Westminster man seeks century's best Ballots: Ben Higgs has teamed up with Fox Broadcasting to create a survey that asks Americans to choose the best of the century in nearly every category imaginable.

December 12, 1997|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana?

"Gone With the Wind" or "Schindler's List"?

Eubie Blake or Louis Armstrong?

Thurgood Marshall or Oliver Wendell Holmes?

Ben Higgs wants you to decide. The Westminster resident has crafted a national survey that, with help from Fox Broadcasting and corporate sponsors, will blanket America with ballots asking people to choose the best of the century in just about every category imaginable, from sports to film to music to Supreme Court justices.

Higgs admits he's no marketing genius. But he says he's no dummy, either. So when the idea for this national survey of the best of the 20th century hit him -- while riding his tractor in 1994 -- he put together a team of marketers, lawyers and advertisers to help him sell it to News Corp., the parent of Fox.

News Corp. signed on to provide the 900 numbers for telephone voting, inserts in newspapers, a Web site, a book through HarperCollins publishing and other media outlets. Higgs is providing the idea and the research to make it happen. In return, he gets half of all profit from everything except the television vignettes and prime-time special that Fox will produce.

Higgs, 47, is a sixth generation Carroll Countian (the town of Gamber was named for his great-great-great-grandfather) and something of a jack of all trades. He was the creator and producer of "Locker Room Talk" on Home Team Sports in 1994. He edited a book on the NFL called "Sidelines: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Sport." And he created "The Official Fans Guide to the Super Bowl" in 1992. But he has never done anything as big as this.

"The Best of the 20th Century: The Official National Survey" kicks off next spring, when ballots will appear in convenience stores, phone bills, movie theaters, video stores, hotels and magazines. At that time, Fox will begin airing 30- and 60-second "Best of" vignettes, and the project will culminate in a two-hour special in the fall of 1999.

Higgs said the ballots could be virtually anywhere. He isn't sure how many will be distributed, but he said 200 million is a conservative estimate. There will be 27 different ballots with about 200 categories. "People love to vote, and they love to express their opinion," Higgs said.

Dickey Richardson, co-owner of the Marketing Centre, which will count the national survey ballots and for more than 20 years has been tabulating the baseball All-Star ballots, said Higgs' idea is a good one because it is participatory. The All-Star balloting has proved that Americans love to make their opinion known, she said. "People send [All-Star] ballots FedEx from Japan," Richardson said. "People will spend $18 to send in one ballot overnight."

Higgs and his staff of 15 in Westminster spent the past two years researching all the possible "Best of" categories. They came up with more than 750, everything from "Most Memorable Quotation" to "Best TV Crime Fighter," although they all won't end up on a ballot.

To come up with the top 15 or 20 entries in each category, Higgs used whatever empirical data was available, such as Academy Awards, Billboard chart toppers and sports statistics. The data was weighted, so that an Oscar victory counted for more than an Oscar nomination, and when all the math was done, he had a ranking for each category.

But the lists still weren't perfect. For example, "Citizen Kane" didn't make it onto the Best Film list. But "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" did. So the staff did more research, and the "Dwarfs" were dumped and "Citizen Kane" was added to the list.

"The ballot is the heart of our project," Higgs said. "We had to make this ballot have integrity." If people couldn't find their favorites among the nominees, then they won't take the survey seriously, he said. Still, there will be write-in space on every ballot just in case.

The success of the venture rests on the credibility of the survey, said Jim Osterman, editor of the Southeast edition of Adweek magazine. Corporations won't sign on if they think the survey will collapse. The Fox backing, however, makes the survey immediately viable, he said.

Fox started making presentations to potential sponsors in New York Wednesday. Contracts should be signed by January, Higgs said.

While there may be some cachet for companies in sponsoring the survey, they are unlikely to see it improve their bottom line, Osterman said. People aren't likely to buy a more expensive product because it carries the survey logo, he said. But that doesn't mean they won't fill out the survey.

"It's good cocktail party chatter when the list comes out," he said.

The success of year-end, "best of" specials indicates that this survey will be popular with consumers, said David Blum, vice president for strategic planning at the Baltimore advertising agency Eisner & Associates. He expected there will be numerous efforts to capitalize on the new millennium, but by starting this so early, Fox is taking a leadership position and ensuring credibility.

Higgs acknowledges that as 2000 approaches, newspapers and magazines will be polling readers on the best of the century and millennium, as well as offering up their own lists. None, however, will be of the scale and breadth of "the Official National Survey," he said.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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