High Tech Sports

It would make for a great bar argument: Besides the instant replay, what technological achievement made TV sports more exciting to watch?

A good answer: The digital first-down line across a football field. It gives every short-yardage play extra drama.

But then, there are also memories of the universally derided glowing hockey puck, the 1996 Fox experiment that bet a streaking illuminated halo would be easier to follow for hockey fans. They hated it.

The Super Bowl is usually a showcase for electronic and graphic wizardry. It's even more in the spotlight now because retailers of high-definition TV sets focus sales efforts on consumers' having an expensive new HD set in time for the big game. But sports networks have to worry about technological overkill.

"You do have to be careful that you aren't providing a perspective the core viewer isn't used to," says sports consultant and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson. "You can't surprise them. You can't scare off the current fan base."

CBS' all-HD coverage of this Sunday's Super Bowl will boast something like 10 straight hours of HD programming beginning at noon ET (See story, next page). CBS is deploying a multitude of cameras and expanded production capabilities, but the network knows the most-watched TV show of the year is not always the best time to trot out the latest gadgetry.

"You just want to enhance the game. You can't try to do too much," says CBS Executive VP/Executive Producer Tony Petitti. "We will have some bells and whistles, no doubt about that. It's just about working those things in without ruining the flow of the game."

ESPN will also have to walk that line this year when it unveils its new all-HD NASCAR coverage (see story, p. 22), a much bigger artistic and logistic challenge than its first season presenting Monday Night Football. DirecTV also will promote its HotPass, allowing viewers to latch onto five racers for every NASCAR race it covers. It sounds spectacular—but will viewers actually want it?

ESPN execs know that they risk alienating a large and very devoted fan base even in the face of pressure to move the needle as the sport looks to stem a recent ratings decline.

CBS will likely awe viewers with its full schedule of HD golf events. The risk there is pulling it off. Golf in HD creates special challenges (see story, p. 23).

But sports execs know what needs to be done.

"The goal can't be anything more than enhancing the viewing experience," says ESPN Senior VP/Executive Producer of Remote Production Jed Drake. "If it is a marketing exercise, it's not going to last."

Drake says ESPN is working on one major NASCAR trick, an innovation that may be ready sometime this season. But it will not make air without extensive testing of the technology—and testing to see what fans think of it.

"By the time we put it on, we are going to be very confident," Drake says. "Our screen should not be a place where we show our latest science project."