michael Jordan golfing that your heart can stand, tomorrow and Sunday, each day at 3 p.m.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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