Fans' bottom-line loss
October 16, 2001: 3:29 p.m. ET

Fox's erasure of virtual first down line isn't worth the savings to the network.
A twice weekly column by Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - Fox Entertainment's focus on the bottom line is making it far more difficult for its football viewers to see the first down line.

Fox has decided to save about $50,000 a week by eliminating the use of a virtual first down line that appeared on television screens to show viewers how far the offense had to move the ball to get another first down.

Of all the bells and whistles and Star Wars-like special effects that spruce up, or more often clutter up, the modern sports broadcast, the virtual first down line was one that actually improved viewers' understanding and enjoyment of the game.

The line appeared to stay in the same place on the field, at the yardage line where the first down marker is located, even as the camera angle moved. Players crossing the line blocked the view of it, as if it were actually drawn in yellow chalk across the width of the field.

Since the cameras try to get relatively tight shots of the player carrying the ball, the line was the one way a viewer could know if a player had succeeded in his all-important goal of getting a first down.

But Fox (FOX: Research, Estimates) says that at a cost of $25,000 for each of the two nationally televised games it broadcasts each week, the line was not pulling its weight.

"We acknowledge it's a valuable graphic enhancement," said Lou D'Ermilio, spokesman for Fox Sports. "Unfortunately, in this economic climate, we've been forced to tighten our belt, and it's an expensive enhancement."

The virtual first down line is gone from Fox NFL broadcasts in a cost-cutting move that saves about $50,000 a week but leaves fans worse off.
D'Ermilio said that Fox doesn't anticipate bringing back the line in the current economic environment, although it has yet to make a final decision on its use in the playoffs and Super Bowl.

Fox probably is correct in its belief that ratings of its games don't climb due to use of the line. Most fans still will pick the game they want to watch for the match-up, not for the special effects.

But anything that keeps fans involved in a particular game is probably good for Fox's advertisers, even if it is not something easily measured by ratings. Fox's decision may save about $1 million a year, but the line might help catch the attention of casual fans who might come across the game while surfing channels, or walk through the room where a devoted fan is watching a game.

The line was provided by Sportvision Inc., a New York-based special effects firm that includes Fox among its minority investors. The loss of the Fox games was a blow to privately held Sportvision, which began the year hoping that Fox would expand the use of the line to all of the six or seven games it broadcasts on a typical Sunday - not eliminate it entirely.

"What we've been trying to do is try to persuade them this is the wrong thing to cut," said Bill Squadron, Sportvision's CEO. "Anything you spend on production is a cost. Would they eliminate instant replay? If they ask fans how important different features are to production quality, they'll find they enjoy this and have come to expect it."

Line can be found on competitors' games

The line is still used by ABC and its ESPN subsidiary for its Monday night and Sunday night NFL games as well as some college games. CBS uses a similar line from Sportvision competitor Princeton Video Image (PVII: Research, Estimates), against which Sportvision and Fox have a combined patent infringement lawsuit pending.

Monday night football commentator Dennis Miller recently took a shot at Fox for dropping the line. Sunday, Fox's pre-game show personality Jimmy Kimmel took a shot back at Miller, saying that Fox was trying to save people's jobs.

It'd be interesting to know how much Kimmel's job costs Fox, and which cost the average fan would vote to cut if given the choice.

Squadron hopes that a sponsor who is willing to pay the cost of the line can still be found, and that it can return to Fox games later this season. He said with Fox's consent Sportvision has been trying to find a sponsor.

But there are strict NFL rules preventing in-game sponsorships. The only way the line's sponsor could be acknowledged by Fox announcers is in the 10-second introduction to a commercial break, or in the first few seconds coming back from commercial. And those few seconds of promo time at each break are relatively valuable real estate, so it's not clear if Fox would be willing to give it up. D'Ermilio said that such a sponsorship probably won't happen.

So the bottom line is no line, and football fans are poorer for the decision, even if Fox is not significantly more profitable. graphic

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