Set to air it out next month, NFL Network is on the clock

Launch will give league exposure between games

Pro Football

October 20, 2003|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - In the 17th-floor reception area at the NFL's midtown Manhattan offices, the television was tuned to the Fox News Channel.

Not a shock, given that it was a little after 11 on a Wednesday morning, hardly football prime time.

But just wait until Nov. 4.

At 8 that night, the league will lift the curtain on its new NFL Network, which is being billed as a 24/7 celebration of everything NFL - from an hourlong look at a game of the week every Wednesday night to features on the "butt slap" and the referee's whistle.

At the moment, only the 12 million subscribers to the DirecTV satellite service will be able to tune in, but NFL Network officials are confident that eventually deals will be made with most cable systems - including Comcast, the dominant carrier in the Baltimore area.

To slightly alter the first words ever heard on ESPN on Sept. 7, 1979: If you love the NFL ... if you really love the NFL, you'll think you've died and gone to NFL heaven.

"We're about promoting the NFL," said Steve Bornstein, president and chief executive of the NFL Network. "We're about giving information and insight to people who want more, and giving a perspective to people who can't get enough and to people who aren't getting any."

Bornstein has a budget of about $100 million and about 100 new hires. He came aboard in January after helping the league negotiate a five-year, $2 billion deal to keep its "NFL Sunday Ticket" package of pay-per-view games exclusively on DirecTV - about three times the value of the previous contract.

"You couldn't find anyone better than Stevie B.," said David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Television Group. "He's smart as hell. Look at what he's done. He invented ESPN, really. He knows the cable world, he knows distribution, he knows programming, he knows production. He's got it all."

Bornstein made his mark in the TV business as a builder of ESPN, which he joined in 1980. He became the sports network's president in 1990, at 38, and presided over the launch of ESPN2 and ESPNews, and the acquisition of the Classic Sports Network.

He was named president of ABC Sports in 1996 and ESPN's first chairman in 1998.

"I wouldn't mind being as successful as ESPN was," said Bornstein, who has two signs posted outside his corner office. The top one says: "Talk is cheap, let's go play. - Johnny Unitas." Underneath it: "Talk is cheap, let's go pay. - Steve Bornstein."

A lot of competition

The NFL Network is entering an increasingly crowded market. Just this year, the Tennis Channel, College Sports Television (which shows Division I-AA football and has plans to carry hockey, volleyball and soccer) and The Football Network (which features high schools, colleges and the Canadian Football League) have launched. The Golf Channel, which is owned by Comcast Corp. and the Tribune Co., the parent company of The Sun, was among the first in the game, starting in 1995.

And late last month, NBA TV announced a deal with Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Cablevision that it said will put it into 45 million homes.

The NFL Network's success will be largely in the hands of NFL Films, which Bornstein said will provide the "vast majority" of its programming.

NFL Films, based in Mount Laurel, N.J., has won 82 Emmy awards since its founding in 1964. Its work has been praised by Sports Illustrated, GQ and The New York Times, as well as movie directors, such as Oliver Stone and Ron Howard.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for us," said Steve Sabol, NFL Films president and a winner of 27 of the company's Emmys. "We've had so many ideas over the last 40 years that for one reason or another were never realized. A lot of ideas were never realized because they were a little unusual or something that wasn't quite timely enough."

That won't be a problem now. Sabol said NFL Films will be responsible for filling 101 of the 168 hours of weekly programming on the NFL Network. And, he said, 38 of those hours each week will be original programming. The rest will come from NFL Films' archive of more than 10,000 features.

The original programming for the NFL Network is in addition to the 122 features the company already does each week for the over-the-air and cable networks and the Internet.

"I'm a good multi-tasker," Sabol said. "If you saw my desk right now ... we've got three or four different shows going on, I'm reviewing some scripts, I'm getting ready to get my makeup on to do a standup, then I've got to have a budget meeting right after that. We've got a lot going on."

Infrastructure in place

He said NFL Films had hired only a small number of new people with expertise in areas that his company never had, such as live TV production.

Sabol also said he isn't worried about recycling the old features.

"Harry Truman had that great quote, `The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know,' " Sabol said.

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