Big two on cable connect with viewers


BRISTOL, Conn. - It doesn't take much to grasp just how many options sit at a sports fan's fingertips these days. One glance at the weekend TV listings or into a packed sports bar showing a wide array of games does the trick.

But most fans take for granted that they can find at least one live game to watch every night of the week. The sports fan's world hasn't been that way for long.

Before cable TV was even a thought, the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) provided the only games on the dial. Sports were generally confined to weekend afternoons, and even then the schedule looked nothing like it does now.

Now it seems there isn't a sports event of significance that doesn't find a place on the air.

Simply, the growth of cable networks has allowed sports on TV to proliferate to levels never thought possible. The growth has even led to the development of specific sports packages and completely new sports, such as the X Games.

"There just wasn't a place for all the sports [before cable]," said Robert Thompson, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Now with cable you have all kinds of room for sports. And a lot of them have worked because the ratings requirements for shows on cable were much lower than you'd see with networks."

The boom of sports options can be traced back to 1979, when a fledgling regional cable channel called ESPN began broadcasting from a small central Connecticut town. In its early years, ESPN had SportsCenter, a half-hour show that had an occasional highlight or interview and, well, not much else.

"No one did sports on TV anything like that back then," said Chris Berman, who has been with ESPN for all but its first three months and is probably the network's most recognized personality. "Frankly, we didn't have a lot of pictures to go with our news, so we just tried to talk with the viewer even though no one was there."

But as ESPN grew, so did its scope. Before long, powered by the success of SportsCenter, ESPN went national. Suddenly, the network had to fill a full day with sports programming - not an easy task without rights to any major sports. That meant ESPN became the home for sports such as Australian Rules Football, before eventually growing into the major player it is today.

"It appeals to the true fan," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said of ESPN. "It's difficult to manufacture ratings, but as long as people keep watching and advertisers keep buying spots, it'll keep going."

ESPN has had plenty of success in its 23 years with live sports and accompanying shows, but still hasn't struck gold quite like it did with a program that aired on the network's first day, SportsCenter.

"There are so many different ways that you can get news now," said John Wildhack, ESPN senior vice president, programming. "But SportsCenter remains as the only national daily sports news report. Our job is to make sure the quality of the broadcast is up to the highest journalistic standards, while doing so in a style that connects with fans."

Fox made a big splash after buying the rights to the NFL in 1994 and baseball in 1996 while using a style that won over the same type of audience ESPN had drawn. Those moves established Fox as a legitimate network and got the attention of the people in Bristol.

"It did wonders for their visibility," Thompson said. "It was one of the few important steps in building a network. Nobody questions whether Fox is a network anymore."

In 1997, Fox broke into the cable world, buying numerous regional cable networks and tying them together with national programming under the Fox Sports Net label.

When Fox Sports Net started, it put a lot of money and effort into shows such as National Sports Report, which tried to compete directly with the long-established SportsCenter. Big mistake. National Sports Report slid in the ratings and was canceled earlier this year and replaced with regional reports.

Realizing ESPN and broadcast networks had a hold on national broadcasts, Fox Sports Net decided to emphasize and promote the fact that showing the home team in a given market gave it an advantage.

Then Fox Sports Net geared its whole network toward the casual fan.

"There are so many moderate sports fans out there," said Fox Sports Net president Tracy Dolgin. "So we wanted to present something fun and entertaining for those kind of fans. That meant showing more home-team games."

There may come a time that sports networks have to start drastically cutting back the number of games they show. But until that happens, there certainly seems to be enough room for the current cable rivals.

"If you look at the business, it's not a competition [between Fox Sports Net and ESPN]," Dolgin said. "We don't try to get viewers from ESPN. All I'm trying to do is find what will appeal to our audience. They and the other networks can continue to do what they have been doing and be very successful with it."

Scott Andera is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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