Fox Sports Chief Talks Dodgers TV Deal, NFL Coverage (Q&A)

 Peden + Munk

David Hill was living in the U.K. in 1994 after launching a satellite TV sports service partly owned by News Corp. when Rupert Murdoch asked him to help Fox swipe NFL games from CBS.

“To be honest, what I knew about the [NFL] you could write on the back of a stamp,” he jokes. Still, the Australia native became founding chairman of Fox Sports Media Group, where he is CEO and oversees a staff of more than 1,000. Hill has been an innovator in sports technology: He introduced the “Fox Box,” which perpetually shows a game’s score and time left (which he says should be called “the Hill Box”); baseball’s catcher cam; and enhanced audio from the field and crowd.

Now, with the league having settled its contentious labor situation, Hill, 65, a married father of four, is presiding over his 18th season of the NFL on Fox, which pays $720 million a year to televise America’s No. 1 sport.

This is an expanded version of an interview with Hill that appears in The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Hill was interviewed on the Fox lot in West Los Angeles.

The Hollywood Reporter: Will Fox Sports do anything different with its NFL coverage this year?

David Hill: One of the things that came through in the labor deal is that we can have up to six players wearing microphones. How that’s going to work, I don’t know. What I do know is that the key area where I’d like to see us get better is in audio. I believe close-up audio is effective in transmitting emotion and feeling.

THR: It gets the TV viewer more into the game.

Hill: I would love to have every player have a mic. Of course, the players and everyone else are going to worry about bad language. Occasionally, you could get a cuss word going to air.

THR: Would there have to be a delay?

Hill: You can’t have a delay. It’s something we really haven’t done that much experimentation with. It’s kind of like, if you could possibly take George Carlin’s seven banned words and program those into the computer, then if ever a computer heard them, it just eradicated them — that would be a perfect thing.

THR: You can’t do a delay is because it’s a live football game?

Hill: Yes, it is live. It’s not the case that it wouldn’t be allowed, it’s just not right. It would take away the immediacy.

THR: Do you think the labor stuff has affected the game?

Hill: If there’d been a strike, if games had been canceled, I think that it would’ve had a negative impact. I don’t think it’s going to have an impact at all.

THR: Fox pays $416 million a year for rights to Major League Baseball, including weekly regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the World Series. Baseball ratings are down; what’s the reason?

Hill: There’s been the rise of the regionalization of the sport, and the decision to play interleague games each year has taken away the luster of the All-Star Game. And if you look at the truly national teams, you quickly start to run out after the Phillies, the Red Sox, the Yankees and, to a certain extent, the Rangers, and you pray the Cubs will show some life. So the ratings are dependent on who we get into the pennant race. Are baseball ratings the same as they were 15 years ago? No. But [the World Series] is still a huge event and is going to dominate the night it’s on. So in terms of importance to the network, for prestige and relevance, it’s important and will remain that way.

THR: Does Fox lose money on baseball?

Hill: We’re not that altruistic. Sure, we’re going to come up short [some years]. A contract is a contract. You can only look at the totality of it on a straightforward P&L basis. We might have had a couple of bad years, but we’ve had a couple of remarkably good years.

THR: What’s the status of a new TV deal between Fox and the Dodgers, especially given the chaos surrounding the McCourts?

Hill: We had a real slap in the face when the Lakers went to Time Warner Cable to start a new network [in 2012]. The Dodgers rights are very important to us. Your guess is as good as mine as to how the team’s bankruptcy plays out.

THR: When Fox announced Aug. 18 a seven-year deal to carry Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, you said, “Television is all about the next big thing.” Is UFC the next big thing?

Hill: What boxing was to my generation, the UFC is to today’s generation. Pay-per-view killed boxing. The [promoters] realized that they could get 200,000 people paying $50 each, so they got out of broadcast and went for PPV. The potential audience went like this (gesturing downward). Is it any surprise that the boxing fan is now tottering along toward senility?

THR: What about NASCAR? Some people think the momentum has stalled. Do you agree?

Hill: There was a serious problem about three or four years ago with the “car of tomorrow,”which everyone was talking about. They were talking about safer barriers. They were talking about HANS devices. They were talking about cars, and should it have a wing and what have you. People don’t follow auto racing to hear about widgets. The role of the driver as driver hero is why people follow the sport. No one goes out to buy a T-shirt with a photo of the crew chief on the front. And the focus, all of us are guilty: NASCAR and the broadcasters moved the focus away from the driver as hero and moved it to an inanimate object. The car. And the tires. And the veevlefitzers and the dingleflappers and, you know, straight through copper ashtrays and the ignition key and all that stuff. What we did this year, we made a conscious effort to totally back down about the car — we didn’t talk about the car. We talked about the driver. What it takes: the courage, the reflexes, the fact that they lose 12 pounds during a race through the exertion they have to put themselves through. And guess what, the ratings started to come back.

There’s another deeply psychological reason. You may never get up and throw a tight spiral. You will never drive a golf ball dead straight for 360 yards. You know you won’t be able to slam-dunk like Michael Jordan. But that instant when the light turns green, you’re just as good as Jeff Gordon. So when you think about it, everyone can drive — or 99.9 percent can drive — and so, if it’s all about driving, you think: “What could I do? Do I have the guts to do that? God, look at what he’s doing. No, I would’ve backed off.”It’s a game you’re playing in your mind all the time. I’m not educated well enough to explain what it is, but I know that that’s what I’d do, and I guarantee that that’s what a bunch of people do.

THR: So it’s really about the storytelling.

Hill: Sport is a microcosm of life. It always has been. And at any given sports event, you’re going to have cowardice and heroism, you’re going to have luck, and you’re going to have bad luck, and you’re going to have stupidity, and you’re going to have great insight, and you’re going to have incredible skills, and you’re going to have people who forget what the basics are and fall on their butts as a result. Any sporting event has all those, the various conflicts of life, which has always made sport so compelling.

THR: With Comcast’s acquisition of NBC and plans for an NBC Sports Channel, and with Disney/ABC with ESPN, you have huge corporations competing on multiple platforms. What does that mean for TV sports?

Hill: It’s fabulous for sports. When you start a channel, you’ve got to put stuff on it, so that opens the opportunity for minor sports you never thought you’d see. Secondly, sports rights are the classic example of supply and demand. The more players in the market that want your stuff, the more bidders, and the more they are going to bid it up. I think if you look at what’s happened to college football rights over the last five, six years, you see a classic example of supply and demand in practice. We have to place our bids very carefully.

THR: And you have to be smart about what you’re going to get from it.

Hill: Certainly. I can remember in 1977, I was in Australia at the time, and I read that a long-forgotten CBS Sports executive stated at some conference that sports rights have gone as high as they ever could. That was it; it’s all over. Bang, they were done. There’s never been a time where there’s been the “good old days,”where you bid on an event or rights knowing ratings were going to increase, your CPMs were going to hit your target, that your revenue was going to go up. It’s always been, just breathe deeply, and when you wake up the next morning, how bad is the buyer’s remorse that you have? But what it does, it makes you work like hell to fulfill it. I hate using a cliché, but you have to leave no stone unturned to make sure that the way you produce it and market it is the best you can and that everyone involved is world-class. So that’s what you end up with. So it will continue. And there will be a reporter talking to somebody in 20 or 30 years’ time asking them exactly the same question.

THR: What do you think is the future of soccer on TV in America?

Hill: It will always be a niche sport until the American team develops heroes. It’s all about heroes and emotional attachment, and until that happens, it will be a strong niche. It’s going to take some time for MLS. The growth, the strength has got to come from MLS. And they’ve got to get the people who love watching [soccer played in other countries] to say, “I’ve got to go home and watch the Galaxy play.”And, you know, I can’t see that happening. It’s happening in a couple of areas. It’s happening in Seattle, but it’s not happening enough. The trouble is, the American sports fan is totally spoiled for choice. You take all the professional sports, and then you add on the strength of collegiate sports. And if you’re a fencing aficionado, you can go home and watch the UCLA fencing team. It’s a crowded marketplace.

THR: The UFC deal is multiplatform. Some will air on FX, and there’s stuff on your digital platforms and others. Going back to 1994, none of those platforms existed. How is today different, and what does it mean for a sports broadcaster?

Hill: You obviously need to have your marquee events where the most eyeballs can get it, and that’s on the networks. And the bet that you’re making, by spreading it across as many platforms as you can, is that you’re increasing the fan base. The whole aim is to take someone who has never sat and watched a NASCAR race or a UFC bout or a baseball game or a football game and have them come across it, fall in love with it and become a fan. So our business, in sports television, is to increase the fan base. Right now, there is more for us human beings to do to entertain ourselves and to inform ourselves and to educate ourselves than at any other time in man’s history. [With video games,] I could disembowel an Orc (from The Lord of the Rings) in the privacy of my own bedroom if I’d like. Or I can take on hordes of the undead … and very satisfactorily blast them to kingdom come. For the next 20 years, sports is going to go through a very serious period of self-examination. Not the least of which, are our games too long? Because there are still only 24 hours in the day, and one of the most interesting things I’ve seen is that in an ancient sport like cricket, it’s totally remade itself around the world by inventing a short form called Twenty20, which now, in India and other cricket-playing nations of the world, is unbelievably popular. It takes about as long as a baseball game. The only things you can complain about with baseball games are in terms of time — batters spending too long fiddling with their gloves and whatever. I think the umpires should just tap them on the shoulder and tell them, “You’re going to get a strike called if you don’t get on with it.” So I think that’s the endgame. It’s not so much the platform; it’s the sports themselves. Just think of the term that you surround baseball with — pastime — and sports were created when people weren’t working 6½ days a week. They had a little bit of leisure; they had some spare time. And so I don’t think it’s about that word, pastime — what baseball did was pass the time. People don’t have that these days.

THR: It is also why fans get turned off when it becomes about the business and money. Which brings me to the NBA: You carry games on Fox regional networks but not the national TV package. Is there going to be a season? What does the NBA have to do to maintain its popularity?

Hill: The NBA has got a secret weapon, a guy called David Stern … who, in my mind, is absolutely brilliant. Look what the NBA has done under his leadership. They went from zero to hero, then they had a little blip, and … while the ratings are diving in the United States, all David’s talking about is the development of the league in China and Europe. And then the ratings get better, and all of a sudden he has a dream season with L.A. and Boston and Miami, so he’s got it triangulated. And then he’s got everything going, and then the labor dispute. It’s unfortunate. I don’t know if it’s unnecessary or necessary — I left industrial relations years ago when I stopped being a journalist. It’s whether or not every franchise is going to make money. Anything can happen. It’s way outside of my purview.

THR: Fox was outbid for upcoming Olympics. Are they still worth the money paid for them as a TV show?

Hill: The Olympics is wonderful. We bid for a bunch of stuff that we don’t get. But we sit down and say, “Well, what do we think it’s worth, where do we think we can grow it, and where’s it going to be in 10 or 12 years?” A one-off is a one-off, and that, in and of itself, is a problem for the Olympics. The Olympic sports, unless they’re wrapped in the flag, don’t move the needle. So you’ll have this wonderful event every two years, then you go dark. It’s not like you have the Winter Olympics, then you have a season of downhill skiing. When the flame dies, wherever the venue, the interest in the sport dies as well.

THR: What about women’s sports? Can they ever equal men’s sports?

Hill: Well, I think they will. One of the bravest entrepreneurial moves I ever saw was to establish a professional women’s soccer league.

THR: But it didn’t work.

Hill: It didn’t work. But 51 or 52 percent of attendees at colleges are women. By the end of this generation, you could have a sizable audience of women who’ve experienced sports in college who want to go and watch them and take their kids to them. So maybe in the next generation, women’s professional sports will really take off.

THR: What about 3D TV for sports?

Hill: I think 3D in sports is going to be fantastic, but until we fully experiment with camera placement and cutting, I’m not sure. I’ve had long conversations about this with James Cameron, who’s a great 3D proponent. One of these days, when it becomes economically viable for us, we will get a truck and get my producers and directors and spend a month to figure this out. It might be moving a camera six inches or tilting down or tilting up and doing it again. We know that high shots don’t work. We know that it needs foreground, and we know that lateral movement improves 3D quality. And then we need to figure out, why are we using 3D? Are we using it to enhance the storytelling? Does 3D, when we start talking about NASCAR, really boost the sport by putting the camera six feet above the track, so you’ve got the cars coming straight at you? Is that going to move the needle? We don’t know. But I believe that there has to be a lot of legwork to find the optimum of where the camera should be. I would love to have the luxury of time and money to fiddle around and come up with optimum camera placements for baseball. We know baseball looks thrilling — we’ve done an All-Star Game in 3D, and shots of the pitcher looked terrific. But we need to do a bit more, and whether or not the demand is there is unclear. All I do know is, I’m not going to do it on my dime.

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