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Sports producers: Weve got game

Television sports producers are winning two of the toughest games in town: keeping the hearts of viewers and developing new digital content for the Internet age.

Even as other programmers fear losing ground to the any-time/any-program possibilities of online content, leading television sports executives said on a NATPE panel on Tuesday that they are full of ideas for keeping regularly scheduled TV the favored avenue for sports junkies.

"Live sports are the true last bastion of appointment television," said Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and the founder of

Monday Night Football
producer Don Ohlmeyer agreed. "Will networks get a 30 share in prime time ever again? No," he said. "But the ratings for the Super Bowl are still enormous." He noted that a rating point in 1965 delivered only 650,000 viewers, whereas today it brings 2 million, greatly dampening the effect of network share erosion due to the plethora of cable channels added in the past 35 years. "Advertisers pay more today than ever."

Still, constant innovation to keep audiences engaged is critical, and digital technology will help TV sports coverage keep its lead.

Such enhancements as the virtual-first-down marker and online sports updates and video streaming of archived events or action not carried on TV will be critical, they say.

"We ask people in sports what's missing" from TV coverage, said Larry Novenstern, executive vice president of Sportvision, the company that created the virtual first-down line. His company now has a number of on-air enhancements in the works, including putting global positioning satellite transmitters in every NASCAR vehicle at the Daytona 500 to allow real-time Internet tracking and video.

Donna Orender, senior vice president of TV production for the PGA Tour, said golf offers a perfect marriage between traditional TV and online content because only 10 hours of a 40-hour tournament are ever covered on TV. In March, the PGA and NBC will unveil a data engine that allows online viewers to track any player in the event, regardless of whether the player is ever shown on TV.

Novenstern suggested that digital enhancement also provides a great opportunity for TV advertisers to "integrate" themselves into the actual coverage of the event.

Ohlmeyer, on the other hand, warned that advertising add-ons can create "clutter crap," such as "this first down brought to you by ... . There are negative associations when viewers feel that an advertiser is trying to horn in on a moment it has no business being in."

For Cuban, the digital killer app for TV sports will be high-definition television, a view that would shock most TV station executives. He argued that the pictures are so entrancing that viewers will go the trouble and expense to add over-the-air antennas to get HDTV sports coverage."