Boom, bust, both?

The XFL played to a big TV audience in its inaugural weekend, with provocative hoopla, dizzying camera angles, sexual sideshows and third-rate football action.

Observers agreed it would take a few weeks to tell whether the WWF and NBC could sustain broad viewer interest in their brand of TV football. But the opening numbers were telling: a 10.1 rating among men aged 18-49 for NBC's Saturday night kick-off and a 10.3 among the narrower-more likely target-demo of males aged 12-34. It was NBC's biggest male audience on a Saturday night since the sixth game of the 1997 World Series. NBC took the night with a 9.5 rating and a 17 share in all households.

Up against a couple of strong NBA match-ups and the NHL All-Star game on Sunday afternoon, UPN averaged a 4.2 rating with an 8 share nationwide.

WWF honcho Vince MacMahon kept pumping the hype as he strode, grim-faced, onto the field before the Las Vegas Outlaws' mugging of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen 19-0. Even 27 cameras, including the overhead skycam, and 26 wireless microphones couldn't make the game interesting. NBC lost audience and switched to another contest.

The league expects more advertisers to jump in after the first few weeks. Meanwhile, sources say the WWF and NBC are canvassing charter advertisers (which included the U.S. Army) for feedback.

"They got a real strong tune-in based on the quality of their promotion," says independent TV sports consultant Neal Pilson. "The real test is the next three weeks. It's too early to tell if we have a new sport or if this is going to go the way of other football leagues."

Pilson joined critics who slammed the XFL's jazzy production riffs, like the end-zone angle from the skycam. John Gonzalez, NBC coordinating director for the XFL, concedes the skycam was overused and will only be cued for running situations from now on. He says NBC will be more "selective" on sideline interviews and will cute back on the risqué interludes between players and cheerleaders.

Ad agency executives were suspending judgment on the new league last week. "I don't think it's groundbreaking or earth-shaking in any way," says Chris Geraci, director of national TV buying for OMD. Geraci expects some ratings fall off but says close, high-scoring games should draw.

John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun Esty, says the issue is whether the WWF and NBC can really sell games with "NFL has-beens and never-weres" beyond the initial novelty phase. "Clearly the appeal may be more to WWF fans than to NFL fans."