Second-guessing the call

The upstart XFL is supposed to live by its own rules. But, after a poor second-week showing with a never-ending game, Vince McMahon's brand of football is getting some direction from top NBC brass. Indeed, Monday-morning quarterbacks last week criticized what they see as a lack of direction at the new football league.

Network executives have worked with WWF head McMahon and XFL officials to trim some elements of the game, including pregame introductions and halftimes. XFL games on NBC will now start at 10 minutes past the hour, rather than 15 minutes past, and each game's halftime break will be only 10 minutes. The players will no longer be introducing themselves, and commercial breaks will be kept to a tidy two minutes and 20 seconds, according to NBC executives.

The changes come after NBC's Saturday, Feb. 10, debacle in the form of a game between XFL teams from Los Angeles and Chicago. For starters, the game lost more than half the audience that had tuned in a week earlier for the league opener. Only 6.5 million viewers watched NBC's second game, down from the 15.7 million on opening night. And due to technical difficulties on NBC's part and a double-overtime game, Saturday Night Live
was delayed 45 minutes-starting at 12:15 a.m. on the East Coast. That didn't sit well with SNL
producer Lorne Michaels who had megastar Jennifer Lopez on that night.

"There is almost no more important program on the entire television network than Saturday Night Live," said new NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "Nobody understands that more than [NBC Sports Chairman] Dick Ebersol. He's incredibly conscious, he's incredibly empathetic, and he's doing everything he can to make sure SNL
airs at 11:30. I have total faith that, when Dick says he's working on that, he's working on that."

The drastic drop in viewership sent NBC from first place to fourth on Saturday night and had the skeptics out in force last week. NBC Sports executives maintained that their original goal was only to achieve a 4.5 national household rating this season and that they are doing so. NBC programmers were busy backing up their colleagues after the second week.

"Clearly, we were thrilled at how high the first week's ratings were," said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. "Let's not forget that Saturday night is a tough night to wrangle young people every week, especially the kind of young men that are the target demo for this. So we'll see how this tracks on a weekly basis."

But the XFL's problems may be more than just the length of introductions and commercials, said Mediacom's Jon Mandel. "They have to decide if they are football or entertainment. If they upgrade the football, they'll be okay. If they improve the entertainment, they'll be okay. But it appears as if they can't decide if they're football or if they're the WWF."