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TV making leap to extreme sports

The popularity of these action events is rising, but success on the tube remains an X factor.

August 16, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Meanwhile, during the rest of the year ....

While the made-for-TV X Games make their annual weeklong splash on ESPN, a few TV networks and magazines are fighting for the extreme-sports pie the rest of the year.

Fox Sports Net offers "54321," the first network-sponsored daily action-sports show. MTV has "Surfer Girls," a popular reality show. NBC will offer up 32 hours of extreme programming this year. TransWorld Media publishes 10 industry magazines.

The challenge for them, it turns out, is as complicated as a skateboarder's front-side tail slide on a circular concrete slab.

For one thing, television ratings are difficult to maintain among the fickle teenage audience. For another, the competitors in these events tend to be iconoclastic action-sports stars who, true to their anti-establishment nature, often shirk mainstream media because, well, it's just not cool.

Moreover, action sports take place all over the nation without any organization, much less a governing body. There are no leagues, no standings, no statistics.

Other than the X Games, NBC's Gravity Games and the Olympics, there aren't any big-impact events that seep into the mainstream media.

Still, in a world where teens are as familiar with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk as they are Laker star Shaquille O'Neal, it makes sense that TV and magazines are knocking at the extreme-sports door.

The action-sports statistics are impressive: Snowboarding has increased 240% in participation since 1992 and is now an Olympic sport; by 2005, the number of skateboarders in the U.S. is expected to have grown to 15 million, a 22% increase from 2000.

So this year, NBC will air 11 hours of the Gravity Games, 11 hours of the Vans Triple Crown series and 10 hours of freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

TransWorld Media in Oceanside, a leading industry magazine publisher, has experienced an increase in subscriptions since 1998. TransWorld Skateboarding has 316,000 subscribers, a 46% increase, and TransWorld Snowboarding has 207,000 subscribers, an 11% increase.

ESPN broadcasts summer and winter editions of the X Games, as well as a newly created international competition, the Global X Games. But ESPN does not have a regular action-sports show to rival Fox Sports Net's "54321" (which airs weekdays at 5 p.m.) because it would create scheduling problems.

"For this kind of show, you'd have to have consistency of scheduling," said Ron Semiao, the ESPN executive who created the X Games. "We have too many live events to put it on at a set time. And the audience that would be attracted to such a show would want it on at a set time."

Extreme athletes, the obvious object of any media action-sports coverage, are constantly straddling a delicate line: They need sponsors' money to travel, buy equipment and make a living, but they don't want to look as if like they're "selling out" to corporate America or the mainstream media.

Hawk is one of the few exceptions. A millionaire several times over because of endorsements, he also maintains a wild popularity among action-sports fans.

Other than Hawk, who has appeared on "54321," and a handful of others, many action-sports stars are reluctant to go public in any capacity.

"People are very careful and cautious," said "54321" host Leeann Tweeden. "They don't want the wrath of all their friends, like 'Dude, you're a sellout.' They don't want to look like they're being exploited."

Showing equal diligence in the careful and cautious department, "54321" has evolved and re-evolved since its launch in January, trying to find the right blend to snare more viewers.

The show has switched hosts numerous times -- Tweeden is the only one left of the original three -- and the show's format has changed immensely, moving from a rigid studio structure to an out-and-about show with a host of freelancers providing remote reports. Fox Sports Net rented a beach house in Venice as the new hub of the show, which is now primarily shot outdoors.

About the only thing still the same is the show's name, a reference to the five core sports the show covers -- skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX racing, surfing and freestyle motocross.

The ratings are low and moving up only slightly. There has been a 3% pop in the first few weeks of the third quarter, but the bottom line is a 0.12 national rating, about 83,000 households.

"They're a little less than we would say we would have expected at this time," Fox Sports Net spokesman Tom Chiappetta said. "Were taking some steps to take it to the next level. How much more we can be committed to it, that would be a decision for someone on the executive side. The new group [of hosts], they're going to have to give them some time."

Tweeden is optimistic.

"I think that there's always been a want for a media outlet for these sports," said Tweeden, who surfs, snowboards and rides dirt bikes.

"You can see on 'SportsCenter' what the Yankees-Red Sox score was, but from us you're going to see who won the freestyle motocross competition in Idaho. There's kids that are looking for that."

Times staff writers Larry Stewart and Pete Thomas contributed to this story.

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