Friday, November 28, 2008
The Fox Entertainment Group was a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, a global media and entertainment empire. News Corporation published newspapers (including the Times of London), magazines (including The Weekly Standard ), and books (HarperCollins). The company owned an 81 percent stake in the Fox Entertainment Group, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world. Fox Entertainment Group produced, developed, and distributed TV and motion picture programming (including Ally McBeal, The X-Files, and Titanic) through its Fox Filmed Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox units. It also owned America’s Fox Television Network as well as 22 TV stations across the United States. In addition, Fox Entertainment had interests in cable TV channels and major league sports teams.
Fox Entertainment’s Fox Sports division gained instant credibility in 1993 when it acquired the rights to broadcast National Football League (NFL) games. While the exorbitant rights fees the league commanded made the property a ‘‘loss leader’’ for the network, the cachet of professional football—especially among Fox’s core youthful male demographic—made the acquisition worthwhile. Using ultramodern graphics, ‘‘in your face’’ promos, and a highly energetic pregame show, Fox took over an already successful product and enhanced it. Two years later Fox took a bigger gamble when it paid $155 million for broadcast rights to National Hockey League (NHL) games for the next five years. In doing so the network had acquired an underperforming TV property that traditionally drew lower ratings than bowling. It hoped to repeat its NFL success on the ice. For the first three years of Fox coverage, ads for the NHL were handled by various agencies on a project basis. Then in late 1997 Fox Sports named the New Yorkbased advertising agency of Cliff Freeman & Partners to handle advertising for its broadcast coverage of NHL games. The agency immediately initiated a campaign designed to win hockey a wider audience through the use of offbeat humorous promos.
The Fox NHL promo campaign, directed by Christopher Guest through bicoastal Moxie Pictures, was composed of five ads based on the premise that many sports would be better if they were played like hockey. In one typical spot a female bowler was knocked to the floor by a competitor trying to prevent her from making a game-winning strike. Other spots depicted hockey’s violence and aggression applied to the sports of billiards, golf, and squash. The spots proved enormously popular with viewers and critics alike, earning Cliff Freeman & Partners a host of advertising industry awards. Fox continued to struggle to broaden the viewership for professional hockey, however, and in 1998 when the network’s contract ran out, ABC acquired the NHL broadcast rights for the 1999–2000 season and beyond.
Fox Sports acquired the right to telecast professional hockey at a time of great promise, when the NHL’s ratings on other networks were rising. Ratings for ESPN’s Sunday night NHL games were up 67 percent in 1993–94, while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s telecasts were up 59 percent. Fox officials believed they could increase the average rating for hockey telecasts to a 2, which would represent a 12 percent increase over the 1.6 rating earned by ABC in a limited number of games in 1993-94.
The NHL was also optimistic about the partnership. ‘‘This is our first over-the-air contract in 20 years,’’ said Bernadette Mansur, NHL vice president for corporate communications. ‘‘There’s no doubt that ESPN has done a tremendous job in producing and promoting the NHL, but Fox gives us a national network contract. It takes us to another level.’’
A labor dispute between the league’s owners and players unfortunately delayed the start of the 1994–95 NHL season. When the lockout finally ended in January 1995, Fox Sports aired its first slate of promotional ads for its broadcasts of NHL games. The spots featured the offbeat humor that would become a hallmark of Fox hockey ads over the next few years. In one ad New York Islanders winger Benoit Hogue was shown shooting raisin bagels at a goal. In another Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck parodied 1950s child icon Jerry Mathers for a spot called ‘‘Leave It to Beezer.’’ The ads aired frequently, paving the way for Fox’s initial broadcast on April 2, 1995. That Sunday’s slate of six regional games boasted a panoply of new technical innovations designed to enhance the viewing experience. These ‘‘bells and whistles’’ included animated graphics, a theme song, five to eight cameras (with a robotic camera at the main game site), Dolby surround sound, super slow motion, and the ‘‘Fox Box,’’ a score/clock graphic that Fox had previously introduced during its NFL broadcasts. The broadcast was preceded by a 15-minute pregame show hosted by former basketball player James Brown, with commentary from former NHL player Dave Maloney. The anchors returned during intermissions for analysis that featured a few unconventional touches, including an in-studio roller rink, which analysts used to demonstrate skills and techniques.
After a shaky first season ratings-wise, the NHL on Fox, as it was dubbed, began to show signs of success over the ensuing seasons. During the 1996–97 NHL season, for example, national television demographic results posted increases in key areas. There was a 36 percent increase in NHL on Fox viewership among women aged 18 to 24, with an 86 percent increase during the Stanley Cup Finals. At the same time there was a 5 percent increase in NHL on Fox viewership among men aged 18 to 34, with a 32 percent increase during the Stanley Cup Finals. There was a 3 percent increase in viewership among male teens 12 to 17, with a 22 percent increase during the Stanley Cup Finals. The demographic improvements, however, may have had more to do with a renewed interest in hockey generally rather than a reflection of Fox’s broadcasts or promotional strategy. During the same season, by contrast, NHL on ESPN viewership rose 22 percent among women 18 to 24, with a 106 percent increase during the Stanley Cup Finals. There was a 14 percent increase in NHL on ESPN viewership among men 18 to 34, with a 52 percent increase during the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ratings did not continue to improve over the next season, however, and in the fall of 1997 Cliff Freeman & Partners of New York was awarded the Fox NHL account after a presentation to Neal Tiles, senior vice president for marketing at Fox Sports in Los Angeles. Spike DDB, owned by filmmaker Spike Lee and the DDB Needham Worldwide unit of Omnicom Group, continued to handle advertising for NHL games on Fox Sports Net, a cable television joint venture of News Corporation, Tele-Communications Inc., and Liberty Media, a unit of Tele-Communications.
Having inherited rights to broadcast hockey at a point of record viewer interest in the sport, Fox marketing officials believed the only way to ‘‘grow’’ the audience for its broadcasts was to appeal to casual fans of the sport. ‘‘If we put on a production for purists, hockey is going to fail,’’ declared Ed Goren, an executive in the Fox Sports division. ‘‘A lot of people have done it well, but the bottom line is that hockey hasn’t been able to attract a national audience. The most important mission we have is broadening the audience. If we do the greatest show in the world and all we get is a 1.6 [rating], we’ve failed.’’ To capture a youthful audience, Fox from the beginning relied on humor, high-tech effects, and the lure of larger-than-life personalities to sell hockey to fans who rarely watched the sport on TV. ‘‘Right now, hockey is like soccer,’’ said Goren. ‘‘Millions of kids play it, but they don’t watch it, because there are no heroes. We have to give them heroes. We have to sell these players as athletes and as personalities.’’
Despite a major marketing push in recent years, the NHL, as far as the major professional team sports went, remained a decided fourth among viewers, behind the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. Hockey remained a low-rated sport that nevertheless had solid advertiser appeal for companies seeking a young, male demographic target. Hockey’s major competitor in the fall/winter sports market was the NBA, which had arguably surpassed baseball as the second most popular sport after the NFL in the United States. Its ability to reach 18- to 34-year-old males made it an attractive property for those wishing to sell autos, soft drinks, and athletic shoes. Like hockey, though, the league had some problems—lower scoring games, the threat of labor strife, growing pains for the new breed of players, and the aging of its longtime current star system. As of 1999, however, the NBA appeared unthreatened by the NHL as a television property.
From the day it won the rights to broadcast NHL hockey games, Fox Sports pursued an aggressive promotional strategy designed to whip up interest among viewers who had previously not tuned in to hockey telecasts. From the ads to the broadcasts themselves, this strategy was marked by innovation, risk taking, and a ‘‘rewriting the rules’’ approach. ‘‘We’re telling our people there is no right or wrong,’’ said Goren.
There was, of course, an inherent danger in this strategy. If Fox reached too far to pull in new fans, it could alienate hard-core fans who preferred a more traditional approach. The network was willing to take that risk, however, betting that hard-core hockey fans would realize that the TV audience for the sport must expand if it were to grow in the next century.
To promote its 1997–98 slate of telecasts, Fox Sports turned to Cliff Freeman & Partners. Cliff Freeman landed the assignment from Fox Sports personally after making a presentation to Tiles, the senior vice president of marketing for the sports division of Fox. ‘‘I’m a big fan of Cliff Freeman’s work,’’ said Tiles. ‘‘We need a highly creative message to break through the clutter, because we are the clutter.’’ Freeman’s first ads broke in fall 1997, while the main campaign kicked off in January during Fox’s broadcast of the annual NHL All-Star Game. The new campaign consisted of four spots, all conceived by copywriter Eric Silver. In the first, ‘‘Bowling,’’ a woman bowler was shown about to make a crucial shot to win a match. From behind her back her opponent suddenly charged into her and knocked her to the floor, causing her to drop the bowling ball. ‘‘Bowling would be better,’’ a caption declared, ‘‘if it were hockey.’’ The other three ads played off the same juxtaposition. In ‘‘Billiards’’ a pool player needing to make one final shot was assaulted from the side by his opponent, who went on to sink the ball himself. ‘‘Golf ’’ playfully sent up the solemnity of TV golf broadcasts, as a golfer’s rolling putt was shown being swatted away from the hole by another player, hockey goalie style. ‘‘Very smoothly done,’’ commented the unseen announcers dryly. And in ‘‘Squash’’ two elderly competitors were shown ferociously checking each other into the court’s walls as they traded shots. The spot concluded with one man savagely pressing the other’s face into a clear glass pane. Once again, a caption proclaimed that the sport would be better ‘‘if it were hockey.’’
All four spots were designed to capture viewer interest with what looked like a real sporting event, then concluded with a humorous twist in which the violent ethos of hockey was introduced. This style was in keeping with research that showed that young viewers—jaded by a lifetime of watching conventional TV commercials—responded most favorably to offbeat ads marked by humor and surprising and violent twists.
Cliff Freeman & Partners won numerous awards for its ‘‘NHL on Fox’’ campaign. An entry comprised of ‘‘Billiards,’’ ‘‘Bowling,’’ and ‘‘Golf’’ earned the agency the Grand Clio in television at the 1998 Clio Awards Gala, held at Lincoln Center. Freeman’s work for Fox collected four Golds in various TV categories. The Fox ads were also awarded a Gold Lion as a media campaign at the 45th annual International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, in July 1998.
Despite all the accolades, the quirky spots did little to boost the ratings for Fox’s NHL telecasts. The network’s NHL ratings plummeted to a 1.4, the lowest in four years. Fox admitted to losing a fortune on its $155 million rights fees. As a consequence, in August 1998 Fox lost its NHL rights to Disney (ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2) for a staggering five-year, $600 million bid. ‘‘In our own way, I guess we elevated the awareness of the game to a point where the folks at Disney decided it was worth a lot of money,’’ commented Fox Sports’ Goren.
The outcome of the ‘‘NHL on Fox’’ was more favorable for at least one player in the campaign. The ad shop of Cliff Freeman & Partners was kept on by Fox to create a series of offbeat commercials for the network’s game of the week baseball broadcasts. The slapstick spots retained the same wacky perspective and odd, cartoonlike characters of the agency’s NHL campaign.