Sports Nets Mine Gold Before Games


The best way to appreciate the scope of Fox Sports Net
might be to spend an evening in front of a TV armed with DirecTV Inc.'s "Total
Choice" package and a remote that lets you click through wave after wave of regional
sports coverage.

After the games, it's a seamless move into Fox Sports
News for all but a few of the regionals that comprise the Net. But before the games,
it's a different story.

Nearly every regional network plays to its local strengths
with locally produced pregame shows. And in some cases, you'll see the pregame
version of a stripped local sports-news show that runs every weeknight, whether
there's a game or not.

That one-two punch of national and local coverage is what
sets Fox Sports Net apart.

Recently, the network even pushed its national early news
show back a half-hour to allow for earlier start times for games and pregame shows.

And it appears that while the current sports bandwidth hog
-- the National Basketball Association -- is generating surprisingly strong ratings for
the regional networks, the pregame shows are doing at least as well as last year, too,
executives said.

Arthur Smith, executive vice president of programming and
production for Fox Sports Net, said the network works with the regionals to produce
pregame shows and, whenever possible, to create 7 p.m. strip shows that can become
franchise shows for that network.

Smith's ideal early evening block includes the
national news at 6 p.m., The Last Word at 6:30 p.m. and a local show or pregame at
7 p.m.

Eight of the 10 Fox owned-and-operated networks produce
separate pregame shows for all or most of their professional teams. Fox Sports Net
Pittsburgh and Fox Sports Net Northwest strip nightly shows that also serve as umbrellas
for pregames.

For "competitive reasons," Smith shied away from
discussing network plans to push local programming in that time slot as a priority,
perhaps by providing a template that regions without shows could use.

But executives at various regionals said they wouldn't
be surprised to see the network move in that direction.

"Those are the types of things that should work in all
regions," Smith said, adding that the network has been especially careful to make
sure that fans know that the regional elements aren't going away. "We wanted to
make sure that fans knew that we were going to embrace them."

Pregame shows have other pluses, too. They can be good
advertising vehicles, commanding rates almost as high as game spots for some networks,
executives said. And they can play an important role in building relationships with the
pro teams.

"If you're a team marketing person, you want the
pregame show for the same reason that you'd have a yearbook or a scorecard,"
Madison Square Garden Network executive producer Mike McCarthy said.

What makes a good regional show?

Smith quickly answered: "They should be hyperlocalized
to make it work, really tailoring to the home team. That's the thing that we strive
for -- that's the point of difference. What we don't want is for our guys to
start producing a national type of show."

Fox also doesn't want any local programming to come
between the end of a pro game and the start of Fox Sports News.

But the national network has learned to live with that
situation in a few markets. Fox Sports Chicago carries postgame shows live from the locker
room, then goes to the network's news. And MSGN airs National Finance SportsDesk,
anchored by Marv Albert, at 10:30 p.m. or after live events and postgame shows; the
national show airs at midnight.

Sister regional network Fox Sports New York follows the
more traditional Fox schedule, though. Both New York networks are co-owned by Fox/Liberty
Networks and Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.

Pregames can be a full-time job for some networks. At Fox
Sports Net Southwest, executive producer Mike Anastassiou oversees 220 primetime pregame
events per year using the title Southwest Tonight -- so many that he's
considering stripping the show to cover 40 or so nongame nights.

"I don't know if it's a dollar-for-dollar
trade versus in-game rates, but we get healthy rates. It's a neat little revenue
stream for us," Anastassiou said, adding that the change wouldn't be purely

"We are continuing to build upon this franchise, and
the next logical step for us would be to strip it," Anastassiou added. "I think
that what I refer to as our 'sacred half-hour' is positioned nicely for us in
primetime, and it is a good platform for us to continue to [generate] regional and local

It would also give the network a chance to focus on
longer-form stories that don't have a place in the pregame format.

Southwest Tonight pulls in its highest numbers for the
NBA's Houston Rockets' pregames, averaging a 1.8 this season while the games
have been averaging a 6.2.

Pregames are churned out at MSGN, which runs games from 10
professional teams on its two networks.

"They've become a real signature for us,"
McCarthy said. "It's a place for the rabid sports fan to find out something that
he didn't know. We have 50-some-odd sports agoraphobes, and it's their
responsibility to startle these fans every night with something."

McCarthy rarely has to grapple with a night without a
pregame show: On the night when he was interviewed, his staff produced six separate

With only two pro teams, Fox Sports Net Northwest has the
opposite problem, which is why a 7 p.m. strip show makes sense.

Northwest Tonight houses the pregame before primetime
pro events, using the subtitles Mariners Warmup (for Major League Baseball's
Seattle Mariners) and Sonics Tipoff (for the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics).
Occasionally, the network also produces a weekend version.

"We feel very good about the appetite for local,
regional types of news product," executive producer Carl Malone said.

The consistency helps to build an audience, added Curtis
Wilson, producer of Mariners telecasts and Mariners Warmup. This year, the show is
averaging a 2 rating before Mariners games, and its opening-day show pulled a 5.8 at its
highest point.

While most of his colleagues avoid daytime pregamers, Jim
Corno, vice president and general manager at Fox Sports Net Chicago, takes advantage of
the appeal of daytime baseball in Chicago by offering a 20-minute show live from the
ballpark. At night, the show runs 30 minutes.

Either way, the pregame show is a cornerstone of the
Chicago network's programming.

"Our identity is the local identity of the
teams," Corno said. "We try to build on the franchises that we have locally with
pregame shows before our professional games."

Ratings usually reflect the performance of the team. This
year's post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls squad may be the only NBA team suffering a
decline in local ratings, averaging a 4.4 through the shortened season's first half,
compared with 8.9 a year ago.

But Corno saw the bright side. "The Bulls, even with
their disappointing season, are still doing very well in the ratings, averaging 4s for the
games and 1.5s in the pregame," he said.

At Sunshine Network -- the only Fox affiliate without a
formal agreement binding it to network programming -- the franchise show is a program
called Sunshine Live, whichairs weeknights from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., and
which can originate from one of four cities in Florida.

The brainchild of general manager Jim Liberatore, Sunshine
is only five months old, yet it is already pulling in 5 and 6 ratings some nights
after popular live events.

Like Fox Sports Net Southwest, Fox Sports Bay Area is
looking at adding a strip show.

"Every year, when we do budgets, we try to get enough
money to do it," vice president of programming and operations Ted Griggs said.

"I think that where we hit a critical mass is: Do we
think that we can get the advertising support to pay for the production costs?"
Griggs added. "If that number is close, I think that we would move. I think that the
network would embrace us doing it in conjunction with them."