Sports Newsmags Find Niche on Cable

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Traditionally, cable-sports networks have defined themselves with live events that generate higher ratings-and licensing fees-than sports news or documentary programming.

But in the past few years, sports programmers have started to complement their game coverage with documentaries, newsmagazines and reality-based shows that have very quickly become staples.

National sports services such as ESPN and Fox Sports Net-and even general-entertainment pay service Home Box Office-have created investigative sports-news shows that do more than provide sports fans with an in-depth look at the athletes and events that influence the games. These shows also attract casual observers interested in the stories behind the final score.

Sports newsmagazines help fans gain perspective on an ever-more complicated sports world, in which the news is often dominated as much by what occurs off the field as what happens between the lines, industry observers said.

SCHEDULE FILLERS

Much like the broadcast network newsmagazines, investigative sports news shows were created to be very inexpensive, original programs that compliment more expensive primetime programming.

"You have cable channels looking for programming and these shows don't carry an expensive rights fee," said Pilson Communications president Neil Pilson. "While this type of programming doesn't work well for the [broadcast] networks because it doesn't draw enough viewers to be cost effective, it's perfectly suited for cable."

Fox Sports Net vice president of programming Frank Sinton said sports news and entertainment shows such as
Goin' Deep

and
The Last Word with Jim Rome

provide quality programming to supplement live professional and college sports coverage.

"There are two areas that are guaranteed to work: live games and sports news," Sinton said. "The challenge has been to expand your programming offerings go beyond the core product and draw viewers."

For five years, HBO has supplemented its popular World Championship Boxing series and sports documentaries with the investigative news program
Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

The show has won eight Sports Emmy Awards, including the Outstanding Sports Journalism award for three years running. But HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said the show's value to the network is measured by its ability to differentiate itself from the traditional highlights-oriented sports news shows on FSN and ESPN.

For a network that's known mainly for original programming, such as
The Sopranos
, and for
World Championship Boxing
, the fast-paced, informative show provides HBO with a quality offering that will interest not only hard-core sports fans, but casual, more entertainment-oriented viewers.

"If you had 100 people paying for HBO for the movies, the original series or for boxing and they watch
Real Sports-

and they're riveted by the subject matter-then they'll continue to pay for the network, because it's another added value for their money," Greenburg said.

Fox Sports Net's hard-hitting
The Last Word with Jim Rome

and ESPN's
Outside The Lines

also offer sports fans a different perspective on the sports business that goes beyond that of their respective dedicated sports-news shows.

It might be assumed that a sports-news and entertainment magazine show wouldn't be as valuable to breaking-news and game-coverage oriented networks like ESPN and FSN. But executives at both services say that such programs are as important-and in some instances more crucial-that the straight coverage offered by ESPN's
SportsCenter

or FSN's
National Sports Report
.

Though most basic sports-news shows provide the same snapshot view of the latest sports headlines, Sinton said the sports news magazine shows give the network an identity and personality that differentiates itself from competitors.

"We really view our shows as entertainment vehicles; they're entertaining to watch and they're informative as well," he said. "There's no shortage of sports-news coverage, but these shows take the viewer beyond the sports news by entertaining them. As a result, they've become franchise programming [for Fox Sports Net].

While acknowledging the journalistic integrity of its
SportsCenter

franchise, ESPN assistant managing news editor and director of news Norby Williamson said the weekly
Outside The Lines

provides ESPN with the ability to go beyond coverage offered by its own news show.

"
SportsCenter

is the journalistic heart and soul of our news franchise," Williamson said. "But when we look at a particular story that has a number of dimensions, you can go more in-depth with [
OTL
]. It allows us to dive into a topic and explore it in a more multi-level aspect."

NO NEWS SHORTAGE

Certainly, the sports world provides enough interesting storylines to keep such shows compelling-both on and off the field. From drug use to athletes on trial for murder to violence among parents at youth soccer games, there are an endless amount of stories to keep sports newsmagazines compelling.

As a result, the magazine shows have been able to explore often controversial topics, such as corruption on the International Olympic Committee, gambling on college campuses, steroid use among high school athletes, stadium financing and country-club discrimination-topics the broadcast networks don't have time to cover.

Industry executives said the abundance of sports news, coupled with a growing contingent of cable and Internet sports-news outlets, has forced networks to find different ways to present the same story.

When
Outside the Lines

launched 10 years ago, Williamson said, CNN/Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports Net didn't exist and the Internet was not a factor.

"As competition has evolved, there's more competition for news stories, whether it's on-the-field or off-the-field stories," Williamson said. "As a result, it's no longer satisfactory to come on the air to cover a major story with just a sound bite and highlights.

"You have to bring something to the table that's less superficial; you have to look at a story from every angle."

Though most of the stories offered through sports news magazines are more thorough presentations of older stories, such programs have also been known to break news.

For example, HBO's
Real Sports

broke a story on the drafting of potentially underage baseball players from the Dominican Republic, said

Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports TV editor Prentis Rogers. The story featured a controversy surrounding the age of Atlanta Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal, which was big news in the city's newspapers the next day.

"I think these shows bring an element of enterprise reporting that is a plus for the service," Rogers said. "I think it's terrific, because it allows the network to go beyond the highlights and gives the networks more respect as a news gathering and news enterprising entity."

And there will be even more sports magazines in the near future. HBO will expand its sports docu-news franchise in 2001 with the debut of a new series featuring veteran broadcast sports journalist Bob Costas.

Greenburg wouldn't provide explicit details of the show's format, except to say the show would utilize Costas' broadcasting skills to present a different look at the sports world.

For its part, ESPN last April increased exposures for
Outside The Lines
.

"We thought about launching [
Outside the Lines
] as a weekly in April because
SportsCenter

doesn't have the time, hour-to-hour and day-to-day, to cover every story in-depth," Williamson said.

Fox has taken sports reality one step further with its irreverent series
You Gotta See This
. The series is more like a sports "blooper" show that showcases weird and strange on-the-field occurrences.

Initially created as filler for Fox's regional sports outlets, the show has performed surprisingly well in the ratings and will eventually be stripped to affiliates, Sinton said.

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